Is Innovation Best Suited For the Young?
I recently met with a colleague who described the innovation program of a new corporate arrival. At first blush, it sounded quite exciting: employees are hand-selected from all over the world to participate in a 3-6 month custom incubator in Silicon Valley, where they are immersed in our local culture to work on new, game-changing ideas within and adjacent to the corporate's current business focus.
Something about how this program was designed bothered me, and I figured it out as we headed out to our next startup meeting. The program was designed to appeal to young, mobile, and high-potential employees. Sure, everyone is welcome to apply, but the living arrangements resemble MTV's "The Real World" and there are no accommodations made to bring along a spouse or family. Did this company's executive leadership conclude that engaging with Silicon Valley is a job for the younger generation?
Silicon Valley has a reputation for ageism. Some of our VCs favor the young and fearless, i.e. those that are naively unaware that their ideas are "impossible" to implement. Some of our tech companies shun engineers aged 40+. "Young people are just smarter," Mark Zuckerberg told an audience in 2007.
A more nuanced view on this topic can be found in Steve Blank's most recent blog post, where he asked, "Why Entrepreneurs Leave Companies Rather Than Join Them." Blank concluded that entrepreneurs start their own companies because "existing companies don't value the skills that don't fit on a resume". This predictably happens early in the career, when work experience is scant, but it also happens later, when career progression may be stalling. In fact, Baby Boomers are starting more businesses than Millenials, and this gap is growing further.
As Steve Jobs said, "It's better to be a pirate than join the navy." With the right mindset, all age groups can innovate.
By the way, the startup meeting we headed to went extremely well. We discovered a ton of great technology that is applicable to our business. The founders are all Baby Boomers...
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