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August 23, 2011 11:03 pm

Today’s rioter may be tomorrow’s entrepreneur

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During the week of the UK riots, the images in the news brought me right back to where I started. I watched mobs of masked and hooded arsonists in London and other English cities doing exactly what we did during the Los Angeles riots of 1992. Just like London’s riots, gang culture was how we spread from city to city, and I know because I was there.

Indeed, during the same week as the London riots, my book Nothing To Lose, Everything To Gain, recounting how I went from a gang member to a serial entrepreneur, was published.

I was a 14-year-old gang member when the LA riots kicked off and it would take a couple of stints in Juvenile Hall for my bad decisions before I turned my life around.

I was rescued when my mother found me a mentor before I was so programmed by our circumstances that I couldn’t be reprogrammed to think productivity and prosperity over poverty and street posses.

I know first-hand that the solution to the problem of disaffection and deep-seated unrest among the young is mentorship and entrepreneurship.

The mentor my mum found me was a successful entrepreneur, like many of you reading this, and he gave me an education in business ownership and taught me to follow his lead into the field.

As I got more experience, I found out that there are a lot of similarities between leading a gang and running a business. Gangs are corporations. Some of them have area sales management systems, vendor financing (the fronting of merchandise) and even “sales training”. Show me a successful gang and I’ll show you a successfully led recruiting, retailing and leadership-driven compensation plan.

I used my experience on the streets to drive my success in the business world, and now I teach others how to do what I’ve done using a nothing-to-lose mindset and survival instincts. After all, this is what our gangs are made of: kids with the perfect mindset for success and finely honed survival instincts, who were just like me, one mentor away from being assets to society instead of liabilities.

I’m living proof that members of the nothing-to-lose generations across the globe can be reformed and my story is one that can be duplicated. So my call to action is this: to my fellow entrepreneurs, let’s equip this next generation to become role models by mentoring them.

We need to train this army to create jobs for themselves.

We need to teach mothers and fathers how to find good models for their kids to follow or become mentors ourselves.

After all, although both the London and LA riots were set off by the shooting of or beating up of a black man by police officers, when you take a deeper look you can see it wasn’t about race – it was about class; it was about our reaction to a sense of injustice. I know first-hand that gang culture isn’t the real problem; rather it is a symptom of a much greater problem. This rage, this ability to flash into an anarchistic mob, comes from the broken-hearted masses, from the “fatherless” generations. It comes from the fact that we lost our male role models just when we needed them most.

So roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. We need to teach the gang leaders to become soldiers of independence, and turn these gangs into armies for the good.

I recently teamed up with, and am donating all proceeds from my book sales to, the charitable organisation Urban Born to create a teen education programme that gets the right tools and mentorship into the hands of the kids who need it the most. All of us can find charities like these that help bring opportunity into the reach of at-risk youth and the underserved.

The people capable of creating big problems are the same people that could create solutions to our biggest problems by starting companies. The right kind of start-ups, in this day and age, are low-cost, high-yield businesses; there are thousands of companies you can start from home or from a computer in the library that are perfect for kids with a lot of hustle and the will to succeed. These kids can go from feeling like they have nothing to lose to feeling like they have everything to gain. Harness this unrest, and channel it into entrepreneurship, otherwise we will all suffer the effects of our nation’s brightest young minds starting the wrong kinds of “start-ups”.

Ryan Blair is the author of Nothing To Lose, Everything To Gain: How I Went from Gang Member to Multimillionaire Entrepreneur. He started his first company when he was 21 years old and is now CEO of ViSalus Sciences

Luke Johnson is away

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