WE SHOULD ALL BE ENTREPRENEURS: A TEENAGER’S GUIDE TO MASTERING FAILURE
If I have any regrets from my experience in high school, they would be these two; that I chose to write debate scripts than to speak publicly, and that I did not start a business. The latter would obfuscate my 14year-old high school freshman self who never contemplated the idea of business. I was a renegade science student who spent more time debating the characters of the Renaissance between bedtime monologues and library naps, whose best subject was English studies, and who wanted to study neuroscience at Harvard to begin a quizzical career on the edges of a CSI Forensic expert and a Ben Carson (with a good beard game too!). I was neither short of ambition nor delusion, but starting a business never crossed my mind.
It was not because of money, although I had none. The orientation of my environment gave me a lot of dreams, starting a business was just not one — and there were no particular banners of “Start a business” that unfurled in my path; either that or my love for other niceties blinded me. When I worked at Junior Achievement, an organization that trained entrepreneurs from high school, I witnessed severally the marvel of my coworkers at the eloquence of 13year-old teenagers in pitching competitions we organized, watching them display an impressive understanding of shares, business models and financial projections, as they vicariously regret their inability to have done so at such burgeoning ages. And I could understand why.
Many of them did not have such opportunities in high school, and even if they did, they underestimated their significance to their personal growth. Until recently, entrepreneurship education has not always commanded the round of applause it does. Students would rather indulge themselves in more conspicuous, “easy” to excel activities (yes! it is inarguably easier to compete in and win science fairs and quizzes than to build a sustainable business at any stage of your life, even more so teenage.) Venturing into the murkiness of entrepreneurship teaches you otherwise, especially that you would fail in life, and it is okay to.
The first major failure the average Ghanaian teenager would face in their life predictably would be the denial to the study their program of choice at the university (after a barrage of heartbreaks, and “entanglements”) — that is, if they are brilliant enough (and sometimes lucky enough) to gain admission to the university. Even for the most brilliant students, results of standardized testing like the WASSCE are not always predictable. In my case, and that of several excellent students in my year group, our results were very much unexpected. In an increasingly competitive (often academic-merit biased) university recruitment process with even fewer options to succeed, the disappointment that comes with lottery entry selection of university programs for admitted candidates is more disheartening than we are allowed to talk about. And for many of such young people who learn to mask their disappointment in silent acceptance, their self-esteem and motivation towards learning sink — deep.
If young people are going to persist in the endeavor called life, they would have to get comfortable with failure very early; if they can, before college rejections that may change the course of their lives forever. The emphatic thesis of this argument is that failure is inescapable. What is manageable is the depth, scale and longevity of a failed experiment. While the best logical preemption of failure (especially at the grander scale of choice), might have been thought experiments and heeding consensus axioms, the eccentric combination of humans’ innate motivation to experiment the less obvious — call it stubbornness or creative spirit, bad luck (and its lack thereof) and the probabilistic reality that such connotations themselves could be wrong, or that their truth value may diminish against changing times, makes such commonsensical logic less pragmatic. Even when it is a good strategy, the continuous apotheosis of such reasoning historically borders on dark ageism. The exercise is more like swimming than it is sleeping. It is not exactly parasympathetic.
There is no better way to fail than to start a business at the point when you are naivest. Every high school entrepreneur fails. They fail at convincing their best friends and parents to invest in their business. They fail at understanding their market and almost never finding product-market fit. They fail at getting customers to buy their first products. They fail at emotional intelligence. They fail at balancing their academic work with their enterprises. They fail at most things and with every beating, every rejection, they build their muscle to persist even in the midst of further failure. That tenacity and will to persevere in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversities, no college degree can teach.
Being an entrepreneur would teach you more than resilience in the face of failure; it would also teach you to be smart enough to avoid it, if you want to learn to. While the practice of entrepreneurship is heralded for its ability to build toughness, far less is said about the how it teaches you to be smart about being tough. Starting a business is a science, even a rocket science. Only the smartest people succeed at it, and those that don’t, could potentially become less dumb in the process. No engagement in a young person’s life would be as engaging or as multifaceted as an entrepreneurial journey. The co-founders of high school businesses are singular-discipline students who are asked to be analysts, market researchers, sales people, public speakers, consumer behavior experts, fundraisers, even lawyers, drafting their own preliminary contracts. For many young people who may not have had the variety of experiences or the understanding of self to select a career path, the opportunity to learn and role-play in many different aspects of a new business is a process of self-discovery itself. Such reflection and knowingness of self is a smart way towards life, allowing you to examine your potential, hone your strengths, and reduce the incidence of getting caught up in scenarios where your skills and talents are not utilized or rightly matched. Effectively, you postmark your quarter-life crisis at 25, many years ahead of time.
The best entrepreneurs build things but they also sell things, and the latter is more often underestated. When I was struggling to find the temerity to debate publicly in high school, I did not know what I needed to learn was how to sell more than how to speak. Good founders have a product-focused customer-oriented obsession; a practical reality that undermines the idealism of logicized abstract speeches. The process of sales is a rather complex one; involving an empathy with the customer, diagnosing moods and assessing needs, mastering extemporaneous speech when the script in your head is not working, and restarting the cycle till you get the sell. And when you start learning that art at 14, you would learn to sell more than a product. You also learn to sell yourself. The confidence and sales acumen you build as an entrepreneur are the same transferring skills that employers want to see at the all-important interview. Literally, the process of selling products to customers is an elevator pitch of yourself and your product, and fortunately for entrepreneurs, they get to build that experience every day. Even if you eventually fail to succeed at your business, when you enter an interview room, all you see is a customer, and all you want to do is sell, and you would have a ton of experience at that.
Yet, experience with failure itself may not always be revealing without thoughtful reflection and a willingness to learn from it. Failure writes its code in DNA; it specializes in uniqueness and complexity. You could very well fail multiple times starting a business and not learn so much. All things being equal, you still have the advantage of a recurring constant, you — reasonably, it is possible to diagnose yourself, at least in relation to said failures, to your advantage.
Ultimately, in the present, and in the very late foreseeable future, it is entrepreneurs who would move the needle towards progress and innovation. Out of ignorance, many young people have wrongly idealized entrepreneurship as a billion-dollar escapade, and a life with a private jet. While these may be perks of a successful business establishment, the core priority of building businesses is to solve problems. It begins with an inquisitive examining of your environment and identifying gaps in existing solutions, or gaps with no solutions at all. Entrepreneurial thinking models like design thinking are tools of social awareness as they make us more conscious of our environment by identifying the pain points of the people around us. So, more than money obsessed capitalists, entrepreneurs are empathetic thinkers who dedicate their existence to providing solutions that make the lives of other people easier. Through this unorthodox lens into entrepreneurship, it is plausible to envisage how the engagement of young people in early stage businesses can usher them into becoming socially-conscious, purpose driven problem solvers.
While I still relish the lost opportunity of entrepreneurship in high school, I am grateful for the experiences that chartered a successful course of entrepreneurial adventures at the University of Ghana. Even more exciting was the challenge of guiding the hands of many young people to write the scripts of their entrepreneurial journeys through high school and beyond with Junior Achievement Ghana and Ghana for Startups (a community for entrepreneurs I cofounded). And now, my very own startup, Vielly. We should all be entrepreneurs — at teenage!