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Successful start-up founders offer advice for aspiring entrepreneurs: ‘Embrace what makes you different’

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The Junior Achievement Free Enterprise Center located in Greenwood Village, Colorado, is where high school students can explore careers and develop a plan to pursue their goals. The center aims to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship is a common goal for younger people.

More than half, or 54%, of Gen Z adults say that they think they’d be happier owning their own business than working a normal day job, according to WHNY News and SurveyMonkey’s new Workforce Survey. The survey polled 5,993 U.S. adults in the workforce in early April — including 770 Gen Z respondents age 27 and younger.

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“There’s a recipe for finding your path to purpose,” said Robin Wise, the president and CEO of Junior Achievement Rocky Mountain. “It’s seeing people do things that you might want to do. It’s knowing yourself.” 

In partnership with Junior Achievement, WHNY News brought together business leaders in the Denver area to speak with students about their journey in founding a company. Here are five key pieces of advice that they shared:

‘Embrace what makes you different’ 

Darian Simon co-founded the clothing company Be a Good Person in 2015 to inspire positivity. He advises young people to “embrace what makes you different.”

Simon was diagnosed with autism and ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, at age 28. Now 30, he said he rejects the “disorder” part of the diagnosis and embraces it as his superpower.

“My greatest strengths are my neurodivergence because I have less inhibitive space in my brain, therefore I can ideate better,” he said. “Therefore the box doesn’t really exist in the same ways.”

Value adaptability

Robin Thurston sold his digital fitness technology start-up to Under Armour for $150 million in 2013. He recently founded Outside Interactive, a network of media brands in endurance sports, the outdoors and healthy living.

He compares starting a business to going on a difficult hike and advises keeping that analogy in mind as you embark on the journey — you’ll need to embrace the unknown, recognize that things are unlikely to go according to plan and work through inevitable difficulties, he said.

“That’s what great entrepreneurs do,” Thurston said. “They’re resilient, and they work their way through those challenges.” 

Recognize challenges ‘as opportunities’

Camila Uzcategui co-founded Vitro3D, a company that uses 3D printing-like technology in advanced manufacturing spaces, in 2020. She said her background in physics and interest in experimenting with technology taught her the value of failure. 

“In all of those challenges, I like to see them as opportunities to either pivot into a potentially new direction or pivot into a better way of understanding something,” Uzcategui said.

Expect excellence from your team

Mowa Haile founded Sky Blue Builders, a construction company, during the Great Recession in 2009. He said it’s important to surround yourself with people who share your passion — and always expect excellence from them.  

“When you’re an entrepreneur and you have a team, you’re there to coach them and lead them and encourage them,” he said. 

Surround yourself with the right people

Lara Merriken founded Larabar, a company that makes vegan, gluten-free, plant-based bars, in 2000 after a career in social work.

“A lot of people were literally naysayers,” she recalled. “They were just like, why would you do this? Why would you get into a category that’s oversaturated?” 

She said that identifying and working with trusted confidants who were supportive and encouraging were critical to the company’s success. She sold Larabar to General Mills in 2008 for about $55 million. 

Another recipe for success is to learn from other entrepreneurs’ stories, Merriken said. “While we have our companies, we still need inspiration every day.”

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Chris Washington
Chris Washingtonhttps://whnynews.com
Chris Washington brings over 25 years of experience in financial journalism to WHNY News. A Schenectady native, Chris has a keen eye for business trends impacting upstate New York. His insightful reporting has earned him numerous accolades. Chris holds a degree in Economics from Syracuse University.
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