An emerging cohort of talented and passionate young founder-CEOs are proving that a lack of experience is no barrier to success in running a business
At most of the world’s well-established companies, CEOs have grey hairs and the wisdom associated with gaining them. While reaching the top of the corporate ladder is often the result of many decades of toil, a significant number of under-30s are showing that it’s possible to lead thriving enterprises long before the greying process starts.
Whether leadership is an inherent skill – something a young CEO may be predisposed to – has long been debated. Several studies have considered the effects of someone’s genetics, education and cultural experiences on their potential to lead, but Connson Locke, professorial lecturer in management at the London School of Economics, notes that the research suggests that “no particular trait will make you a good leader in every single context”.
Locke recently wrote a book entitled Making Your Voice Heard: how to own your space, access your inner power and become influential. It looks at the deep, authentic passions that have been a key part of many young CEOs’ stories. In it, she argues that, to be an influential person, you must start with yourself. In other words: “If you don’t know what you stand for and care for, what are you going to try and influence people about?”
Learning on the job
Onyinye Udokporo, 23, is a CEO who found her passion far sooner than most. She founded Enrich Learning, an online education platform that supports young people around the world, four years ago while she was an undergraduate at King’s College London. This had actually been a long time coming: she’d started tutoring children when she was only 12 years old herself. By the time Udokporo turned 18, she had helped hundreds of students.
The catalyst for starting the business was her experience of attending a summer school at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “The time I spent there opened my mind. It enabled me to see how education could be offered in a unique, cost-effective and more accessible way,” recalls Udokporo, who adds: “My record shows that, in some cases, I have gained more practical experience at the age of 23 than older CEOs.”
Are there any particular attributes that tend to be lacking in young CEOs? According to Locke, all leaders need to get better at asking, listening and learning. The realisation that you don’t always know what’s best often develops with age, so youthful business leaders should pay extra attention to developing these skills, she advises.
The demands on businesses are increasing and there are limits to one person’s ability to deal with these, Locke observes. “There are so many stakeholders now – it’s not just about making a company profitable. You also have to take care of the environment, ensure that the community is supported, consider diversity issues and so on. A leader has to admit that they won’t know the answer to everything.”
Young CEOs may not always have high levels of humility – an important leadership quality that often comes through bitter experience – but an early failure can certainly accelerate its development.
Three businesses by the age of 28
Joel Gujral, 28, is CEO of Myndup. It’s already his third business, following short-lived forays into software and tea. Established only two years ago, the mental health platform already has tens of thousands of users. His company has won contracts with several large employers, including the NHS, to provide services for their staff. It matches users with expert practitioners who can provide one-to-one video sessions offering help ranging from counselling to career coaching.
Gujral reports that one of his biggest achievements to date has been building a team with specialist strengths and then seeking advice from its members, even if this has meant having difficult conversations. “As a CEO, I’m always open to feedback. You have to be able to change and adapt to different environments,” he says
Leadership styles are often classed as either agentic or communal. CEOs in the former category tend to be independent, assertive and strong influencers, whereas those in the latter tend to be warm, caring and good listeners. Locke says that, if agentic can be considered left-handed and communal right-handed, “a good leader is ambidextrous”. All CEOs should try to balance these two styles, she suggests: inspire people with your ideas and passion, but also consult them and truly heed those with expertise.
Sankalp Chaturvedi, professor of organisational behaviour and leadership at Imperial College Business School, is interested in the relationships between leaders and followers at work. He observes that the digital transformation of business; people’s changing expectations of work; and environmental conditions such as the Covid pandemic and the climate crisis have all had an impact on followers. Leaders must be both resilient and open to new ways of working to ensure that the leader-follower relationship continues to be as effective as possible, he argues.
“Since the nature of followers and types of jobs are changing, the leader’s role needs to adapt to these changes,” Chaturvedi says.
Younger (or aspiring) CEOs may look to education to prepare themselves for the challenges such adjustments will present. Chaturvedi likens leadership education to swimming, where a teacher guides the student in the right techniques, but the learner must jump in themselves, practise and hone their new skills on the job.
CEOs for the social media age
Natasha Eeles, 27, is the founder and CEO of Bold Voices, a company that works with schools, pupils and their parents to tackle gender inequality. Along with Gujral, she is a graduate of the New Entrepreneurs Foundation (NEF), a leadership programme that matches young business leaders with experienced mentors.
“As a founder, I’ve learnt most things on the job, but there have been elements of education that I would probably be lost without,” Eeles acknowledges. On the NEF course, she “had the opportunity to learn practical skills alongside other founders, learn from entrepreneurs and have people to bounce ideas off. That has been invaluable.”
Stef Williams, 29, CEO of clothing brand Sefi and fitness app WeGlow, is mainly self-taught. She believes that the rise of social media has “broken the mould of entrepreneurship”. Its platforms have enabled creatives without any formal leadership education to have a shot at starting and running successful businesses.
The youngest CEOs are digital natives who may well have a better understanding than their older counterparts of how the latest tech can work for them commercially. Williams is an Instagram influencer who has amassed 1.5 million followers. This has helped her to turn her interests in fitness and fashion into a pair of businesses, each with a team of 10 employees.
Williams stresses that she is open to furthering her knowledge in a more formal setting. “I’d definitely be interested in taking some courses in the future,” she says. “There is always room to grow.”
She and many other young CEOs are demonstrating that there are ways for under-30s and even gen-Zers to enter what was once considered the domain of their elders and become effective business leaders. Ultimately, good leadership is a combination of many things – and it’s clear that experience is by no means the most important factor.