The Unexotic Underclass

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Looking for a startup idea? Look beyond the needs of well educated urbanites with money to burn to the kind of people with serious problems in need of solving. By C.Z. Nnaemeka (Writer, MIT Entrepreneurship Review)

The startup scene today, and by ‘scene’ I’m sweeping a fairly catholic brush over a large swath of people – observers, critics, investors, entrepreneurs, ‘want’repreneurs, academics, techies, and the like – seems to be riven into two camps.

On one side stand those who believe that entrepreneurs have stopped chasing and solving Big Problems – capital B, capital P: clean energy, poverty, famine, climate change, you name it.  I needn’t replay their song here; they’ve argued their cases far more eloquently elsewhere.  In short, they contend that too many brains and dollars have been shoveled into resolving what I call ‘anti-problems’ –  interests usually centered about food or fashion or ‘social’or gaming. Something an anti-problem company  might develop is an app  that provides  restaurant recommendations based on your blood type, a picture of your childhood pet, the music preferences of your three best friends, and the barometric pressure of the nearest city beginning with the letter Q.  (That such an app does not yet exist is reminder still of how impoverished a state American scientific education has descended.  Weep not! We redouble our calls for more STEM funding.)

On  the other side stand those who believe that entrepreneurs have stopped chasing and solving Big Problems – capital B, capital P – that there are too many folks resolving anti-problems… BUT  just to be on the safe side, the venture capitalists should keep pumping tons of  money  into  those anti-problem entrepreneurs because you never know when some corporate leviathan – Google, Facebook, Yahoo! – will come along and buy what yesterday looked like a nonsense app and today is still a nonsense app, but a nonsense app that can walk a bit taller, held aloft by the insanities of American exceptionalism.  For not only is our sucker birthrate still high in this country (one every minute, baby!), but our suckers are capitalists bearing fat checks.

On the other other side, a side that receives scant attention, scanter investment, is where big problems – little b, little p – reside.  Here, you’ll find a group I’ll refer to as the unexotic underclass.  It’s rather quiet in these parts, except during campaign season when the politicians stop by to scrape anecdotes off the skin of someone else’s suffering.  Let’s see who’s here.

To your left are single mothers, 80% of whom, according to the US Census,  are poor or hovering on the nasty edges of working poverty.  They are struggling to raise their kids in a country that seems to conspire against  any semblance of proper rearing: a lack of flexibility in the workplace; a lack of free or affordable after-school programs;  an abysmal public education system where a testing-mad, criminally-deficient curriculum is taught during a too-short school day; an inescapable lurid wallpaper of sex and violence that covers every surface of  society;  a cultural disregard for intelligence, empathy and respect;  a cultural imperative to look hot, spend money and own the latest "it"-device (or should I say i-device) no matter what it costs, no matter how little money Mum may have.

Slightly to the right, are your veterans of two ongoing wars in the Middle East.Wait, we’re at war?   Some of these veterans, having served multiple tours, are returning from combat with all manner of monstrosities ravaging their heads and bodies.  If that weren’t enough, welcome back, dear vets, to a flaccid economy, where your military training makes you invisible to an invisible hand that rewards only those of us who are young and  expensively educated.

Welcome back to a nine-month wait for medical benefits.  According to investigative reporter Aaron Glantz, who was embedded in Iraq, and has now authored The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle against America’s Veterans, nine months is the average amount of time  a veteran waits for his or her disability claim to be processed after having filed their paperwork.  And by ‘filed their paperwork,’ I mean it literally: veterans are sending bundles of papers to some bureaucratic Dantean capharnaum run by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs,  where, by its own admission, it processes 97%  of its claims by hand, stacking them in heaps on tables and in cabinets.

In the past five years, the number of vets who’ve died before their claim has even been processed has tripled. This is America in 2013: 40 years ago we put a man on the moon; today a young lady in New York can use anti-problem technology if she wishes  to line up a date this Friday choosing only from men who are taller than six feet, graduated from an Ivy, live within ten blocks of Gramercy, and play tennis left-handed…

…And yet, veterans who’ve returned from Afghanistan and Iraq have to wait roughly 270 days (up to 600 in New York and California) to receive the help — medical, moral, financial – which they urgently need, to which they are honorably entitled, after having fought our battles overseas.

Technology, indeed, is solving the right problems.

Let’s keep walking.  Meet the people who have the indignity of being over 50 and finding themselves suddenly jobless. These are the Untouchables of the new American workforce: 3+ decades of employment and experience have disqualified them from ever seeing a regular salary again.  Once upon a time, some modicum of employer noblesse oblige would have ensured that loyal older workers be retained or at the very least retrained, MBA advice be damned.  But,“A bas les vieux!” the fancy consultants cried, and out went those who were  ‘no longer fresh.’  As Taylor Swift would put it, corporate America and the Boomer worker  “are never ever getting back together.” Instead bring in the young, the childless, the tech-savvy here in America, and the underpaid and quasi-indentured abroad willing to work for slightly north of nothing in the kinds of conditions we abolished in the 19th century.

For, in the 21st century, a prosperous American business is a soaring two-storied cake: one management layer at top thick with perks, golden parachutes, stock options, and a total disregard for those beneath them; one layer below of increasingly foreign workers (If you’re lucky, you trained these people before you were laid off!), who can’t even depend on their jobs because as we speak, those sameself consultants – but no one that we know of course — are scouring the globe for the cheapest labor opportunities, fulfilling their promise that no CEO be left behind.

Above all of this, the frosting on the cake,  the nec plus ultra of evolutionary corporate accomplishment: the Director of Social Media.  This is the 20-year old whose role it is to “leverage social media to deliver a seamless authentic experience across multiple digital streams to strategic partners and communities.”  In other words, this person gets paid six figures to send out tweets. But again, no one that we know.

Time and space and my own sheltered upbringing  defend me from giving you the whole tour of the unexotic underclass, but trust that it is big, and only getting bigger.

Now, why the heck should any one care? Especially a young entrepreneur-to-be.  Especially a young entrepreneur-to-be whose trajectory of nonstop success has placed him or her leagues above the unexotic underclass.  You should care because the unexotic underclass can help address one of the biggest inefficiencies plaguing  the startup scene right now: the flood of  (ostensibly) smart, ambitious young people desperate to be entrepreneurs; and the embarrassingly idea-starved landscape where too many smart people are chasing too many dumb ideas, because they have none of their own (or, because  they suspect no one will invest in what they really want to do). The unexotic underclass has big problems, maybe not the Big Problems – capital B, capital P – that get ‘discussed’ at Davos.  But they have problems nonetheless, and where there are problems, there are markets.

The space  that caters to my demographic – the cushy 20 and 30-something urbanites – is oversaturated. It’s not rocket science: people build what they know.  Cosmopolitan, well-educated young men and women in America’s big cities are rushing into startups and building for other cosmopolitan well-educated young men and women in big cities. If you need to plan a trip, book a last minute hotel room , get your nails done, find a date, get laid, get an expert shave, hail a cab, buy clothing, borrow clothing, customize clothing, and share the photos instantly, you have Hipmunk, HotelTonight, Manicube, OKCupid, Grindr, Harry’s, Uber, StyleSeek, Rent the Runway, eshakti/Proper Cloth and Instagram respectively to help you. These companies are good, with solid brains behind them, good teams and good funding.

But there are only so many suit customisation, makeup sampling, music streaming, social eating, discount shopping, experience  curating companies that the market can bear. If you’re itching to start something  new, why chase the nth  iteration of a company already serving the young, privileged, liberal jetsetter? If you’re an investor, why revisit the same space as everyone else?  There is life, believe me, outside of NY, Cambridge, Chicago, Atlanta, Austin, L.A. and San Fran.

It’s where the unexotic underclass lives. It’s called America. This underclass is not some obscure niche market.  Take the single mothers. Per the US Census Bureau, there are 10 million of them  today; and an additional 2 million single fathers.  Of the single mothers, the majority is White, one-in-four is Hispanic, and one-in-three is Black.  So this is a fairly large and diverse group.

Take the veterans. (I will beat the veteran drum to death.) According to the VA’s latest figures, there are roughly 23 million vets in the United States. That number sounds disturbingly high; that’s almost one-in-ten Americans. Entrepreneurs and investors like big numbers. Other groups you could include in the underclass: ex-convicts, many imprisoned for petty drug offenses, many released for crimes they never even committed.  How does an ex-convict get back into society?  And navigate not just freedom, but a transformed technological landscape?  Another group, and this one seems to sprout in pockets of affluence: people with food allergies.  Some parents today resort to putting shirts and armbands on their kids indicating what foods they can or can’t eat.  Surely there’s a better fix for that?

Maybe you could fix that.

This post is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in MIT Entrepreneurship Review. Read the rest here

Women 2.0 readers: Would increasing the diversity of the startup community also increase the diversity of the types of problems startups tackle?

About the blogger: C.Z. Nnaemeka studied Philosophy at Wellesley, and has spent most of her time in finance, beginning at Goldman Sachs. Born in Manhattan to Nigerian parents, she attended French schools, graduating from the Lycée Français de New York. Since then she has alternated between writing, banking, and consulting to startups in Europe, Latin America, and Australia. Previously, she lived in Paris where she founded a political discussion group and was a foreign affairs commentator for the conservative newspaper, Le Figaro. She graduated from MIT in 2010, focusing on Entrepreneurship + Innovation. Follow her on Twitter @CZNnaemeka