Ray Gillenwater isn't crazy for quitting a job where he earned $500,000 a year. He's just a millennial.
Like others of his young, wide-eyed generation--those born between 1980 and 2000--work isn't just about a paycheck. It's also about making a difference in the world, says the now 29-year-old, who left his job at BlackBerry two years ago to launch a startup.
"I look at what motivates me in a role as three main components," says Gillenwater, who co-founded the San Francisco-based SpeakUp last year to help foster positive communication and collaboration in the workplace. "I have to feel like I'm making some sort of tangible impact; that I'll be spending the majority of my waking hours on this mission to accomplish these things for this company, whether it's my own or someone else's. Because if I'm not, I feel like I'm wasting my time."
Of course, his choice to quit his day job wasn't easy. In 2007, when Gillenwater started at BlackBerry, his new boss told him if he performed well over the next few years, he could get placed anywhere in the world he wanted. That's exactly what happened: After almost three record-setting years in regional sales, Gillenwater moved to Singapore, where he was able to expand BlackBerry's annual revenue from $30 million to $1 billion in 18 months, the fastest growth in company history, he says. A year in, he took his boss's job, managing distribution across Southeast Asia--but that only lasted eight months, he says, because he was promoted again to director of the Philippines. And eight months after that, he earned a double promotion, becoming managing director of Australia and New Zealand. He quit only four months later.
Even Gillenwater thinks his rapid ascent was unreal. "A lot of the time, it felt almost unwarranted. It almost felt like I was just getting lucky," he says. But this isn't a story about how to rise quickly in the corporate world (brutal honesty and good old-fashioned hard work, Gillenwater says). It's about why a man who lived in a four-bedroom condo with a view of the Marina Bay in Singapore and a three-bedroom condo in Australia overlooking the Sydney Opera House would willingly leave that all behind.
Psychologists say it's because this generation is so incessantly optimistic and idealistic. (Though, of course, you could argue that every generation starts out the same way.) As journalist Abby Ellin phrased it in a March 2014 Psychology Today article: "Millennials are simply trying to do better."
Other startup watchers suggest it has more to do with young people having fewer attachments than older entrepreneurs. In other words, they can risk launching even when three in four startups fail--because they don't have a mortgage to pay or little mouths to feed. "A 20-year-old versus a 50-year-old has less financial risk," says Chris Heivly, managing director at The Startup Factory, an accelerator in North Carolina. "So if I get a mortgage, two car payments, a couple kids, the financial risk of maybe not taking a salary for a year to do my startup is a much heavier burden than a 20-year-old who probably has a few grand stashed away."
Some of it, according to Heivly, is a symptom of the entrepreneurial spirit. "The other part of why he did this is because he has to," he says. "There's not a choice. It was bubbling in him and he's got to go do this. And whether that's the desire to captain your own ship, to have the entire burden of the company on your shoulders, some of us enjoy that. I want to take this blank sheet of paper and make something amazing out of it."
That's something Adam Herscher, 33, understands all too well. At Microsoft, which paid him a handsome salary of $250,000 a year until he quit in April 2014, Herscher kept noticing disconnects between product development and customer experience. Developers in Seattle never really communicated directly with customer service representatives in Manila. His friend in software engineering, Sean Andersen, noticed the same thing. But where some would have tried to fix the problem from within, the two men saw a broader market. Their startup, HasMetrics, was born.
The story of SpeakUp is similar. The higher Gillenwater rose at BlackBerry, the more he found his title was ostracizing. "When I first went into my role as managing director in Australia, part of the team was nervous to talk to me--and they didn't even know me. It was just based on my title and the power that I had over their careers," he says. This was problematic. As a manager, Gillenwater needed as much feedback as possible to make an educated decision. He reached out to people he trusted, sharing the idea of software that could capture and curate employee input, and it particularly resonated with his eventual co-founder, Keith Barney.
In the end, passion outweighs the paycheck--particularly in the absence of risk. Leaping from a $250,000 salary to bootstrapping your own business is, of course, risky--or as Herscher says, "Irrationally so." But to him, it's the mindset that's risky, not the action itself. In other words, if you think something is dangerous, it'll feel dangerous. After all, even the most seasoned entrepreneurs experience failure along the way to success. Herscher suggests that starting up is more of an emotional risk--and, he says, that's where millennials thrive.