The International Entrepreneur – Young CEOs: Overcoming Age Discrimination in Global Markets

In countries like Australia and the United States, entrepreneurial success can come at any age. But many business cultures associate age with experience and responsibility. This week’s question is: how does a successful entrepreneur bridge the age gap and be taken seriously in international markets?

World renowned business culture expert, Fons Trompenaars describes how cultures assign status as being some mix of Achievement and Ascription. Some cultures (ex. Sweden, New Zealand) see status as something that is earned through a person’s actions. If an entrepreneur is successful financially, then they have a higher status in business culture. Now many cultures assign status based on other factors, such as age, gender, family name, or the university a person attended. For instance, France and Japan both assign great importance to the university a person attended. Parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America generally give men a greater status than women. Asian cultures often assign status based on a person’s age. For instance, in Thailand you may be asked your age. This determines who is younger and needs to greet the other first. As a young entrepreneur you may encounter age discrimination in international markets. Rather than to just ignore lucrative markets, here are some ways to combat this issue:

Ignore Age Discrimination

For minor infringements, I highly suggest ignoring slights and other insignificant references to your age. The thinking is that this is not your issue, but an issue relying on ignorance that a younger person can be successful. Your actions as CEO can speak volumes about your competency and challenge other peoples’ assumptions that a young person cannot be successful without decades of experience.

Seek Out Contemporaries

Oftentimes your company will be looking for partners in international markets. There may be several choices of with whom you partner for a given market. You can always choose the most globally-minded company – one that would be less likely to question your leadership abilities based on age. A word of caution on partner selection: choosing a partner based solely on what makes you comfortable as a CEO may ignore other important compatibility criteria. Seek out the larger picture when building relationships.

Give Them an Older Leader

If the interaction with a given foreign partner or customer will be very limited, you can elevate an older manager to take lead in a negotiation. This may sound crazy, but I have heard of situations where this has work.  I only recommend doing this when the deal at hand is very important and age discrimination is already evident. By setting up one of your older staff members as lead, it could make your counterpart/client feel more comfortable in a shorter amount of time and with less effort. Be sure to give an honorary title to this new lead since business cultures that assign status based on age also assign more importance to a person’s title.

If you have questions about age ascription, please comment below!