For Elias Roman, the chief executive officer and co-founder of Songza, the free Internet music streaming service, there is little doubt his work with a charitable organization earlier in life helped him get to where he is today.
"Absolutely," the 31-year-old says. "I'd never heard the word entrepreneurship when I first got involved with Free The Children."
That was 15 years ago when the charitable organization's co-founder, Craig Kielburger, urged Mr. Roman to look past his own doubts and fears and start a chapter of the charity at his Long Island, N.Y., high school, Friends Academy School. But the un-yielding conviction that Mr. Kielburger showed on that occasion is something that Mr. Roman relates to in his daily work as an entrepreneur to this day, as both CEO of Songza and Amie Street Inc., a media company from which Songza emerged.
"One of the recurring factors to me at that moment is just going back to how powerful conviction can be when you're selling a room, and that could be employees, team members, it could be investors or board members," he says.
Conviction, though, is just one of the many characteristics that Mr. Roman developed in his work with Free The Children. And he certainly dove in at the deep end in that regard, throwing an impromptu fundraising concert, which as an aspiring guitar player he also took part in, to raise funds to build a school in Calcutta, India.
"One of the biggest challenges when you're starting a company or dealing with any big problem at home or otherwise is knowing where to begin," he says. "If you can't break a big problem into smaller problems it's really hard to know where to begin, it's kind of overwhelming."
By breaking a problem down into smaller chunks, Mr. Elias explains, it allows you to celebrate small victories along the way to solving the whole thing. Doing so also allows you to build up confidence as you go as well.
With 5.5 million monthly users and a team of 50 music experts to create playlists – Songza's signature application – Mr. Elias and his company attracted the attention of Google last year. The New York Times reported the sale price as being in excess of $39-million (U.S.).
But for Mr. Elias, it all started with his activism.
"If you look at the stats, Free The Children alumni are way more likely to start a non-profit or social enterprise organization," he says.
The numbers certainly back Mr. Roman's assertion. Compared to their peers, Free The Children youth and alumni are 2.7 times more likely to have started a non-profit or social enterprise organization, according to numbers released by Mission Measurement, a world leader in measuring social outcomes. In addition, they are 3.9 times more likely to mobilize others to solve a social problem, 2.7 times more likely to actively seek opportunities to lead in front of others, and 1.6 times more likely to never let obstacles stand in the way of their goals.
"I think a lot of young people are turning toward entrepreneurship as an opportunity to create their own jobs," says Leah Pollock, who works at the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto. "Not only that, but support the economy by creating jobs for other young people."
In her role, Ms. Pollock, who was previously manager of leadership operations for Me to We, a social enterprise also founded by Craig and Marc Kielburger, helps to bridge the gap between smart ideas and good actions.
She is firmly of the belief that those who are involved in activism tend to think critically, and when you're looking at a problem from different angles it allows for social innovation and entrepreneurship.
Mitch Kurylowicz saw first-hand an opportunity to contribute when he was just 9. The Ottawa native accompanied his mother, Lynda, on a trip to Kenya in 2007, and witnessed how the education system was a rare privilege accorded to few.
And while Western charities lately have really focused on giving girls access to education, in the Narok south region of Kenya, while there were two established girls' schools, young boys had to make do with a structure made of cow dung, mud and sticks.
Upon returning to Canada, Mr. Kurylowicz started Project Jenga – the Swahili word for "to build" – with a goal of raising $2-million to build a bricks-and-mortar school for the boys of the Narok south district. Having raised more than $500,000 thus far, ground has broken on the school, with an estimated completion date of January of 2017. Now 17, Mr. Kurylowicz is just starting a bachelor of commerce degree at the University of Toronto, with the aim of building a solid business foundation for wherever Project Jenga takes him next.
"The reason why I want to build a school in Kenya is not because I'm going to go there or because I want attention," he says. "It's because I really want these boys to go to school.
"So it's really I think about the authenticity in activism that can truly make a change and help you be entrepreneurial."
Whether there is a direct link between activism and entrepreneurship is still a matter for debate. Though the numbers support that assertion from Free The Children's point of view, that's not enough to make a firm judgment call on the subject.
"I think the link may be indirect but I think it's certainly worth exploring further to see if youthful activism results in a different kind of person and therefore a different kind of organization such as a more entrepreneurial one, a more social one," says Ann Armstrong, a lecturer at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto and previously director of the school's Social Enterprise Initiative.
While Ms. Armstrong admits more youth are taking to social entrepreneurship and social justice as a way of addressing social needs, she also says there are some tangible benefits to be had.
"When people volunteer in the non-profit sector, they come to realize actually how you have to do so much with so little and I think that really reinforces a pretty effective entrepreneurial mindset because it's inadvertently kind of a risk-seeking environment."