Matthew Segal started the nonprofit Our Time earlier this year with every intention of creating a political lobby for the under-30 crowd. He planned to spend his time talking to politicians and schmoozing with policymakers.
But he soon realized the project was doomed to fail. “None of these politicians even get along with each other,” he said.
So Segal, who is 25, shifted his focus back to the people he’d set out to help: entrepreneurs and job seekers under the age of 30.
“Our Time has evolved into a organization that is about engaging with our generation, without worrying too much about the politicians in this increasingly irrelevant town,” he said.
With a 17 percent unemployment rate among 18- to 24-year olds, Segal said he feels the group could do the most good focusing on small businesses.
“Somebody has to stand up for the underdog,” Segal said. “These companies have the capacity to grow, and the social consciousness to take care of their employees and their surroundings.”
Last month, the organization launched Buy Young, an initiative that hopes to boost support for entrepreneurs under 30 by offering exclusive discounts on their companies’ products and services. More than 110 companies — ranging from a nontoxic nail polish manufacturer to an Internet security firm — have signed up, and Segal says more are joining every week.
Segal, who grew up in a Chicago suburb, said he “wasn’t all that political” until he voted in his first presidential election in 2004.
“It was a complete disaster,” he said. The lines at Kenyon College, where he was a freshman, were so long that it took some students 12 hours to cast their votes. By the time many of them did, it was nearly 4 a.m., and the fate of the country had already been decided.
“I felt like we’d been told one big lie,” Segal said. “I just thought, ‘how is this possible in a democracy?’”
He testified for the first time in front of Congress that year, as a 19-year-old. After that, he says he “got sucked into civic engagement.”
Last month, he gathered150 young entrepreneurs from around the country in Washington, where they participated in discussions at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the White House.
“It was important to bring these two audiences that are among the most influential in society together,” said Segal.
At a roundtable at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the young entrepreneurs discussed the hurdles they had faced: the lack of American workers skilled in science and technology, the difficulty of hiring foreign workers with H-1B visas and labyrinthine government licensing agencies.
“All of my friends went to Goldman Sachs and Lockheed Martin,” said Meredith Perry, who as an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania started uBeam, a company working on a way to recharge gadgets wirelessly via ultrasound waves. “These companies are taking all of the good students. Startups have no chance.”
And that’s exactly what Segal is hoping to change.
“We need to look for our own solutions,” he said.