Kurt Lee: “fear of failure” stops youths from chasing an entrepreneurial career

26 Jan 2015

Guest blog: Young entrepreneur Kurt Lee on motivating young people to pursue enterprise


Honoured…to have been invited by the NYA (National Youth Agency) to speak at an event today related to their Commission into Young People and Enterprise as a young entrepreneur. Launched last year, the aim was to explore the opportunities, challenges and support needs of young people in setting up a business.

Chaired by Chloe Smith MP and supported by A4e, the commission also looked at how youth organisations can encourage young people aged 16–24 years to develop key ‘enterprise skills’, such as resilience, tenacity and self-confidence, and how youth work can play a role in achieving this, as well as wider conclusions for skills, employment and value to society.

Having read the final report, the one thing that resonated strongly with me was the “fear of failure” brick wall stopping youths from chasing an entrepreneurial career pathway.

There’s plenty of fish in the sea…

Personally I think the amount of enterprise opportunities and support available for young people in this country is phenomenal. Just to name a few, organisations such as Young Enterprise, Prince’s Trust, UnLtd and O2 Think Big offer a huge range of support such as mentorship, cash grants, networking, training etc. etc.

One does not have to go further than a google search to realise it has never been easier than now to get into enterprise! However, the question that we are all probably asking is:

How can we encourage more young people to make use of these opportunities?

In my opinion, we need to invest in having more role models, ambassadors of enterprise that have “been there, done that” to go into youth communities to share not only their successes, but also their failures and hardships. I feel like failure is still a fairly taboo subject, and we grow up being told constantly that failure is a bad thing. In school, at home — we live in an era where failure means you’re not as “smart” as the other kids or letting your parents down.

Having grown up in Malaysia till I was 17, my fear of failure was probably a hundred times higher than it is now. In a 3rd world country where only Science-related careers got you a good salary, it’s impossible not to fold into the pressures of family and society, always thinking you’re not good enough because you’re not top in class or chasing a career in medicine!

I would love to have had someone tell me back then, what I know now about failure — that it’s perfectly OK not succeeding first time in all that you do, that it’s fine not turning over a profit in the first 2 years of your business and that worrying everyday about how you’re going to feed yourself the next month is normal as an entrepreneur!

No one expects you to know everything…

Having worked with many young people thinking of entering the enterprise world, I hear the thoughts of “I can’t do that, I don’t know everything I need to know about it” / “I’m not good enough to do that yet” quite a lot. We need to start raising awareness that no one is expecting teenagers to know everything about the business they are going into. This is exactly the reason why youth organisations exists, providing the support network to get them to where they need to be!

My first steps into social enterprise was delivering digital skills to young people in the form of an after school computer club. Heavily into my “never say no” mantra, I agreed to the opportunity without any prior experience of Computer Science nor working with young people. I struggled massively for the first few weeks, having to learn my lesson content days before I deliver them and not realising how unpredictable young people were!

In the space of a year, Future Techies is now a Community Interest Company delivering workshops in the latest technologies across the country and helping schools better their Computing curriculums. We’re currently working on a new project called VEOMI (Vehicle of Mass Inclusion), with aims to further promote digital inclusivity!

Everyone is responsible…

Another point I would like to touch on is that the personal development of youths shouldn’t only happen when they start thinking about future employment, it needs to be prevalent during their time in school and also at home. Most of the time, young people already own the basic skills and values to enter into enterprise but they may not always know it.

The people around youths need to step up their efforts in helping them recognise enterprise skills and build upon them e.g. students bouncing back from a failed exam, doing the paper rounds in the morning — all these demonstrations of core enterprise skills needs to be better cultivated and amplified.

We are also all directly and indirectly responsible for combatting the stigmas around pursuing more practical career choices e.g. BTECs & apprenticeships which are still widely seen as secondary to formal qualifications such as GCSEs & A-Levels. Pressures from having to pursue “traditional” jobs is also another barrier preventing some young people going down the enterprise route.

Complacency is the enemy of success…

The support networks around a young person also play a huge role in knocking them out of complacency. In most parts of Asia, being unemployed usually translates to being borderline homeless.

Britain is fortunate to have a state benefits system that helps those in unemployment avoid being truly poor (a sweeping generalisation), but it also means the entrepreneurial mindset/needs in this country isn’t as pronounced when compared to countries in Asia.

Young people need to be constantly pushed into thinking for themselves rather than rely on their families or the state system to support them as that’s usually the easiest option to take.

To summarise…

We need more role models that have “been there, done that” to share & discuss their failures & hardships with other young people.

We need to raise awareness that failing is part their learning journey and that young people are not expected to know everything before starting their own business. There’s plenty of support out there to help them along the way.

The people around youths in schools and at home need to get better at recognising soft skills around enterprise and help build upon them.

We are all responsible for lowering stigmas around choosing more practical career pathways compared to formal ones in more “traditional” jobs.

The support networks around young people need to avoid breeding complacency and constantly push them into thinking for themselves.

Stars want to see themselves at the top, Leaders want to see others rise to the top

Are you a Star or are you a Leader of social change?


This blog first appeared on Kurt’s blog site https://medium.com/@kurtalee/