Startups vs Corporations: What Uber, James Franco, and Corporate Incubators Can Teach us About Attracting and Retaining Young Talent

While working on a brief project at freelancing site oDesk in 2012, I remember thinking that anyone could find projects in this virtual workplace, exploring any interest in which they could prove proficiency. A year later, an oDesk study found that 72% of freelancers "moonlighting" after regular work hours said they would like to quit their job to be entirely independent.

It seems there is no way that large corporations can complete with the allure of working at a startup or being your own boss. Furthermore, young people are interested in learning as much as possible and applying it in new and different ways. They’re restless and impatient to advance—for their own selves, in their own ways—and do not stay at a company just because of stock options, non-compete contracts, or narrow paths for career advancement.

In order to attract and retain young talent, and establish a new mutually beneficial pact that can last years, companies can look for inspiration at these three paths:

1. Moonlight à la Uber
Last month, I rode with an UberX driver who was an IT developer at a large telecom. He was getting married soon and drove an Uber to make a few extra bucks on the side. Another driver was a stay-at-home dad who enjoyed driving his car and meeting new people. We can no longer expect that day jobs will fulfill every need employees have (from physical to emotional). By encouraging them to expand their horizons, make an extra buck, try new things, or simply change their scenery, companies can give their people a fresh perspective on their work, a mental outlet for them to grow, and ultimately, fewer reasons to leave. Money is less important to new employees than the chance to learn and express themselves in their workplace. Encouraging them to code for a startup, teach at a local college, or keep the books for a nonprofit, as part of their benefits, can make a big difference.

2. Expand your definition of talent à la James Franco
If you were a Finance major in college, chances are that you are still doing finance work now and will be doing it in the future. The same goes for graphic design, sociology, marketing, etc. But why have actors increasingly taken on more than just acting? Like many others, the talented, multifaceted James Franco went from a TV and movie actor to a director, producer, author, and now singer-songwriter, and even professor.

Unlike typical 9-to-5ers, artists aren’t usually bound by one employer and are allowed to redefine their talents by constantly trying new things. If each employee brings not only knowledge and a narrowly defined skill set, but also a plethora of experiences and raw talent, why not help them explore and develop abilities that can be used across the organization, rather than limiting them to the one silo into which they were hired? Cross-pollination and personal development can make exciting things happen when researchers start spending X% of their time working on marketing projects and vice versa, or when sales people work part-time with the new product development group.

3. Own the bridges à la Corporate Incubators
In 1999 Gary Hamel published his famous “Bringing Silicon Valley Inside” HBR paper, urging companies to foster entrepreneurial talent, mimicking what was making Silicon Valley thrive. This is more relevant than ever, making revamping corporate incubators / laboratories / garages a priority.

It’s time to resurrect what forward-thinking companies started doing in the mid-nineties by offering funding and time-off to employees to work on their winning ideas. In Hamel’s article he describes how in 1996 Royal Dutch/Shell developed their GameChangers process, giving “a small panel of freethinking employees the authority to allocate $20 million to rule-breaking, game-changing ideas submitted by their peers”. As the panel decided to move ideas through the stages, the innovator who submitted the idea received more funding, more days off to work on his or her project, and more coaching.

There are three key elements for making entrepreneurship real within firms: 1) opportunity/permission, 2) resources (including guidance and mentorship), and 3) above all, ownership. Instead of having employees put their energy into thinking of the venture they want to start, why don’t companies put forward a corporate incubator in which promising and vetted projects can spin off, giving the “founding” team a stake in its startup? So what if the venture fails? Let them come back wiser and more seasoned.

So, what is the recipe for hiring and retaining the best young talent out there? Let them freely explore many roles within your organization, encourage them to take second jobs in different fields, and give them an honest shot at being entrepreneurs. Sound risky and onerous? It is, but the ultimate reward can be pretty sweet as well.

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