This Millennial Entrepreneur Talks Startups and Raising the Next Generation of Changemakers

This Millennial Entrepreneur Talks Startups and Raising the Next Generation of Changemakers

by Khairul Rusydi

Back in secondary school, I had entrepreneurial ideas but found that there wasn’t an encouraging environment or very much practical support available.

Years later in university, three friends and I founded Reactor, an organisation that trains and equips young entrepreneurs and aspiring changemakers.

We should all be entrepreneurial

Through workshops, camps and other programmes, Reactor encourages students to create lasting positive change, to do something useful for society. The most important thing is that they build something – it could be an app, a cafe, a project, a community.

Here I want to differentiate between being an entrepreneur and being entrepreneurial.

We don't just train youths to become future business owners. Let's face it: If everyone was a business owner, then who would be there to bring the company forward?

But I do believe that everyone needs to be entrepreneurial. Entrepreneurs are typically defined by their adaptability, resilience and the discipline to get things done. These are traits that youths would benefit from as well.

Being able to survive a startup environment and its insane levels of uncertainty means being able to survive any challenging work environment and make better decisions.

Another aspect is autodidactism or self-learning, which is the ability to learn something without the need for a formal teacher. Co-founders do this really well. They find a way to accelerate their learning, and pick up things like logistics and digital marketing on the fly. Any employee who adopts this skill would be able to modify their job and continuously show how they can add value to their organisation.

Surviving uncertainty

Surviving a Startup Environment: Mentoring aspiring changemakers - Khairul Rusydi

What's the definition of a startup? A startup is a human organisation that deals with uncertainty. It does not have a product, does not know who its customers are, and does not have a validated business model. The moment it has all three, it is no longer a startup.

For all youths entering the workforce, being able to survive a startup environment and its insane levels of uncertainty means being able to survive any challenging work environment and make better decisions.

Danger is real, but fear is a choice. You may recognise the dangers, but you know how to use mitigating plans to de-risk them and reach out to people who can help you. Along the way, tons of problems arise and hit you in the face. It’s how you respond that makes the difference.

The value of mentorship

Mentoring is central to what Reactor does. Currently we’re running a 6-month incubation programme with 20 youth startups called the Scape HubQuarters Fellowship. It culminates in a demo day when they demonstrate their products and what they've learnt to a panel of investors.

Mentorship is important because most people don't know what they don't know. When you're running a startup, there's just so much that you have to learn. It's impossible for you to master everything.

Something I’ve discovered along the way is that there are two dimensions to mentorship – function and industry. Functional mentorship relates to your day-to-day role. If you are a coder, meet up with CTOs or product managers and learn from their best practices. Industry mentorship helps you understand the business environment you operate in. If you're in F&B, learn from restaurateurs, chefs, front of house staff, distributors. When you cover both dimensions, you get a more holistic view of your profession.

People start companies thinking: I'm going to make tons of money, I'm going to have all the free time in the world. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Most people think mentoring is this formal process where you sit at a table with an older person. But a mentor is not necessarily a rockstar who is thirty years ahead of you. More often than not, I find that my mentors are peers at the same career stage who are more experienced or knowledgeable in a certain area.

Finding a mentor can be organic. You could meet at an event, or through a friend’s referral when you're looking for certain answers. There's a lot of talk as well about reverse mentoring, where someone younger teaches someone older.

It’s important to find a mentor whose values and belief system you admire. Also, I always say: Not all advice is equal. Context matters, because useful advice for a social media startup (Break things fast.) might be catastrophic for a med tech startup (which deals with life and death).

Double, double toil and trouble

Surviving a Startup Environment: Mentoring aspiring changemakers - Khairul Rusydi on his tablet

Running a startup gives you more time flexibility, but you also have to answer to investors, customers and clients. We don't have a 9-to-5 job. It's not really work-life balance, it's more like work-life integration.

There are people who start companies thinking: I'm going to make tons of money or I'm going to have all the free time in the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many serial entrepreneurs have had two, three startups fail before seeing maybe the fourth one succeed.

There were times when our company was close to being bankrupt. There were times when key clients cancelled on us, when we had to deal with major complaints. These have been stumbling blocks along the way.

Honestly, I still don't think we're stable. My mum still thinks that the company is going to fail. She says on a daily basis: Why did you leave a public service job? You could have been comfortable there.

The joys of running a startup

But working in a startup can be very rewarding. One of the most fulfulling things is when students write back to us and tell us about various projects they run. It give us the validation that students have applied what they learnt and are continuing to create impact.

Getting to build stuff from scratch, in and of itself, is a joy – whether it's building a new product, service, business model or community.

We've built new tech products like mobile apps. We’ve contributed to the Committee on the Future Economy. We’ve created a community of educators with around 380 teachers from around 80 schools, all interested in entrepreneurship and innovation. We're helping them transform their classrooms into classrooms of the future.

Millennials don't want bosses, we want leaders. We don't want managers, we want coaches.

We may work 24/7, but the good thing is you get to pick your battles and double down on the things you're good at. That gives you a tremendous space for professional and personal growth.

Compared to being in a large MNC or public service agency, I have more agility to try out new things and move faster. That being said, certain MNCs are becoming more and more startup-like, setting up innovation labs, for instance.

From doer-in-chief to head coach

In the initial stages, a startup founder is the doer-in-chief, drafting and creating with a black pen. As the company grows, you start to coach and guide others, editing with a red pen.

What drives young people nowadays is autonomy, mastery and purpose. And working in a startup or smaller company gives them the ability to effect greater change.

Being a good employer means giving them the space to grow, the chance to try new things. We’ve got to understand their aspirations and motivations, and help align their personal purpose with the needs of the organisation. How can the organisation contribute to their personal goals, and vice versa?

Millennials don't want bosses, we want leaders. We don't want managers, we want coaches.

As Reactor expands across ASEAN, I’m bringing onboard senior level hires who are older and more experienced than me, which means learning to deal with cross-cultural and intergenerational differences.

It’s an exciting new experience for me, and an important process for the company, because we believe that hiring people more experienced than us is the only way the company can grow.

For more millennial stories, visit the #LetsTalkMillennials page.

Surviving a Startup Environment: Mentoring aspiring changemakers - Khairul Rusydi being interviewed

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