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Our image of an entrepreneur desperately needs an update–here’s how we change it

Shopify’s COO shares his thoughts on why homogenous thinking rarely breeds innovation, in honor of Global Entrepreneurship Week.

Our image of an entrepreneur desperately needs an update–here’s how we change it
[Photo: Jira/rawpixel]

“Young people are just smarter,” Mark Zuckerberg infamously said to 650 aspiring entrepreneurs at a Y Combinator Startup School event in 2007. His logic was straightforward–young people lead simpler lives, so they’re able to focus on big-picture problems. Now that Zuckerberg is in his thirties, I’m not sure he’d still agree–in fact, I’m confident he wouldn’t.

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But this idea continues to resonate. Silicon Valley still fetishizes youth, and a lot of people probably see 22-year-old Zuckerberg as the archetype of a founder. Research confirms that many people perceive young entrepreneur to be more driven and more capable of solving significant challenges.

There’s just one problem. A substantive and growing body of data tells us this picture is dead wrong. A study released this year reveals that the average age of a startup founder is 42. Baby boomers, meanwhile, are twice as likely to start a business within the next year, as are millennials.

Public misconceptions don’t stop with age. In the U.S., immigrants are twice as likely to start businesses compared to native-born citizens. Meanwhile, women-led firms consistently bring in better rates of returns. In terms of gender, socioeconomic class and ethnicity, most entrepreneurs look nothing like the hoodie-and-sandal-wearing stereotype Zuckerberg exemplifies.

This isn’t just an image problem–this stereotype has a profound and growing economic and social consequences. Today, entire segments of the population continue to write off entrepreneurship as a career path reserved for the elite few, and stereotypes about the young, white, male founder perpetuate this myth. This needs to end, now.

Why entrepreneurial diversity matters now

The nature of work is changing. Advances in technology are shifting the way that industries function, and as a result, long-term employment opportunities with one company are becoming harder to come by. Some organizations are making an effort to help workers adapt, but for the most part, the burden is on the individual to figure out how they fit in this new landscape.

Here’s the thing–the world has a lot of problems, and more than ever, we need people who can develop solutions to those problems. While technology might have made it more difficult to pursue a traditional career path, it has also lowered the barriers to entry to starting a business. Tools and platforms like Shopify, Kickstarter, and PayPal are making it easier than ever for people with limited resources to start and scale companies without massive amounts of capital. This is a sharp contrast from the reality that my father and grandmother faced. They had to take second mortgages on their homes to bankroll their retail businesses.

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But you can’t get innovation from homogenous thinking, and rarely from people who are cut from the same cloth. As Silicon Valley continues to struggle with its lack of diversity–both in terms of its workforce and the products it produces–we continue to see successive waves of copycat businesses. Whether it’s photo-sharing or meditation apps, these products target the same market, provide similar solutions, and often don’t move the needle in tackling the world’s most significant problems.

Diverse teams create better businesses. That’s not my opinion, that’s an empirical fact. And entrepreneurs can benefit from bouncing ideas with founders who don’t look and think like them. By doing this, they will be exposed to different ideas, which allows them to empathize with a broader range of customers. And, in a virtuous cycle, the more customer empathy you have, the stronger your products become.

Repairing entrepreneurship’s image problem

The need for diversity demands that we expand our ideas about who is an entrepreneur. (Even the standard dictionary definition is woefully out of date: Google lists “tycoon,” “magnate,” and “mogul” as synonyms.) If you see opportunities and find creative ways to solve problems, you’re an entrepreneur, regardless of how old you are or what your background may be.

For aspiring entrepreneurs out there, it’s critical to identify as one. The simple act of calling yourself an entrepreneur can have profound implications. This is something I’ve witnessed first-hand. My wife, Lindsay, is a successful retail entrepreneur but initially identified as a mom first and a business owner second. To help convince her otherwise, I suggested an experiment. I encouraged her to change all of her bios on social media to include the word “entrepreneur.” Immediately, people started reaching out to her to talk shop. Once she claimed the entrepreneurial tribe as her own, a world of new connections and opportunities opened up, taking her business to another level.

The importance of paying your success forward

Those who have already found success as entrepreneurs have an equally important obligation: pay it forward. Entrepreneurship is a craft–a unique career path built on mentorship and personal relationships. That’s why it’s essential to extend that support and mentorship to individuals from diverse and sometimes overlooked backgrounds.

Entrepreneurs are the world’s problem-solvers. It’s time we apply our tools, methods, and resources to solving a critical problem in our community, and change what it means to be one of us. Women, immigrants, and people of all ages and races are making outsized contributions as entrepreneurs and rewriting outdated stereotypes. The sooner our perceptions catch up to that reality, the better off our collective future will be.

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Harley Finkelstein is an entrepreneur, lawyer, and the chief operating officer (COO) at Shopify. 

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