Young entrepreneurs say they admire Elon Musk and Sam Altman more than Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. Steve Jobs has been Silicon Valley’s idol of choice for decades, but to the next generation of startup founders, his legacy seems as old as Web 1.0.
The “monuments” are no longer being looked up to
Since he was in high school, Kenan Saleh watched “The Social Network” – a movie about the founding of Facebook. At that moment, he decided that one day he would start a company of his own.
“It was the first movie I’d seen that showed that you could be young and still be the most successful person in the room,” he says. “I definitely emulated Mark Zuckerberg in some ways.”
Saleh started the company from his dorm room at the University of Pennsylvania. He raised $500,000 during his graduation and then sold the company to Lyft in 2019.
Through the process of starting a business, Saleh realized he needed a new role model. He no longer wanted to be like Mark Zuckerberg, who by then had been embroiled in a series of scandals.
Young people like to idolize their predecessors. Steve Jobs has been Silicon Valley’s idol of choice for decades, but to the next generation of startup founders, his legacy seems as old as Web 1.0. This is similar to Larry Page, Sergey Brin or Bill Gates. Geniuses like Zuckerberg and Evan Spiegel, who became billionaires at the age of 25, have fallen out of favor. So are “tech tycoons” like Jeff Bezos. Saleh says he wants to learn from a “hero” who is making history.
Olav Sorenson, who has taught business at UCLA and Yale, says his students tend to admire people who have “succeeded not because of sales,” such as Seth Goldman, the founder of Honest Tea, is now chairman of Beyond Meat’s board of directors because Goldman has focused its energies on investing in and supporting businesses.
“Just because you’re a billionaire doesn’t mean you’re positively effecting change.” says Marc Baghadjian, who founded a dating startup at just 22 years old.
Elon Musk – the most influential billionaire
Baghadjian and Saleh both idolize Elon Musk. “He’s shown that you can do the best thing for the world and reap the benefits at the same time,” said Saleh, who started watching videos of Musk while in college.
According to a Wired survey, more than a dozen young startup founders between the ages of 15 and 30 when asked who inspires them, more than half answered Elon Musk. The rest answered Sam Altman and Patrick Collison – billionaires who believe that technology can solve the world’s biggest problems.
None of them claim to have read books about the history of Apple, Google, or Amazon. They say they are more inspired by forward-looking companies that are trying to solve major global problems.
Lori Rosenkopf, associate dean of entrepreneurship at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, shares that today’s generation of young entrepreneurs is trying to find the answer to the question: ‘How can we start to be part of the solution to the problems that the older generation created for us?’
For many young entrepreneurs, Musk exemplifies this mindset. “Elon Musk is literally picking up the tab for the mistakes that other generations have made,” said Baghadjian, who read Ashlee Vance’s biography of Musk in high school. Baghadjian says that while companies like Amazon and Apple have made big innovations, Musk’s projects with electric cars and solar power are much more important.
Other young people have been inspired by the personal shares of more billionaires. For example, billionaire Elon Musk said he had to sleep on the floor at Tesla headquarters because he was too busy, or the story of Airbnb founder Brian Chesky, who spent all his credit cards and only ate ramen noodles in the early days of starting a business.
Idols need justice too
Pranjali Awasthi, 15, who works for a stealth startup, says Elon Musk and Altman are “heroes” in her heart. But she also aspires to have more role models like her – a young woman of color. She says she was inspired to start a business in high school after reading about Laura Deming, who started her own venture fund when she was 16.
“A lot of the founders people worshiped before have been straight, white men,” said Josh Yang, 27, a sophomore at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.
According to a 2021 report from the nonprofit organization AnitaB.org, women make up about 10% of all tech CEOs, and black or Latino CEOs make up a small percentage of America’s 500 largest companies (Fortune). 500). Yang shared that he is not interested in the famous figures of the technology world. “I am forging my own path,” he said.
So does Andrew Sun, an 18-year-old who recently founded a microfinance startup. He said he’s more grateful to a high school teacher for teaching him to be an entrepreneur than a famous CEO like Musk. “I don’t really have any desire to become a celebrity. I want to be an entrepreneur who makes a substantial positive impact on our world.”