When we talk about entrepreneurs – a certain image comes to mind. This person we imagine usually has a few common elements. She takes a tremendous amount of initiative, is willing to take risks and embodies the leadership to bring together the capital and resources for the organization and the management skills to see the initiative through. They will pursue their goal without regard to the resources they currently have yet they must be practical and action-oriented.
With the success and attention garnered by several highly successful entrepreneurs who dropped out of or barely graduated from college to start their companies, we begin to think that that is the typical entrepreneurial model and that, given their youth and relative inexperience, their success was inborn.
The reality though is that – while these young, apparently inborn entrepreneurs are exciting – the data show that they are still rare exceptions, as opposed to the norm, and that in fact entrepreneurs are created by a life full of experiences.
A friend sent me this Forbes article – 30 Under 30 – with the question – why the focus on youth? It is a really good question. My first thought when I read the article was where was I and what was I doing before I turned the dreaded 30, after which, implicitly in this article – one’s accomplishments become theoretically less impressive.
So let’s turn the clock back to just before 30. December 1993 – I had three children (Adam was born when I was over the hill at 31) ages eight, five and six months. I was working at Informix as a sales manager for the Central American, Caribbean and Andean regions of Latin America. Steve had just bought two Miller beverage distributorships (in Watsonville) and was finishing law school at Berkeley. We lived in a ranch house in a family-oriented neighborhood of Los Altos, CA. The kids were doing well – the boys immersed in school, sports and music and Margot was thriving and, thankfully, sleeping through the night. Life was great but “x” busy. I put an “x” because even in synonym.com I can’t find a word that adequately qualifies busy.
The physical energy and lack of sleep required to keep up with three kids and a job with intensive travel is something that could be hard for me to maintain today. However, the mental energy and stress of a startup is something that I would not want to have shared with my young children. So for me I’m glad for the order in which the different stages of my family and the different stages of my career occurred. More importantly, I always knew I wanted to have several (well actually four) children. Waiting until one’s mid 30’s (or later) post entrepreneurial success to try to have a family is playing with fire and sadly I’ve seen many of my female colleagues get burned. You can be an entrepreneur at any age. You can’t get pregnant at any age. And BTW, one can maybe be a dad at any age but is that what you want?
In my case, however, I was not deliberately working in a big company rather than being an entrepreneur. Frankly it didn’t occur to me to jump ship at that point. I was on an incredibly exciting and steep leaning curve at work. Learning sales (I had switched from marketing to carrying a quota), learning to do business internationally, learning fluency in Spanish and Portuguese (for more details on the logistics see here). As long as the learning stayed steep and the company environment positive I was happy to stay (It turns out that I am using all of those skills today, but that was a previous post). So while I am enjoying entrepreneurship more than big company life, those big company jobs were pretty exciting, I developed skills, networks and great friendships.
Our American society, not just in business, does glorify youth. I probably will not be able to change this and anyhow, I must acknowledge that it is jaw-droppingly impressive what the 30 people under 30 in the article above have accomplished in such a short amount of time. There may be some advantage to youth in their ability to imagine or identify major innovations. Perhaps because they have learned fewer limitations or perhaps there may be some innovation advantage to having lived only in the Internet-enabled world.
Nonetheless, here is what my personal value system says we should glorify for entrepreneurs. It should be simply what they have done and how they did it – not how old they were whey they accomplished it. Did they create a product or service that improved people’s lives? Did they make a great return for their investors? Did they treat their customers fairly and with respect? Did they take care of their employees and support their personal and family goals? I think the most important criteria is not how old or young you are or the color of your skin, religion or gender. Did you build something of lasting value? Were you (and your team) mensches* in doing so. That is my goal at SugarSync.
*Mensch (Yiddish: מענטש mentsh, from German: Mensch “human being”) means “a person of integrity and honor”
“The Rise of The Female CEO And The Folly of Men Who Just Don’t Get It” copyright Forbes 2011 as first appeared in “The Forbes Women Files”, November 15, 2011. Preview here: http://preview.tinyurl.com/7cpg4s4
By Laura Yecies
On Monday last week I woke up a bit before my 5:45 alarm (yes, quite amazing how one can actually adjust to a new schedule) so had a few minutes to scan email and the online news before my hike and came across the headline “Why Most Women Will Never Become CEO.” Gene Marks, the author, is a Forbes contributor. My first thought when I read that headline was how silly it was. After all, “Most anyone won’t be CEO.” You can put pretty name your group for the “anyone” place – most men won’t be CEO, most New Yorkers won’t be CEO, even most Harvard MBAs, though they hate to admit it, won’t be CEO.
Then I read on and was irked. And admittedly, while obviously very curious, I had to set the article aside for a few days to temper my reaction. The article starts with a description of some negative teenage behavior (both boys and girls actually) and then a projection (without any evidence) that the silly “high school girl drama” exhibited by the author’s teenage daughters is typical of professional women.
After reading this, I should have just abandoned the article – “Reason #1” was enough to make this article not credible. But my curiosity got the best of me.
The next point is that men are incapable of taking women seriously in the office and are only focused on women’s appearance. I find this to be an insult to the many serious, professional men I have worked with over the last 23 years. Not that I am naïve to human nature and a bit of normal banter (and by the way women occasionally notice men’s hot or not-so-hot appearance) but I do believe we’ve been mostly past this for years. And to the extent it is present, we should treat this behavior as an unacceptable aberration not to be accepted.