This post started with a discussion I had with Bart de Witte about clickbait. And, to nobody’s surprise, it was also prompted by a post that I consider to be clickbait, even though I am still not entirely certain that it was meant to be. Frank Thelen – whose Wikipedia page describes him as “a German businessman, investor, and author” and co-founder of several startups – recently gave an interview, that blew up quite a bit among the German-speaking audience. The focus of the interview was Germany’s excruciatingly slow path to digital transformation and the radical change that is sorely needed to accelerate it. While the interview explored a variety of points, the soundbite that was shared on social media was Thelen’s statement on the need to teach entrepreneurship and to encourage an entrepreneurial mindset from an early age, which he chose to phrase by saying that “children need to start thinking like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos”. And if this is not clickbait, I don’t know what is.

Let it be clear that this is not a diss-piece directed at Frank Thelen, this is about communication and how deep we decide to go when telling a story. This is about layers and how intelligent we assume our audience to be.

My friends might have noticed that, shortly after reading the “Bezos&Musk” quote, I started sharing my own quotes with ridiculous examples of people children are supposed to think like and that, I’ll admit, was a bit of harmless fun, but there was a point I was trying to make. In a world that overwhelmingly favours soundbites to long, articulated pieces, we should be aware of the role models we pick.

entrepreneurship and role models

What makes a good role model?

I understand that Frank Thelen’s intention was to suggest that, to achieve successful entrepreneurship, young people should be able to consider successful entrepreneurs as role models. What I take issue with is the very concept of “success” and “achievement”. Are we still equating being immorally rich with being a successful entrepreneur, regardless of what individuals actually do to achieve that level of wealth? Moreover, when I hear Thelen say that “children should learn to think like Elon Musk”, what I actually hear is “just try to think yourself into the mindset of someone whose father owned shares in Zambian emerald mine and has been known to say things like ‘We were very wealthy. We had so much money at times we couldn’t even close our safe’”. (Source: https://www.businessinsider.co.za/elon-musk-sells-the-family-emeralds-in-new-york-2018-2)

And when I hear “children should learn to think like Jeff Bezos” what I actually hear is “just start a business and operate at a loss until you grab shares in all markets, derail the competition with business practices that grant you a monopoly which in any fair world should be a criminal offense, then top it off by treating your warehouse employees like cattle and denying them bathroom breaks”.

And I would like to ask both Thelen and the SMMs that selected and shared his unfortunate quotation: is this really the kind of generation we want to raise? One for which being born rich is a praise-worthy achievement, privilege is not to be taken into account when assessing someone’s lifework, and getting rich is a virtue per se, regardless of how shady someone’s path to wealth has been and how dire the consequences on other human beings and the planet? Are we really so starved for role models that we have to resort to a rich stoner who sends his car into space while running a company that makes no profits, and a cartoon supervillain? But there’s more to it than that: it is simply not true that “thinking like Elon Musk” will make you a rich and successful entrepreneur, unless you are born equally wealthy. Beyond any ethical judgment one may wish to pass, this is simply unhelpful advice. And, if we are hoping to communicate effectively, we should do better than offer advice that can be so effortlessly proven faulty.

How do we teach entrepreneurship?

And it’s not like I am discounting the idea that entrepreneurship should be taught in schools and from an early age. Quite the contrary: I have been working in this field for many years and know how difficult it is to bring fresh ideas into the German education system. Martina Neef is certainly the expert here. As founder and CEO of Rockitbiz, she is on a mission to make entrepreneurship a proper school subject. I really enjoyed working with RockItBiz in a Neukölln public school and supporting their project with this piece of visual storytelling:

In conclusion, I would like to offer a few alternative role models of my own.

If I had to share my own soundbites, with actual advice rather than humorous parodies, I would like to suggest that children should learn to think like Sana Afouaiz, a Maroccan woman who has yet to reach her thirties and is the founder of Womenpreneur Initiative, an organisation with a community of 10,000 across 20 countries, that aims to advance women’s place in the entrepreneurial scene, technology, innovation & society. Or maybe they should learn to think like Amel Saidane, the co-founder of Seedstars Tunisia – a tech startup building and acceleration company – and also the president of Tunisian Startups, as well as a management consultant specialising in business strategy & digital transformation. Or maybe they should think like Mona Itani, the founder of Riyada for Social Innovation, a Lebanese organisation that aims to provide youth with practice-based social entrepreneurship education.

You see the “problem” with these “soundbites”? From a strictly social-media-related point of view, the problem is that I can’t just drop the names and hope my audiences to associate them with a face and a brand: I have to add a few lines explaining who these people are, what they do, and what they could teach us about entrepreneurship. But where you might see the problem, I see the solution: I am encouraging you to google them. Because it would be immensely hypocritical of me to write a piece about how young people need to be taught to be more enterprising, and then blindly assume my audience to be too lazy to google a name, wouldn’t it? From a storytelling point of view, I’m also eschewing the obvious and offering actual advice. Something a bit more nuanced than “have you tried like… being rich?” 

What I am actually saying is: learn from the best. That goes for entrepreneurship as much as for anything else in life. Find the people who achieved something remarkable when all the odds were against them. (Incidentally, what do you think offers a better chance at storytelling, a rich boy growing into a rich man, or a young woman achieving success in a society that tries really hard to ban her from being an entrepreneur?).

Research them, even reach out to them, and find out how they did it. Because it is statistically possible that you, reading this blog post right now, you and your children or your children’s school friends won’t be able to follow in Elon Musk’s footsteps, since you lack the basic requirement of descending from a family of gemstone-mine-owners. And you are equally unlikely to follow in Bezos’ path because he has already grabbed the whole market and he is not likely to hand it back so you can be as successful as he is. And also because you might have moral qualms about violating your future employee’s fundamental human rights.

But you can follow in Saidane’s, Itani’s, and Afouaiz’ footsteps because the race they ran wasn’t fixed in their favour. And because their stories are accessible, their organisations available, some of them even make a point of tutoring and empowering others.

As communicators, we are often thought to focus on the form, on the exterior, on what sticks without requiring any effort from the audience. But I think we are running the risk of confusing communication with cheap advertising. Which has its place in the universe, don’t get me wrong, but should not be our go-to option when delivering messages that actually matter.