I’m a 22-year-old CEO who gets mistaken as the intern and that’s okay
May 22nd, 2018 — It was my first day of work. I had to be in the office by 9am so I made sure to wake up a bit earlier for some buffer room. The office was located on the 15th floor in a building across from and overlooking City Hall. As I walked out of the SEPTA station, I began to make my way towards the building questioning everything: Is my outfit okay? Do I have everything I need for orientation? Will anyone else be there earlier than me? Finally, I walked through the doors of the building and did my best to be nonchalant when I checked in with the security guard to be able to up upstairs.
“Are you interning?” the security guard asked.
You see, the thing is, it was my first day of work at the office, but not as the intern — I was the CEO.
At that point, I was 21 years old and May 22nd was just 8 days after my college graduation from Penn. I’ve also been mistaken for a high schooler for a large portion throughout college so I don’t even blame the security guard.
That morning, as I was making my way downtown on SEPTA, I was scrolling through my Instagram feed to get my mind off the anxiety. On my screen, I saw many photos of my colleagues drunken, carefree, and partying it up in France, Rome, and Korea for their grad trips. This image is probably what comes to mind when most people think of millennials and Gen Z’s. So, when the guard asked me if I was an intern, I began to also question if I seemed lost.
While being mistaken for an intern, I was actually awaiting my first two to come. Their names were both Michael. Great start, right? As if this wasn’t overwhelming enough? Michael and Michael were soon renamed as Mike and Flynn — Flynn being the last name of one of the Michaels. Up until then, I had not met the two in-person since we only had a phone interview. In addition to Mike and Flynn, I interviewed and accepted many other candidates before but they all rejected their offers. To date, I still suspect that it may have been the high pitch of my voice over the phone or the youthful countenance I had for the in-person interviews.
Mike and Flynn both seemed very nice and while I was looking forward to meeting them, but in addition to how much it took to get two of them, I was nonetheless at least a bit daunted by 1) the fact that Mike was close to my age; 2) that Flynn was 9 years older than me; and 3) that I, who they would know as their boss, was actually also interning at the City of Philadelphia between the hours of 11am to 4pm of our work days to get some extra money to sustain myself.
If the security guard barely took me seriously, how would they?
Fast forward 8 months from that first day, I’m happy to say that everything this past summer has run smoothly and we’ve grown significantly from a team of 2 interns, to 4 by the end of the summer, to 14 as of today. Throughout it all, the most inspiring part isn’t really to see our team grow in numbers but rather to see the growth of the team members themselves.
Some have transformed the opportunities we’ve been able to provide into full-on projects that they’ve been able to take ownership over. These have included a full-fledged university program across the city, a podcast series, a blog series, a published research case study, and a summer fellowship program. Meanwhile, others have been able to take the experience they’ve had with us to help them with their next job opportunity to create an impact in the city and beyond. These past months have truly been a hustle. But through this, I’ve learned more and more about the meaning of empowerment and believe that anyone can go above and beyond to do great things if given the opportunity. This made me realize that Fulphil is an untraditional company in that most programs don’t entrust young people like we do to autonomously launch and manage programs.
With this, it slowly became clear to me that it’s often very easy to discount young people and their capabilities — even causing the youth to discount themselves. Almost every week, I’ve received comments about my age. Some have kindly suggested that I should consider working for someone else to get more experience. Others have told me that I should stop wasting my time and to date, still question me to no end. After hearing this a number of times, I think you can imagine how repetitive and discouraging it can be. But on the other hand, there are many leaders I’ve met from all different sectors who have told me that Fulphil is the most important initiative that the city, and eventually, the world must support.
While the more positive comments received are very motivating to keep me hard at work every day, the others are also very also very grounding and necessary. The fact is, I am only 22 years old and there are many others out there like myself who are taking the risk to pursue their passions at a young age. We are all untraditional and that’s okay.
For other wide-eyed young entrepreneurs, my biggest pieces advice would be embrace and do.
Embrace your age and use it to your advantage. However old you are, the truth is, you’re young and you don’t know what you’re doing, but that. Is. OKAY. The reality is also that many others who are older and even more experienced also have no idea what they’re doing.
Ironically, I actually believe that it’s advantageous to be a young person: it’s much easier to get advice and help from those who consider themselves older and more experienced. For myself, the reality is that I studied sociology in undergraduate and I’m pursuing entrepreneurship, the hardest form of business. I was not trained to do this. I’ve always seen this as my weakness but have come to recognize it to be my strength.
I am very accepting and open to the fact that I’m still learning the ropes and I don’t know everything. In fact, that’s how I introduced myself to my best mentors to get their feedback. To date, they have been extremely helpful in making the right connections in the sector, giving good advice on my strategy, helping me navigate the business model piece, and even help with some accounting. They and YouTube are really the best professors. You don’t really need to have the traditionally trained experience or expertise; we all learn on the job anyways.
Like I mentioned, I was not trained to be an entrepreneur. This is something that has held me back and slowed me down from making a fair number of decisions. It’s incredibly easy to hesitate too often to take action and pursue opportunities to help us fulfill our potential due to the fear of failure, or perhaps the fear that it’s not the right time. The best time is always now. Just do it.
With the many degrading stereotypes of young people today, it’s easy to see why the older generation discounts us. After all, there are articles online about how awful people think of millennials, with our clichéd materialistic habits of spending their money on mimosas, coffee, and avocado toast while we struggle to pay for college debt and live with our parents. While we can’t really blame them as there is some truth to this, it’s our job as young people to always put our best foot forward to defy this stereotype, be untraditional, and embrace it. It’s important to remember that while we are 20% of the population, we’re also 100% of the future. Our generation is going to be the leaders of tomorrow so we must train ourselves to be the leaders of today — not the interns but the CEOs.
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