The impudence of youth

27 Sep

I’ve always been a bit paranoid about looking younger than I actually am and hence not being taken seriously*. In the pharmaceutical industry that’s a bit of a problem when most of the executives at networking events are middle-aged guys with grey hair.

My first ever pharmaceutical networking event was, rather amusingly, called “the Networking Event for Senior Executives in the Pharmaceutical Industry”. I was 25 had just joined the consultancy company and I believe our CEO was unable to attend, so I went instead with another senior colleague from the company.

When I arrived I did feel somewhat of a fraud. I thought everyone must think I was the work experience kid. “Yeah, sure I’m a senior executive – I’ve been in consulting for 3 whole months”. I figured I was more likely to be asked for Nintendo recommendations for their kids. I didn’t even have a suit at the time, so in a sea of dark suits I rather stood out without a suit jacket. To get around this awkwardness I sat though the entire presentation with my grey overcoat on, which kinda looked like a suit jacket. Yeah, that was a toasty presentation.

A few years later, after I had become a seriously senior executive in the pharmaceutical industry, I was due to give a talk about some research I’d done at the Licensing Executive Society Annual Meeting in Chicago. I arrived early so I went along to the pre-conference registration dressed in jeans and t-shirt to pick up my badge and info. I told the registration ladies my name and they spent a while looking for my name card in the boxes. Eventually they asked, “You’re not a speaker are you?” When I replied that I was in fact a speaker, there was much laughter: “What, you can’t be speaker – you look far too young! Mwahaha! How old are you anyway?”

So, whilst I could see the funny side, that episode didn’t really do much to dispel my paranoia.

Today at SBS we had the first day of the financial careers bootcamp. One of the presenters reeled off the list of jobs he had had since he graduated from business school. It was the most amazing list of positions in investment banking-type positions – almost all at a very senior level. In fact it was so amazing that there was some subdued laughter around the lecture theatre as we realised just how ridiculously  badass this guy’s career was. What also got some of us was that this guy looked really quite young – maybe around 40. Amazing! (I also note that this guy was the only presenter not to wear a tie. Proof, surely, that when you are that successful you can wear whatever the hell you want!).

This leads to the flip-side of the age paranoia – the jealously of successful young people! I remember being quite amazed back in 2007 when Andrew Witty (43) and Severin Schwan (40) were appointed CEOs of GlaxoSmithKline and Roche, respectively. CEO of one of the world’s biggest pharma companies at 40!

If I look at the Internet technology space it is even more painful. The space is littered with dot-com millionaires who made it in their twenties (Consequently, this is a much more comfortable, and fun, space in which to network).

My colleagues and I used to sometimes look up other executives we’d met on LinkedIn and try and gauge how old they were by when they went to university so we could compare our own progress to theirs. I’m getting to the age where I’m creeping up on some senior biotech executives. So maybe I’m feeling too old now – I’ve got some making up to do!

Ironically, one of my classmates just sent me a link to an interesting looking ideas incubator but it’s only for people under 30. So I spent all the time worrying about being too young and now I’ve missed the “young entrepreneur” boat!

I like to think now my real age now is actually 26+PhD. I know those other 4 years were useful – after all I get to put Dr on my credit cards, people go “ooh” when I tell them about it, and my knowledge of chromosome segregation in fission yeast is not to be sniffed at!

The average age of the SBS class is about 29, which means there are some seriously smart young folk in the class. I think the youngest is about 23! So I can now put the age paranoia aside (I’m starting to look my age now anyway) and look forward to learning from some of these young whippersnappers!

*there are many reasons to not take me seriously. My appearance is just one of them.

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