Dear People Ops:
How can a millennial-minded "older" candidate with 20+ business experience repackage herself to stay competitive in the startup world?
Ah, dear writer, you've hit on a very sensitive topic in the startup community. Ageism is everywhere, but tech seems to be the only place where those over 30 are frequently considered "too old." And, unlike in some industries where experience is viewed as a benefit, startups' fixation on "disruption" and "fresh ideas" means experience is often met with concern that a candidate can't or won't think outside the box. So, what can you do?
Be Clear On What You Want
It is easy to get caught up in the siren song of startups (mission driven!, flexible work hours!, be on the cutting edge!), without considering the downsides (long hours! immature leadership! that equity you took in exchange for a pay cut may be worth nothing!).
Always be intentional when changing jobs. Sit down and make a list of the top five things you're looking for in your next opportunity. You may realize startups won't give you any of them. On the other hand, if that list reaffirms your desire to jump into a startup, it'll boost your confidence and help you articulate how you're different.
Curate Your Brand
Startups love a candidate with a brand. Especially early-stage startups that need something to brag about in their next investor update. So make it easy for them by crafting a concise and compelling narrative around what you bring to the company. Your brand should be a genuine reflection of who you are, and demonstrate your passion and grit (believe me -- you'll need these to navigate the ups and downs of startup life).
Then, market yourself. A personal website is one option, as is a strong social media presence showcasing your expertise. Some strong suggestions on how to develop and build your personal brand can be found over at Entrepreneur.com.
Find The Right Startup
Despite what we imagine a startup founder looking like (19 year old Mark Zuckerberg come to mind?) a recent Harvard Business Review study found that "The average age at founding in our dataset was just over 31, and the median was 30. Today, of course, these founders are quite a bit older, with an average age just under 39, and a median of 38." This means you're likely to find a startup that doesn't view those over 30 as pariahs, and will value your experience. It may just require some legwork.
"Informational interviewing" is a fantastic way to learn more about startup culture and find the one right for you. The Muse just posted a great blog titled "Fact: No One Is Too Old to Go on Informational Interviews." And not only will that conversation help you find a startup that will value your unique background, it may make you more competitive during the interview process. From The Muse: "A conversation with someone on the inside—especially someone who knows how that department runs and what the hiring manager’s challenges are—may arm you with data that your competition simply will not have. This data could be mighty useful as you figure out how to approach and prepare for your interview." Challenge yourself to conduct five informational interviews each month, every month, to stay competitive and always be the first to know about new opportunities and changes in the industry.
Always Be Learning
This is a suggestion for everyone, but in particular anyone wanting to stay in tech as a long-term career or a late-career switch. A core tenet of tech is innovation (duh), and employers expect their teams to keep up on new developments. This might entail adopting new software, picking up a new skill, or simply keeping track of the latest trends in your industry. In my former role, I learned Quickbooks, got a graduate certificate in HR at night, and regularly read industry publications to stay up-to-date on FinTech. And there's a side benefit to all this: learning is rewarding and fun! #Nerd.
Start reading newsletters (like Dear People Ops!). Find continuing education courses. Remember informational interviewing mentioned above? It's a great way to stay up to date as well. Embracing the "life-long student" mentality will make you more competitive in any industry, but especially in startups.
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