Career Lessons from Fortune’s Top Young Entrepreneurs

As employees and managers, you can learn a lot about networking, selling, risk taking and career success from entrepreneurs. In order to learn from young entrepreneurs who have achieved career success, I turn to Daniel Roberts, who wrote the book Zoom: Surprising Ways to Supercharge Your Career. The book captures the stories and advice from Fortune Magazine’s 40 Under 40, which Roberts pulls together annually. He is a magazine journalist and book critic in New York and has written for Sports Illustrated, Salon and The Daily Beast. In this brief interview, I talk to Roberts about what he learned from exploring the careers of the 40 Under 40, how professional success is different today, why company loyalty still matters, and the importance of taking risks.

Dan Schawbel: What advice would you have for seasoned professionals who are looking to make a career change?

Daniel Roberts: What we learned from the people in Zoom is, above all else, not to be afraid— to take leaps in business and embrace potential failure. It’s never too late to make a shift and whether it’s moving positions within a company or leaving entirely, with any career change there are a number of ways to do it: relying on your personal network and the connections you’ve made in your career thus far (Kevin Plank put his network of former college football teammates to work when he was trying to sell his first Under Armour t-shirts); moving to a company you like and admire as a customer (Jess Lee left a great spot at Google to work for Polyvore, a design site she loved using); or opening up your own shop or creating your own business (derivatives trader Boaz Weinstein had a fumble at Deutsche Bank and then opened up his own, now hugely successful hedge fund Saba Capital); rely on your mentors (Dolf van den Brink of Heineken had great guidance from the elder statesmen of his company as he moved around the corporation both geographically and in job description).

Dan: What’s different about how professional success is defined and achieved today?

Daniel: From everything we’re seeing with our 40 Under 40 list— which provided the people and stories for our book Zoom— businesspeople are achieving much more at much younger ages. There was a time when someone in his or her thirties at any company would automatically be viewed as a junior and would have to accept that and act accordingly, but this is, for the most part, no more. People in their early 30s are CEOs of their own companies, or they’re the CFO or COO at big Fortune 500 corporations; the entire business world has had to accept that the right people for certain leadership positions can indeed be very young. Everyone has become less ageist.

Dan: What can employees learn from great entrepreneurs like Tony Hsieh and Elon Musk?

Daniel: These two men illustrate different mantras, though there is certainly some overlap. Hsieh was one of the very first to understand and embrace the importance of creating a distinct and inviting corporate culture. In our book Hsieh notes that they tried to build that culture from the outset of Zappos by hiring only people that Hsieh and the other executives would want to hang out with. That wouldn’t work for all, but it did for him and for Zappos, and other, younger companies like Method have mimicked their obsession with culture. Musk, on the other hand, probably best represents the idea that no goal is too crazy or unattainable, that every idea deserves to be pursued with zeal and focus. This is a guy who cofounded PayPal, which had such a lasting influence on technology and payments online, and still it wasn’t enough—so he created the world’s leading luxury electric car company, Tesla. He didn’t stop there— he created a rocket-launching company, SpaceX. Any one of these things would be amazing but Musk continues to innovate and dream big, which ought to show other hopeful entrepreneurs that ambition can be a wonderful thing, and that dreaming big can drive you to greatness.

Dan: You found that loyalty matters still in corporations even though everyone is a job hopper these days. Can you explain your reasoning?

Daniel: It’s true that these days, especially for people under 40, the norm is to go from company to company. Working at a great place for only three years before moving on is considered completely standard, perhaps even wise. But we occasionally find people who disprove that logic, who specifically believe that it’s smarter to really find a home at one place and build an entire career there. That loyalty is rewarded. Dolf van den Brink, who went to work for Heineken at the very bottom of its ladder right out of college, was willing to go wherever the company needed him and move around constantly, and it paid off, landed him in the U.S. CEO spot at age 36. Rob Goldstein has had a similar path: he went to work for money manager BlackRock as soon as he graduated from college, and never looked back. He formed a tight bond with CEO Larry Ellison and today, only in his thirties, is one of the highest-ranking people at the company, which has more than a trillion dollars under management. Depending on your own outlook and style, there can be great longterm value and reward in staying put.

Dan: How do you take strategic risks in your company that make you stand out above the rest?

Daniel: The “zoomers” who make our 40 Under 40 list often have an attitude that, while brash to some, is simply self-advocacy and confidence. They can often be impatient, but the bottom line is that they aren’t willing to stifle their contributions or wait until they’re more senior to make suggestions and try to change companies from within. They speak up. Jennifer Hyman, who cofounded the dress rental site Rent the Runway, shared with us a story of when she worked for Starwood hotels and piped up in a big meeting with some bold ideas; after the meeting, attempting to be helpful, a more senior woman suggested to Hyman that she refrain from participating so frequently since she is both younger and a woman. Hyman says that she pretty much completely ignored this woman’s advice, and for the better: when only 22, she suggested to her boss at Starwood that they give her a $2 million budget to launch a new wedding division. They went for the idea and today, with her long gone, that wedding business is still one of its most successful. So if you believe in your idea or change, and can execute, then it’s sometimes worth taking the risk of speaking out of turn.

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