Many entrepreneurs have had to overcome challenges in early life. Few have encountered the kind of challenges faced by Jeremiah Emmanuel, the founder of EMNL, a consultancy firm that advises brands like Rolls Royce, Nike, and Virgin on how to engage with Gen Z, allowing young people to generate ideas, or solve problems within marketing, consumer output, and other campaigns. He recalls his early life, when he was frequently homeless with his mother and siblings, and being aggressively stopped and searched by police, and performing first aid at a house party on a boy who had been stabbed. "There was a period when I didn't believe I would live to see my 20th birthday," he says.
Fewer still have had the kind of exposure Jeremiah had had to billionaires and even royalty. Only 21 years old, today, he has advised the Gates Foundation and Richard Branson and is the youngest person from an ethnic minority to be named by Queen Elizabeth in the New Year's Honors list. Now, he has written a book, Dreaming in a Nightmare, with the ambition to act as "a guide to recognizing the nightmare -- and a blueprint for dreaming your way out of it".
I have collaborated with Jeremiah over the past couple of years, and the two of us sat down together, over Zoom, with a coffee, to talk about his advice for other entrepreneurs like him.
We start by discussing how selling snacks in his schoolyard offered lessons the school was not providing, lessons that might serve him well in later life. "It was a way for young people to provide for themselves," he says. "Entrepreneurship became a means for survival. I was proud of breaking even, but some of my peers were dreaming of mega-riches."
Jeremiah wants to challenge our understanding of the word business as meaning entrepreneurial spirit, motivation, and imagination. "It's about money, undoubtedly, but it's also about self-confidence, empowerment, initiative, and experimentation. It's something I believe we need to nurture more in young people, especially now. Forty percent of the global population is under the age of 25, the future of business starts now. When I went through the school system, business skills were never taught. To me and my peers, it seemed like this knowledge was never meant to reach us."
Lesson 1: Hustle
"I started my first-ever business at the age of 11. On my way to my very first day of secondary school, I bought a six-pack of double chocolate-chip muffins for £1, with the idea of selling them at the bargain price of 50p each at break time. If I sold them all, it would give me a tidy profit of £3. At lunchtime, after meeting some of my new classmates, I asked them if they were interested in my product. I managed to sell two muffins and ended up eating the others. The first business lesson I learned was an important one: Never eat your own product."
Even though he had only broken even, Jeremiah's entrepreneurial interests took root.
Lesson 2: Complete What You Start
"Following my failed snack initiatives, I continued to experiment. I set up a business washing cars every Saturday for £15. A little while later, another business opportunity appeared. A family friend asked if I would like to decorate a building he had recently rented. A little overexcited, I said yes, not realizing that the building was three stories tall and had dozens of rooms. I had believed I could complete the project within two days. Two months in and close to despair, I had to think of a new strategy. I began to invite my friends to come along and help, in return for pizza and snacks at the end of the day. We got there in the end but, needless to say, I was very glad when it was over. I learned the importance of not giving up. At times when I felt ready to give up on all of my ambitions, I was motivated by the fear of failure."
Lesson 3: Persevere
In his early teens, Jeremiah, who missed out on some schooling because of a brittle bone condition, worked within his local community, campaigning around several issues that affected young people with the Nelson Mandela School Foundation. In 2011, he was elected into the U.K. Youth Parliament, becoming an MYP, and later a young mayor within London. He also set up the Radio 1 Youth Council, made up of 11 16- to 24-year-olds from across the U.K., who advise the BBC.
"During my time with the Youth Council, I was told by a lot of people that I should take the project outside of the BBC and create a business. The idea was plain and simple. Companies and institutions across the country were failing to understand and reach young people. They were not looking to young people for answers--they were spending huge sums of money on market research and advertising campaigns. Despite my lack of knowledge, I started researching the leadership teams of big companies. It seemed like the easiest step would be to email CEOs and COOs to tell them about the work I had been doing at the BBC, to see if they would be interested in discussing a similar set-up within their own companies.
"I spent a few weeks slowly building up a database, carefully drafted an email listing my recent accomplishments and the achievements of the Youth Council, and personalized each one. When I had about 40 perfect emails in my drafts folder, I hit send and sat back, feeling pleased with myself. The next day I opened up my inbox, talking myself up in the way that you do when you're waiting for good news. Zero responses. Not even an acknowledgment email.
"I refused to be defeated. I knew my business idea was sound. While continuing my search, I'd come across the email address of the CEO of Rolls-Royce Holdings, Warren East. I'd decided not to send him an email, as I wasn't sure how much a multinational engineering company would care about young people. Still, it was worth a try. I spent a day or two researching the company and drafted a new email." This one hit the jackpot, and Rolls-Royce became one of Jeremiah's first clients.
Lesson 4: Define Your Niche
In 2016, the year Jeremiah founded his company, 663,615 other new businesses were registered across the U.K. In the same year, 328,000 British businesses collapsed. As a young entrepreneur, Jeremiah understood that we buy from companies we trust. And that we trust them because they're specialists. He knew that many global corporations wanted to understand Gen Z, and he had a hunch that few consultancies would be better placed than one founded by a 16-year-old.
"More than anything, I knew that young people were the foundation of our work and our reason for being. That meant providing a platform for young voices was our primary goal, but we also had to find a way to ensure that these voices would be heard and understood.
"We created a reverse mentoring program in which senior staff members were advised by trained company contacts or junior staff members and interns, allowing space for fresh perspectives and new ideas to flourish. Of the three core practices, reverse-mentoring has proved the most popular and most successful; our network of reverse-mentors now includes schools, charities, companies, and youth groups from across the U.K.
"One of the first organizations we worked with was the Queen's Commonwealth Trust, the Queen's social charity, established to champion, connect, and fund young leaders who are 'working hard to change the world.' The charity was already doing some extraordinary work but wanted to learn more about what a new generation felt about the social and environmental issues that affect (and divide) the world today."
Lesson 5: Give Back
As the founders of many successful startups understand, now more than ever, customers are drawn to businesses that give back. For Jeremiah, acting on what matters most to him as the founder and articulating his company's values are not only good for business--they are a matter of pride.
"If I hadn't pushed through and set up my company, Rolls-Royce may not have improved their engagement with prospective employees from BAME backgrounds. Nor would Nike global footwear execs from Portland, Oregon, have had the opportunity to take part in a speed-dating session with youths from London's inner-city communities, and gain authentic insight into their largest consumer demographic in the U.K. Business, at its best, is all about helping people, and I make sure that my business helps the people who are important to me.
"Many of my friends from school were not thugs, criminals, or predators -- they were simply young people who had limited options and enough strength in their unity to make money and wield influence. And now we had a chance to keep the door open for them. We started writing up a list and scribbled a title at its top -- The Hidden Alumni -- a small part of an entire wave of disenfranchised young people who we thought we could help. If there is anything I've learned about business, it's this: Make sure you give as much as you get."
Dreaming in a Nightmare tells Jeremiah's unique story. But this book is more than a memoir. "This is for young people everywhere who want to have hope and want to get out of their situations," says Jeremiah. "Anyone can relate to the stories I share. This is for all of us."