Starting a Business  at 17 — in an Industry Full of Age Bias

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“If you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re late, you’re forgotten.” This insight from a mentor was the reason I was sitting in an elementary school staff room 60 minutes before the scheduled presentation.

It was early in my speaking career — speech number 14 to be exact. At that point in my journey, the 24 hours leading up to each speech were filled with anxiety and nervousness. At home, I would practice my material in the shower so my family couldn’t hear. At schools, I was reserved and found it difficult to converse with teachers and principals because I was often the same age or younger than their own children. Moments later, they would watch me speak and develop their own ideas and opinions. Yet there I was, sitting in the staff room, making conversation, hoping they would categorize me as a professional, not a student.

Twenty minutes before the presentation, the principal escorted me to the gymnasium and helped set up the space. Before I knew it, the speech was finished and my armpits were covered in sweat. Students stuck around to take pictures and were asking questions, when a group of teachers that I had met earlier in the staff room ran over to apologize. “For what?” I asked. “Well, when you left the staff room, we all chuckled and joked that someone your age wouldn’t have meaningful things to share — and we were wrong.”

At the start of my career, one of the biggest obstacles was age. People didn’t take me seriously. On sales calls, prospective clients would laugh when I quoted the investment. After hearing my age, there would be an awkward silence followed by a few comparisons to other youths. I’ll never forget being at a conference in California and jumping out of my seat to ask the first question only to have the speaker on stage make a joke: “Son, don’t be discouraged if you don’t get on stage anytime soon. I wouldn’t even let you around my daughter for 60 minutes!” Embarrassed is an understatement.

Through persistence, my biggest insecurity became my greatest advantage. Relatability was always my unique selling point, although it took time to fully embrace it. After building enough credibility, the conversations began to shift. What I realized was that challenges always exist and people have opinions that are outside your control. More important than the opinions of others is what you choose to believe about yourself. Although the opinions of others impact your self-image, it’s often your perception of yourself that holds you back. Your age can be your biggest advantage or your Achilles’ heel — and the choice is yours. My advice to young entrepreneurs is to forge ahead, stand tall, and know your worth. If you stand in it long enough, the world will begin to agree.

Sam Demma is a two-time TEDx speaker, author, and entrepreneur who created the #emptyyourbackpack movement, cofounded the volunteer cleanup organization PickWaste, and launched “The High Performing Student” podcast. Sam’s mission is to provide students with hope, tools, and strategies to become servant leaders.

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