Why Youth Day Should Be Celebrated

In 2004, Thomas Friedman of the NY Times wrote that when he was a child, his parents would admonish him: “Finish your dinner. There are kids starving in Africa and China and India.” Now, he wrote, “As a dad I’m tempted to say to my kids, ‘Finish your homework. People in Africa and China and India are starving for your job’.”

Youth will have its day: officially in South Africa it’s June 16, but the kids deserve more than 24 hours of fame. They’re driving huge business changes and we should take time to celebrate their innovative spirit. In a highly competitive world of me-too offerings, companies must be distinct or become extinct. Kids intuitively ‘get it’. The staid stay with the tried and tested. Kids go and change things, and often do it wonderfully. As Tom Peters puts it: “Be interesting, or be invisible.”

When one does a quick mental check of the most successful companies, even those that have endured over long period of time, one discovers that innovation and creativity have been a vital part of their success. In the modern world of the 21st century, it has become imperative. And the innovators of today are mostly not a bunch of old guys working in a laboratory for fifteen years perfecting a new product, but rather a loose group of young people experimenting and risking as they go along.

Novelty creates interest, the pre-condition for success by any product or service. The beneficiaries are consumers who find their needs have been anticipated in new and surprising ways. When young ideas catch on, they catch on big. For example, South Africa produces some of the best … youngsters like Ludwick Marishane, named the world’s best student entrepreneur by the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation. He’s the founder of HeadBoy Industries, a firm that commercialises promising innovations like the water-saving DryBath. Then there’s Adii Pienaar, a techie innovator who started his business without funding and rapidly built up revenues running into millions. And who can forget the stories of “older guys” Mark Shuttleworth and Elon Musk who achieved their success at a much younger age?

Just a few weeks ago, very few people had even heard of SnapChat, a smartphone app that allows users to share videos, photographs and images with their “friends,” but can also determine how long those images can be displayed, (usually from 1 to 10 seconds.) According to Snapchat, in May 2014, the app’s users were sending 700 million photos and videos per day, while it is estimated that there are currently about 40 million users – most of them under 20 years old. The developers and owners of the app graduated from Stanford University only recently. The real shock? Google offered US$4 billion on November 15, 2013 to acquire the company – and was rejected!

There are so many similar innovations that it’s hard to keep up. One of my favourites is what has now become known as “pop-up retail.” Avoiding the risky problem of excessively high rentals in shopping malls, young people create “shops” – some even made out of cardboard – which they transport to different locations daily. The products include fashionable clothing, various DVDs of movies, music and games, art, books, stationery, stuff for the home, and even food and drinks. This last one is intriguing and very successful because the “store” may move several times a day, and they tweet their customers (or use other social media,) to let them know exactly when the latest fresh delicacies will be in their area.

Similar examples using the power of the internet and social media include peer-to-peer (P2P) lending, (which replaces the typical banking model,) start-up funding using capital raised from many others, “crowdsourcing” the generation of new ideas for creative work like advertising slogans or solving programming/software issues, new ways to book accommodation that allows users to sleep in each others’ homes, finding an alternative to taxis by sharing a trip in a private car, and even co-owning a car with many other people, and using it like timeshare.

Telecoms ring the changes in many spheres. In Kenya, MPesa has rolled out a mobile phone-based money transfer and micro-financing service to 17 million users. (M for mobile, pesa is Swahili for money.)

Meanwhile, youthful collaboration has gone intercontinental, with movies, music and more being produced by collaborators located in different parts of the world. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos – positively old when compared to other internet moguls – announced recently that they were seriously looking at delivering customers’ order with model helicopters.
The possibilities seem endless, but the older generations don’t seem to understand it all, and/or are unwilling to take the risks that younger people do.

I personally find this new world of business and serving customers very exciting, albeit rather challenging to understand. Indeed, as Gary Hamel has so aptly put it, “The bottleneck is always at the top of the bottle. Where are you most likely to find people with the least diversity of experience, the largest investment in the past, and the greatest reverence for industry dogma? At the TOP!” When you look at the photographs of the boards of most companies, how many of them resemble their customers?

Young people dream better, innovate better, and believe in their potential. We should welcome their new weird ideas, and have the courage to challenge accepted business practice.

I hail the youth of today for making this all possible.


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