in middle school, Kinan Saleh watched the movie social network, The dramatic account of the early days of Facebook. He decided, then and there, that he would one day start his own business. “It was the first movie I saw that showed you can be young and still be the most successful person in the room,” he says. “I definitely emulated Mark Zuckerberg in some ways.”
In true Zuckerberg style, Saleh started a company out of his college room at the University of Pennsylvania. He raised $500,000 as he piled on to finals and then sold the company to Lyft in 2019, the year he graduated. Along the way, Saleh realized he needed a new paradigm. He no longer wanted to be like Zuckerberg, who by that time had become embroiled in a series of scandals. Many people loved Steve Jobs, but Jobs was dead, and reading his autobiography was as engaging as “reading a history book.” Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Bill Gates were alive, but their contributions to Silicon Valley already seemed like ancient history. Saleh wanted a hero to make history now.
Young people love to worship their ancestors. Jobs has been a Silicon Valley idol for decades, but to the next generation of startup founders, his legacy feels as old as Web 1.0. Boy geniuses like Zuckerberg and Evan Spiegel, who became billionaires when they were 25, are becoming unpopular. The same goes for tech oligarchs like Jeff Bezos. “We don’t look at these idiots,” says Mark Bagajian, 22, founder of a dating startup. “Just because you are a billionaire doesn’t mean you positively influence change.”
Instead, both Baghajian and Saleh now worship Elon Musk, whom they see as a billionaire on a moral mission. “He showed you can do the best thing for the world and reap the benefits at the same time,” said Saleh, who started watching videos of Musk when he was in college.
WIRED asked more than a dozen young startup founders between the ages of 15 and 30 for their inspiration. More than half of them brought musk. Others mentioned tech optimists like Sam Altman and Patrick Collison, who seem to believe technology can solve the world’s biggest problems, or philanthropists with lesser-known startups. None of them have read books on the history of Apple, Google, or Amazon. They said they were more inspired by forward-looking companies trying to solve the world’s biggest problems.
Olaf Sorenson, who has taught entrepreneurship at UCLA and UCLA, says his students tend to like people who “have been successful without selling out.” Some cite Seth Goldman — the founder of Honest Tea, who now chairs the Beyond Meat board — as one source of inspiration because he “focused his energy on investing in the business and supporting it with an ethical mission,” Sorenson says.
“This generation is looking at all the issues and trying to say, ‘How can we begin to be part of the solution to the problems that the older generation created for us? of The Wharton School of Business in Pennsylvania. Rosenkopf says she’s noticed in the past few years a shift in the way students talk about entrepreneurship — not just as a functional alternative to banking or consulting, but as a way to start businesses with a “much larger social perspective.”
For many young entrepreneurs, Musk is the prime example of this mindset. “Elon Musk is literally learning about the mistakes made by other generations,” says Bajajian, who read Musk’s biography of Ashley Vance in high school and has been a hero ever since. Bajajian says that while companies like Amazon and Apple have produced major innovations, Musk’s work with electric cars and solar power has been far more important.
Other young people have been inspired by the metaphor of a startup founder struggling his way to success. Someone mentioned that Musk was sleeping on the floor at Tesla headquarters, which they said showed strength. Some have also mentioned the story of Airbnb founder Brian Chesky, who maxed out his credit cards and lived on ramen noodles in the early days of starting the startup.
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