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April 27, 2012 / mommy brain

Squashing a young person’s spirit is like clubbing a baby seal – DON’T do it!

Last week, I spent Friday afternoon judging the local university business plan competition. The opportunity to participate in events like this is one of the things I enjoy most about my job. It’s just so inspirational to see students work so hard and think about entrepreneurship and have the guts to present in front of judges who think they know what they are talking about. It’s also fun because it plays out kind of like American Idol. You usually have one judge who enjoys the role of Simon, telling the kids that they might as well drop out of school because their idea and presentation sucks ass, and one judge who tells them how wonderful they are for just participating and gives them suggestions for things they have not yet thought about like the business model or who will actually pay for their product. It’s like Paula but with more useful feedback; that’s how I see my role.

So last Friday, one of the judges, someone I have a lot of respect for with a very accomplished career that spans several decades and industries, gave the following feedback. He told the two-student team, after one of the best presented business opportunities of the competition, that they can’t succeed in the industry they are targeting because they are too young. He said “it’s hard to imagine you running a company like this because you look like kids.” And he wasn’t merely joking. He meant it as real feedback and went on to something about how they should bring an old white dude with some gray hair onboard and then they might have a chance at success. UGH. I wanted to ask my prestigious colleague, “WHY would you say something like that???” This is a STUDENT business plan competition; they are obviously kids; it is an entry requirement.

A very successful investor, and one of the richest people in the country, once told me that the ideal entrepreneur is 28 years old or younger. Sadly, this means that my ship has sailed, but I often think back to that because I really think he’s right. Young people have less experience, but they also have less to lose. They’re less biased by pre-conceived ideas and less jarred by decades of corporate bullshit. Zuckerberg is the obvious example and there are many more.

And what I’ve learned about behavioral psychology tells me that telling a kid that he’s too inexperienced to do something is about the least useful thing you can do. Introducing that doubt into his or her mind is in no way helpful.

So if you meet a kid who is thinking about something entrepreneurial, assuming the idea is not bat-shit crazy, tell them to go for it! If you have advice for them on how they could do it in a better way or if you think they could take it another direction, then by all means tell them all about that; that is extremely useful.

But letting them know that you believe they are capable of something big is way more valuable than explaining to them why you know they will fail.  Even if they don’t hit it out of the park with their idea, just working on it and learning from the experience will make them more prepared to hit it out of the park with other challenges life throws at them later.

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