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Why this generation needs more (relatable) entrepreneurial role models

Not every entrepreneur is a twentysomething developer living in Silicon Valley.

Why this generation needs more (relatable) entrepreneurial role models
[Photo: Halfpoint/iStock]

Ask the average Silicon Valley twentysomething if they’ve ever considered founding a company, and chances are—they’ve already started one. If not, they’ll almost certainly know someone else who has. They’re probably aware of a whole host of people involved in founding and funding the Valley’s vibrant startup community. Ever since Bill Hewlett and David Packard began working on their audio oscillator in the world’s most famous garage, the San Francisco Bay Area has been synonymous with tech innovation. Tech entrepreneurship is in its DNA, and that’s how the rest of the world sees it.

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The world’s other major economic hubs have historically been quite different. Ambitious and talented individuals in other economic centers have gravitated toward traditional high-prestige career paths, such as banking, finance, management consultancy, and law. The exponential growth of the tech giants, however, has changed that perception. Nowadays, more and more young people have entrepreneurship on the brain.

Entrepreneurship as a career path

We recently conducted an investigation assessing the ambitions of the world’s 18- to 30-year-olds. We found that half of the UK’s younger generation have goals to start a company. We found similar sentiment around the globe—from France to Singapore to India—in which the majority of respondents expressed the desire to pursue entrepreneurship.

When it comes to relatable role models, though, Silicon Valley still has the lead on the rest of the world. As the procession of successful new companies run by young Silicon Valley founders grows year on year, the amount of aspirational entrepreneurial role models has stacked up at a rapidly compounding rate. Compare this with the UK, where over three-quarters of the 18-30 generation couldn’t name a single aspirational entrepreneur whose values aligned with their own. This shows a problem with how we see entrepreneurship today. We’re bombarded with a particular image of entrepreneurship that only encompasses a specific experience. As a result, many shy away from actively pursuing it because they don’t see themselves and their experiences represented.

Why we need to look beyond old stereotypes and Silicon Valley

The problem with the entrepreneurs who started in a different era is not that their achievements aren’t admirable. It’s that the static, outdated version of entrepreneurship that they represent—such Bentleys and Chryslers, cigars, and signet rings—is no longer relevant. The same goes with the twentysomething engineer building a venture-backed app. They may represent one particular segment of entrepreneurs but don’t accurately reflect the rich and diverse experiences of many other successful business owners.

Silicon Valley is often considered the yardstick to measure the success of innovation centers across the globe. That’s understandable, but in terms of the ambition and potential of its talent pool, the Bay Area isn’t a million miles away from any of the other startup hubs in the world. The difference lies in the level of exposure that people have to entrepreneurial companies—and the founders creating them. Being surrounded by people who have tried to build something new and globally important—including people who have failed to do so—elevates the overall level of prestige that surrounds the pursuit of entrepreneurship, while making it more attainable and accessible.

Role modeling is crucial not only in terms of overcoming that initial barrier to access—quite simply, the belief is that entrepreneurship is a viable option. It also helps to remove the stigma of failure. While the downfall of an ambitious founder or an aborted IPO might understandably generate headlines, the growing reality is that there are now more and more employers who value the skills that you gain from trying—and failing—to build the next unicorn. Failure may have consigned yesterday’s entrepreneurs to the scrap heap, but we’re starting to see more people start companies, big or small.

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The strongest driver of entrepreneurial innovation—particularly for those of us engaged in the business of building and supporting entrepreneurial companies—is the belief that it truly matters what the most ambitious individuals do with their lives. The next wave of companies will power an increasingly globalized economy, and that’s why it’s essential to encourage the next generation of founders—from Silicon Valley to Singapore to South London and beyond—in their efforts to build the globally impactful companies of tomorrow.


Matt Clifford is the CEO & cofounder Entrepreneur First.

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