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Exploring entrepreneurship: How the next generation can get a head start

From landing the perfect internship to finding a mentor who guides you through your early career decisions, there are a handful of ways you can jump-start your goal of being a successful entrepreneur.

As we approach the next decade, we find ourselves with the next generation of workers entering the workforce — Generation Z (GenZ). Many studies about GenZ note that there is a strong entrepreneurial spirit among these young workers, with nearly half of GenZers planning to become entrepreneurs and focusing on working for themselves. 

Of course, saying you want to become an entrepreneur and actually doing it are two different things. To be successful and get their foot in the door, there are three things the next wave of workers should do to build their entrepreneurial foundation, while also discovering more about themselves and the type of business they’re interested in:

Join an internship program. Internships are a great, low-risk way to try out the type of company you are looking to work for. Browsing businesses and interviewing for multiple internships can give you an idea of the type of business you’d like to work for, such as a startup versus a more established company, one with a more corporate structure, and so on.

The benefits of an internship include some of what you would expect, such as the opportunity to build and grow your personal network, as well as a way for potential employers to get to know you and your talents. Any of this could potentially lead to a permanent offer for future employment. Less obvious benefits include:

  • While an internship allows a company to gauge your talents, it’s also a chance to “test drive” the company to see if it’s a good fit for you. At best, you will find exactly what you are looking for in an employer or company, and at worst, you’ll find out the type of company that’s not such a great fit.
  • Internships also give you a sense of the type of company culture that fits you best. This can range anywhere from the values and mission of the top executives, to the type of coffee (if any) available in the break room. In addition, you will learn what kind of work structure you need to thrive as a professional.
  • Internships offer a valuable opportunity to develop skills and learn processes that will serve you well when you begin your path as an entrepreneur. It’s helpful to see what works and what doesn’t and determine how you can leverage these experiences in your own business.

Find a mentor. While internal mentors — those at your organization or in your chosen industry or circle of influence — are useful, it can often be even better to find someone who is independent of your organization. This gives you the chance to open up and seek advice on a more personal level and address the challenging issues that you may not otherwise feel comfortable sharing with someone who is in the same organization as you.

To gain the most benefit from mentors, you want to show them that you are committed to the learning process and that you value and respect their time and insights. It’s best to create a structure around the relationship to maximize the value of your time together. There are some specific ways you can show your mentor how much you respect and value their time:

  • Formally ask that they serve as a mentor. You may even consider documenting the nature of the relationship along with a list of shared goals.
  • Set agendas in advance of your conversations. This can be as simple as an email with a few talking points you’d like to cover. This gives both you and your mentor time to prepare for the conversation.
  • Establish a regular cadence. Whether this monthly or quarterly, make sure that you are consistent in order to get the most out of the arrangement.

Network — and introduce yourself to at least three people each month. Putting yourself out there can be intimidating, especially for someone with little or no experience networking. But it’s a key component to grow professionally, no matter what industry you’re in. When networking, I use a three-pronged approach that I have found helps me get the most out of my interactions with others:

  • Set goals for yourself.  When you set goals ahead of time, you’re more readily able track your progress and break down the overarching goal of growing your network into actionable tasks. When networking at in-person events, set a goal to meet a certain number of people or identify a few key people you’d like to connect with specifically. 

When networking online via professional sites such as LinkedIn, decide how much time you will dedicate to research each week or month and how many connections you’d like to make and any follow up actions to grow the relationship.

  • Consider all interactions a form of feedback. Even if someone says “no” or doesn’t respond, this becomes an opportunity to review your message or conversation and refine the message along the way. Then you can test different approaches and see which ones are better received.

It’s also important to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Rejection is a part of life and doesn’t always have to be construed as negative. Often it’s a numbers game — the more people you interact with, the more you will improve your targeting efforts and response rates.

  • Always have an “ask” in mind. You want to be transparent, so let the person know how you’d like them to help you. If you are searching for a job and want leads into an industry, ask if this person is able to assist you. If you are simply interested in doing some soul searching, be honest about that as well, and ask for the specific information that would be useful to your situation. You might ask about their professional work history and choices along their career path, decisions about attending grad school, as well as decisions on whether to launch a new business versus taking a W-2 job at an established employer, and so on.

Meeting your goals will, of course, require lots of focus and hard work. But in my experience, finding an internship, connecting with at least one mentor, and committing to building out your personal network are three easy and actionable steps aspiring entrepreneurs can take to build a solid foundation as you begin your journey.

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