Young adults are generally advised by their parents and teachers to pursue traditional career paths in various professions or trades. Schools provide the essential skills in reading, writing and math, while teachers and parents provide guidance with regard to job opportunities. The intent is to obtain the necessary education to pursue a specific field, get hired and attain success.
This template works well for many and is ideal for those who have a reasonably clear idea of what they want to do and are passionate about it. It does not work well, however, for those who are unsure about their career aspirations, don't want to settle on one path or tend to think out-of-the box.
Josh Neblett, my co-founder at etailz, was a student of mine at Gonzaga in a class titled "Creating New Ventures." The class exposed him, for the first time, to entrepreneurship and the key elements of starting and growing a company. Up until then, he was planning on joining his father after graduation as a financial consultant. He was so taken by the allure of being an entrepreneur that he instead leapt at the chance to take an idea I had presented to class and form a company. He's never looked back.
I've often wondered what Josh's career would have been like had he not taken my class. I also feel regret for other would-be entrepreneurs that were never exposed to the world of startups and did not realize that taking an idea, starting a company, forming a team and growing a business was well within their reach.
Most universities and colleges now offer programs in entrepreneurship. Yet I think college is too late. First, it excludes the young people who chose not to pursue education after high school. Secondly, the prospect of grooming innovators during their formative middle school and high school years is missed.
I regularly coach my students to start a company, or join a startup — if they are unclear about what they want to do when the "grow up." My advice is generally not embraced by parents. Startups are viewed as risky, with little to no chance of meaningful success. Josh's parents, for example, only endorsed his decision to start etailz if he agreed to simultaneously purse his MBA.
I believe starting or joining a new company is precisely what those who are not pursuing a standard career trajectory should do after college (or high school). My rationale includes:
BROAD EXPOSURE. Because employees of successful startups are required to be a "jack of all trades," new ventures provide exposure to all functional areas — marketing, sales, development, operations, accounting, etc.
IMMEDIATE EXPERIENCE. Employees of early stage companies are afforded more responsibility and far greater authority to make decisions than counterparts in more mature businesses.
RAPID ASCENSION. As an early employee of a new venture, the potential for multiple promotions as the company grows is significant.
JOB SATISFACTION. Working in a startup can be very fulfilling as the fruits of one's labor are quickly measurable. This is particularly true for those who are self-motivated, can succeed despite vague job descriptions, are able to juggle multiple tasks and are team players.
BUILD EQUITY. Early employees of startups have the opportunity to generate meaningful capital if the businesses is sold or goes public.
MINIMAL DOWNSIDE. Individuals fresh out of high school or college typically don't have families to support and mortgages to pay — and if the venture is a failure they have plenty of time to pursue something new. And there is no stigma associated with entrepreneurial failure.
Longer term, entrepreneurs are afforded more flexible work schedules in terms of work hours and vacation time. In addition, they are only beholden to themselves — not to a specific industry, employer or company. This sense of freedom is the ultimate luxury.
Accordingly, I advocate for dedicated high school curriculums on the topic of entrepreneurship. The first objective is to introduce the notion of starting and running a company vs. going to work for someone else — and the lifestyle pros and cons of each. This alone, I suspect, would inspire many young people to consider becoming an entrepreneur and adds credibility to this career alternative.
The second objective is to teach the specific skills required to vet a new product or service, evaluate a market, establish profitable pricing, hiring and managing teams, raising capital, establishing budgets and monitoring performance.
Keep in mind entrepreneurial dreams come in many different flavors. Some aspire to form the next FAANG company, others desire to establish a clothing brand, socially responsible not-for-profit, a juice bar, etc. Neither objective is better than the other. They are equally fulfilling and valuable to the economy.
A curriculum along these lines in high schools would produce positive, long-term economic benefits. More innovative companies will be formed and entrepreneurs will be better prepared. ♦