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Ted Zoller Headshot

The Zuck Distortion: Young Entrepreneurs Need Gen X, And Vice-Versa

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The new generation of entrepreneurs has captured our imagination. Perhaps this is a function of our fascination with everything new and shiny, or even more likely, our persistent quest for eternal youth. Or perhaps our failed economy yearns for their leadership. Clearly there are stellar examples of young entrepreneurs-turned-overnight-billionaires whose lives are worth carefully examining and perhaps emulating -- the Sergey Brins, Larry Pages, and Mark Zuckerbergs. They are uber smart, bigger than life, amplified by an IPO well beyond mere mortality (but by their own admission, clearly mortal).

I was recently in a meeting with a young Turk entrepreneur who was clearly on a first-name basis with the Facebook founder. "Zuck" was held out as the symbol of the next generation of founders. Beyond being impressed by this important association, I was further struck by how Zuck represented perhaps a club, cohort or, may I say, a new generation of hip entrepreneur.

Perhaps thinking of my own mortality and the bitter recognition that I have aged out of "cool," I think back to the hip entrepreneurs of my day -- the Generation X -- and perhaps it is just a replay of those days. My Zuck would have been Steve Case, Meg Whitman, Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs, all of whom are still seen as pioneers, but do not enjoy the hip factor of the latest leaders -- except maybe Jobs, who has reinvented himself several times. I tried perhaps quixotically to convince myself that my generation is still hip, still has the mojo, and still matters. Perhaps things are the same and only time passes. I am reminded of the old Will Roger's quote, "Things aren't what they used to be, and probably never were..." So true, but...

The new Zuck generation is different. They are hyper-connected, social media- powered, real-time, virtual, global, open, socially aware and competitive. They are living Moore's Law. Many worry that this generation is too heavily branded, venture-capital powered, built to sell and quick-money oriented. While certainly there are examples where this is the case -- an intractable ingredient of human nature -- I have found this new generation actually to be more "built to last" than those in the past, generally looking to build companies that are "lean" and capable of long-range sustainability. And, in most cases, they have a keen sense of their relevance not only to their customer and market, but to our society.

But there is something to be said of a distortion that exists between the Zuck Generation and those who preceded it. Much has been made of a "digital divide" created between those connected on the web and those not. Yet this divide is more nuanced, more subtle: a divide between those who "get it" and those who don't.

The new class of entrepreneurs is a bit self-referencing and endogenous, mainly because it interacts as part of a networked community on the web, which reinforces itself. This is the case because these entrepreneurs live on the web. They are so young that the captain in Star Trek is not William Shatner, not Patrick Stewart, but the one from the recent movie that they watched on their computer, because they don't watch TV. They text faster than they speak, their identities are on the Web and their language does not contain as many vowels.

I go back to the Generation X from which I originate, and while most carry smart phones, they don't know how to use them. They aren't up on the hot apps. They don't know why anyone would be on Twitter. Many have only an underdeveloped identify on Facebook, if they have a page at all. Most think LinkedIn is cool. The only threaded discussion they join are to vet what type of vacuum cleaner to buy or to talk to their bank or airline.

But one truism of generational change is that the older generations generally carry capability. Members of Generation X now have the social power. It is their time in the sun. They are at the top of their game. This is their professional pinnacle. They are ready to invest. They are leading our greatest companies.

But the Zucks are out there in a parallel system that does not recognize their power conventionally. They are democratic, not hierarchical. They are networked, not structured. They understand competence and test it continuously. They are transformative. The Zuck Generation has trouble identifying with Gen X because the latter is old school.

This generation needs its Zucks as we needed ours, but perhaps most importantly, for us to sustain an entrepreneurially-driven economy, we need one another. Those with the capacity in the Gen X need to support the Zucks -- encourage, teach, coach and fund them. At the same time, leaders among the Zucks need to embrace the generation that precedes them, and bring them into their network. There are people who serve as critical land bridges or nodes between the Zucks and the Gen X's, but they are a precious few. We need more.

If we were to view entrepreneurship as only the domain of the Zucks, or the new generation that follows them, it would be to our peril. Entrepreneurship is one human phenomenon that is ageless and truly cannot be owned. It defies classification and transcends any socio-demographic stereotype. But what we can learn from the Zucks is that the power of entrepreneurship can be democratized, and the base can be widened.

By democratizing entrepreneurship, we are unleashing potentially one of the most potent economic powers we could conceive. It is the solution for our ailing economy. It will be up to those in the Gen X who now hold social power to embrace the new generation, empower it, and be prepared to let it transform our economy, and indeed our society.

My message to my fellow Gen Xers: Be prepared to open doors that may have been closed to you, because the folks coming up are more prepared than you were at their age. But recognize you still hold many of the keys to their success, and your job is to open them -- as the boomers did for you -- and not to gate-keep.

My message to the Zucks: Don't think for a minute that you don't need the generation behind you, as they hold many of the keys. And recognize that you are pioneering for the next generation who will likely best you, and will require you to open doors for them.