What’s the diversity conversation startups aren’t having?

31st July, 2017

Given the scale of opportunity an aging population represents, it’s baffling that the diversity conversation in the startup world hasn’t yet shifted toward age.

At any tech startup conference or meetup, it’s likely you’ll see a panel on gender or ethnic diversity.

But you’ll rarely see one on age diversity – because anyone over 40 is just seen as way too old to be running a tech startup.

In his younger days Mark Zuckerberg himself said “young people are just smarter.”

He’s far from alone though in holding the preconception that the most innovative ideas come from the youngest and ‘freshest’ minds.

Cosmetic surgeons in Silicon Valley are making a killing from clients paranoid about appearing ‘young and fresh’.

But statistics from the 2016 version of Startup Muster paint a different picture. The numbers indicate that a quarter of all startup founders in Australia are over the age of 45. These are often serial entrepreneurs, who know how to play the game.

What’s more, there’s no specific evidence that people over the age of 45 don’t have the skillset and mindset required to be a successful tech founder.

Founder of tech startup BanjoMaps, Anna Wright, 48, told The Pulse that while age diversity is worth talking about, it feels like a difficult conversation to start.

“It’s not something I’ve really talked about, but that might because I give off the vibe that it doesn’t matter to me personally,” said Wright. “But it is something that I don’t think really gets talked about – so it’s difficult to bring up.”

“But the conversation does need to happen.”

Why we need to talk about this

Wright is one of the founders taking part in the SheStarts program, an initiative designed to foster tech entrepreneurship amongst women from a variety of backgrounds.

Part of the rationale of the program is to showcase women heading up companies in the tech space – whether or not they have technical skills.

This is because women don’t ‘see’ themselves in those roles, which leads to them shying away from considering the sector as a viable career path.

READ: The biggest barriers for women in tech entrepreneurship

In much the same way, if older people don’t see themselves in the sector, then they won’t consider themselves as viable participants in it.

This could be negative for the sector as a whole.

Wright has decades of experience in business, from entering the workforce at the-then Ernst & Whinney to management consulting to being a senior lecturer at UTS for more than 20 years.

She said the one mistake younger founders make time and time again is that they call in financial advice way too late.

“I’ve done an awful lot of cleaning up – I’ve had to re-jig budgets and business models because it seems that some people pull numbers out of the air,” said Wright.

Younger founders can become obsessed by the idea they’re pursuing or the problem they’re trying to solve, while actually running a business is considered a secondary concern.

If more experienced people aren’t invited to participate in the space, then the companies in it are missing out on decades of business nous – or on spotting opportunities to create a billion-dollar unicorn for an aging demographic.

 “If you’re not experiencing that [aging] or you don’t have someone in your life that is, then you may not see the opportunity in that – and that’s a waste,” said Wright.

READ: The greatest opportunity for startups in a generation

When you have bills to pay

Wright thinks older people can become discouraged from entering tech entrepreneurship not because they don’t have technical skills, but because of the ‘running lean’ mentality.

“When it comes to looking at the startup space, a lot of older people don’t see themselves there because they worry about the sort of income they may be able to get,” said Wright.

She said it wasn’t simply about money – there was a more structural issue at play.

Younger founders have lower day-to-day expenses and are less likely to have a mortgage and kids, so they might be more open to proposals from investors to structure their salary around incentivisation bonuses.

Things like ‘if you grow revenue by X we’ll pay you an extra $Y’.

It’s a smart play to incentivise founders with outcomes tied directly to business success, but you can’t pay your kids’ school fees and a mortgage on the promise of revenue.

“The income levels that the people who are providing capital are happy to see a founder have may be putting off some people,” said Wright.

When older people see the tech startup space, they see an uncertain future. Younger people on the other hand, simply have less to lose.

If tech startups are going to truly harness the opportunities an aging population presents, then they need to start having a conversation on ageism.

It’s hard to start that conversation, but Wright suggested a few could start with a fresh perspective on how young people experienced their own form of ageism.

“I think a lot of young people go through the experience of people not thinking they can do something because they’re young,” said Wright. “So we may want to ask them ‘did you think that was fair?’

“Is it fair for you to put your preconceptions on somebody with more experience and maturity?”