Let's disrupt the American Dream — to save it

Let's disrupt the American Dream — to save it
© iStock

What happened to the American Dream?

For generations, Americans have been optimistic about the promise of the American Dream. It’s the core of our identity as a nation and our values. We admire the fact that by working hard, we can achieve success, recognition, and leadership positions. And we believe in this dream because we’ve seen so many people who came from modest background become doctors, CEOs, and government leaders. We see what our parents did and continually strive to have better lives than them — ultimately to build even better lives for our own children.

Growing up in West Virginia, the American Dream is what I credit with inspiring me to work hard and have great aspirations. It’s a dream that helped me build Cisco from a 400-person business to a tech giant with over 75,000 employees, 10,000 of whom became millionaires in the process. It’s also a dream that has helped me move into my next chapter, mentoring startups as they grow and scale their businesses, as well as partnering with my alma mater West Virginia University to revitalize the state’s economy through entrepreneurship.


Yet, we find that people today are less optimistic about the future and the classic “American Dream.” Americans are pessimistic about our country’s competitiveness on the global stage. They expect employment prospects to decline, especially with global companies, and they’re worried about the education system. Many young people are skeptical that they will ever become financially independent from their parents.

As a result, we are beginning to hear cries for socialism and drastic reform, especially from younger generations.

Our political rhetoric touts the benefits of dividing up the pie, but I believe cutting up the pie into smaller pieces through the redistribution of wealth won’t solve the challenges at hand. It will not bring back the inspiring power of the American Dream. Instead, I believe we should bake a bigger pie. And we have the elements in our hands to accomplish this, but we have to think differently — we have to disrupt ourselves.

We’re in a period of vast disruption and transformation, and every business is being impacted. In this context, our dreams must adapt and evolve too. We must disrupt the broken American Dream. That starts with focusing our legislative, educational, and investment efforts on creating an atmosphere where the true cornerstone of the American Dream can thrive once more: Entrepreneurism.

We don’t have a lot of ideas out there that can unify us all. But boosting entrepreneurism and startups is a bi-partisan solution that has the power to benefit everybody and build bridges in a political environment that’s never been more divisive.


Large companies over the next decade will dramatically decrease headcount because of automation and emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI). Startups create jobs, arguably much more effectively than large companies. Indeed, in 2017 startups created 1.7 million jobs in the U.S. alone, compared to about 360,000 created by well-established businesses, and this trend will only continue to deepen over time. Startups also provide healthy competition to big, dominant players by offering new, often more innovative and affordable products and services. It’s also startups that are responsible for higher rates of output and productivity, meaning they are producing more of the goods and services we need.

Startups — and their socially-conscious entrepreneur leaders and employees — are also creating real and effective solutions for some of the world’s most pressing issues. Startups are tackling food scarcity, climate change, government security, education issues, and so much more.

So, how do we build a future where entrepreneurism abounds and consequently revives the American Dream?

First, let’s teach kids about entrepreneurism and let’s make it exciting. How? We teach them about real entrepreneurs who are working hard, playing fair, being creative, and giving back. Let’s celebrate our American entrepreneurs, large and small, who bring great creativity, invention, adaptability and economic vitality to grow our economy. We can make entrepreneurship a career path to strive for by showing early on how cool startups can be. 

Second, I’m calling on venture capitalists to step up their game when it comes to working with entrepreneurs. I’m calling on venture capitalists (VCs) to use their dollars to fund more diverse founders, ensuring that the revitalized American Dream brings everyone — regardless of gender, race, geographic location, or background — onto the playing field. VCs need to do a better job in this area because we’re simply missing out on too much potential. The proof is in the numbers: while Hispanics account for 18 percent of our country’s population and African Americans account for 13 percent, only 1.8 percent of venture-backed startup founders in 2017 were Latinx, and only 1 percent were Black. Further, less than a quarter of VC-backed companies have female founders. And in terms of geography, we continue to see global metros like San Francisco and New York attract the most startups and venture capital, which is leaving other cities behind. Yet, it is widely-known that diversity is what breeds amazing innovation.

Finally, let’s make entrepreneurship a government priority. We need a startup agenda as a country. We need to ensure that we don’t stifle innovation, while still allowing for regulation where necessary. It means creating incentives for entrepreneurs to open businesses in America’s Heartland states and in cities in need of rebirth. It means backing legislation that helps small business owners build their employee base, easily file for IP ownership, and take out loans that won’t bury them in debt. We must support initiatives that incentivize people to start their own business. This means demolishing unnecessary red tape and regulations because it is becoming increasingly clear that regulations that focus on very large companies have unintended consequences that can be a disaster for smaller companies.

The American Dream is what makes this country an emblem of hope throughout the world. It’s what keeps our citizens inspired and motivated to contribute to our economy. We need to collectively make sure that everyone gets to realize their own American Dream by creating a pro-entrepreneur environment. It’s time to reignite the American Dream.

John Chambers is founder and CEO of JC2 Ventures,which focuses on helping disruptive startups from around the world build and scale. He is also the former CEO of Cisco from 1995-2015 and Executive Chairman of Cisco from 2015-2017 and the co-founder of TechNet.