What’s So Great About Young Founders?

What’s So Great About Young Founders?
– Scott Warren
Last Friday, the author Robin Black penned a New York Times op-ed entitled, “What’s So Great About Young Writers,” rallying against a culture that she feels unfairly rewards youth, rather than merit. Describing her path to becoming an emerging writer in her late forties, she argues that, “age-based awards are outdated and discriminatory, even if unintentionally so.”
I am 28 years old, started an organization right out of college, have received numerous accolades, and built a fairly successful and impactful enterprise. The most frequent praise I receive is “Wow, I can’t believe how much you’ve accomplished at such a young age.” And yet, I find myself completely agreeing with Black’s argument. The cult of personality around young social entrepreneurs can be dangerous, and I worry that too many young people are following this fad by starting new organizations, rather than by learning the ropes.
When I started Generation Citizen, I had little more than passion, a compelling idea, and a terrific group of advisors who helped me strategize on the organization’s future. But I was also a 22-year old recent college graduate who could barely figure out how to pay my own bills, let alone manage an organization’s budget (much to my roommates’ chagrin, I did bounce a rent check, sending it from a recently closed account).
The last five years have seen GC and myself grow (in GC’s case, this is empirically proven- in my case, you would have to ask around- but I haven’t bounced any more rent checks). We’ve gone from working out of a living room to having four offices, with fifteen full-time employees, a budget of well over $1 million, reaching over 7,500 young people each year.
Along the way, I personally have received a number of accolades, many directly attributable to my youth. I was a Forbes 30 under 30 Social Entrepreneur, the youngest winner of multiple awards, and the recipient of several fellowships designated for young founders. I’m not naïve to the fact that much of this has helped GC’s development. But there are problems with this age bias:
1. It’s Not About the Impact: There is nothing more important than GC’s impact on the students that we are serving. The only thing that should matter is whether I’m maximizing the organization’s results. My relative age, which all of these accolades celebrate, is irrelevant.
Being praised for being young and successful risks celebrating the person, rather than the organization. Instead of GC receiving praise because of the work we are doing, I am receiving praise because I am young, and running something successfully.
2. It Risks Trivializing the Work of Others: When I first started GC and met with school administrators or civic engagement experts, I could feel their skepticism, with them seeing me as the young-Ivy-League-graduate-upstart-who-thought-he-was-going-to change-the-world-in-sixty-days-or-less. Some of this is unfair, and I’ve attempted to mitigate the sentiments through hard work and a collaborative spirit.
But celebrating young “changemakers” risks devaluing the painstaking work that others dedicated to social change have conducted over decades. There are many people and organizations that have dedicated their lives to this work. I worry that celebrating the success of the young and the new minimizes the contributions of the veterans. At worst, these accolades make GC and myself come across as arrogant, unappreciative of how challenging it is to effect change. In reality, every young founder, and every emerging organization, builds on the work of others, rather than operating in a vacuum. This truth needs to be acknowledged, rather than seeing young people as innovators in their own right.
3. You Have No Idea What You’re Doing in Your Twenties: There has been extensive research arguing that the twenties are, in the words of psychologist Meg Jay, the “defining decade.” Young people are learning about themselves, their role in the world, and how they relate to others. According to Jay, Individual’s personalities change more in their twenties than in any other decade.
Going through these changes while simultaneously growing an organization is challenging. In the last five years, while running GC, I have lived in three cities, started and ended relationships, and learned a lot about myself, largely though failing.
I am leading an organization while still learning the intricacies of leadership. I constantly question myself, wondering whether I am being too accommodating of my team, or too demanding, or too collaborative, or too closed. These thoughts all emerge before noon on a Monday.
When I observe other leaders I admire, I know that they don’t have it all figured out. But, they are more measured. They have experience and perspective. They know this is what they want to be doing and, as Black says, they “care less about what people think.”
I am anxious, up and down, question if this is actually what I am meant to be doing long-term, and have never worked for someone else.
This is not to say that we should not allow individuals in their twenties to start organizations, and I don’t want to be ungrateful towards the experiences I’ve experienced building GC. But I think we need to be more introspective about the adulation that young people receive. GC should be celebrated because we are doing great work – not because I am a young leader.
Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.