I have grey hair. Can I work in a startup?

Illustration: Cristie Marie

Are startups a closed club where only young people can be members? Or are more mature professionals, with or without grey hair, also accepted?

Some time ago, I went to an outplacement company to give a lecture on how innovation changes professions and functions, based on the fact that we are experiencing social, behavioral and technological changes. And there they were, several executives, former directors, presidents, very senior level professionals, sometimes called C-level. In my lectures I talk about how new technologies (disruptive innovations or not) change professions, roles, functions, responsibilities, behaviors, and companies. Some companies perceive this more, others less. I throw this thought there, to stimulate the perception of the external environment, and to incentivize people to acquire more knowledge so that to improve their employability. I talk about startups, their business models, new configurations, connections, etc. Many questions came up during that particular lecture, it was very inspiring for me, as it usually is. But on that day, in special, one of the five or six people that approached me at the end of my speech called attention asking me point-blank: 

“I have grey hair. What can I do to work in a startup?”

In fact, he had grey hair practically all over his head. But the correlation of the two events, grey hair with startup, had never occurred to me, it took me by surprise… and this question often comes to my head (this one also has grey hair, but this fact is beside the point). So, I decided to share in this space here what I said that day and the thoughts I put on it, with more reflections, over time.

“Look, you should be updated to the point that those working at startups won’t realize that you have grey hair.”

Well, that was my answer, or something like that, what occurred to me at that moment, that I was taken aback.

After some time thinking more about the topic, I came to the conclusion that the question makes lots of sense. There are expectations from both sides, startups and experienced professionals, older, with or without grey hair. A very simplistic possibility would be just: “dye your hair a dark shade;” and case closed. But such “solution” does not address the real dilemma.

I have heard a few times from young people hiring at startups something like: “he/she costs too much” or “he/she doesn’t know what I need” or “I need dynamism here;” such prejudices exist, not in all cases, but in some. The same way, sometimes senior professionals have thoughts like: “young people want everything fast, do not stop to think.” Perhaps the two sides are right, or perhaps the two sides are not right, or perhaps the answer is in between…

To minimize this gap in perceptions, I believe that we must, I mean all of us, update ourselves, given that the change in our surroundings is constant and do affects us. The scenarios are very volatile, generating a lot of new data, information and knowledge. The mechanism of survival and employability occurs through the acquisition of formal (in courses) or informal (in practical experience and relationships) knowledge, performing a self-reflection of behaviors and defining action plans to transform oneself.

This way, the color of your hair will be irrelevant. If there is a prejudice because of the color of your hair, at first, it should be overcome in a second or third moment, after knowing more about you. And the important thing will be how you can contribute. If the potential startup contractor still looks at your hair color and not your values, skills and knowledge, thank for not working there. You would be the one not wanting to.