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Asheesh Advani: ‘Anybody can be an entrepreneur’

Asheesh Advani for the Ladder.

JA Europe

Asheesh Advani, 45, is president and chief executive officer of Junior Achievement Worldwide, one of the largest NGOs in the world, dedicated to educating young people about financial literacy, entrepreneurship and work-force readiness.

I was born in India and spent my first six years there. My father worked for IBM and applied for a transfer to Canada. We came as a family and settled in Toronto. I think the fact that I was born in India has always made me interested in global affairs. In my current role, I travel globally because we provide programs to students and young entrepreneurs in over 100 countries.

When I was in school, being an entrepreneur wasn't a popular thing to do. It was more popular to be interested in law and politics. I attended the University of Toronto Schools (UTS), and was naturally drawn to things which allowed me to do debate and public speaking in school. But I ended up doing some creative projects and programs like Junior Achievement, which got me interested in the idea of entrepreneurship.

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I believe anybody can be an entrepreneur. I genuinely believe that. In my current role, I see so many young people who may not have the natural skill set or risk profile to forgo a steady income, yet – either by necessity or by genuine desire about an idea – they pursue it. Particularly in Western Europe and in North America, being a social entrepreneur – someone who is building products and businesses to solve social problems – is not only popular but deeply motivating. Young people are gravitating towards social entrepreneurship.

When I was younger, I had a major stutter. When I moved from India to Canada, I literally couldn't get a sentence out without stuttering. So every Wednesday after school I went to speech therapy at the Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto. I did it for many years, and one of the exercises that the therapists made me practise was impromptu speaking. It made me focus on how you can change words very rapidly in your mind if you know you're going to stutter on the next word. I think that skill set has been so valuable to me over the years. In retrospect, I'm bizarrely happy I went through that experience.

I'm really excited about the ability we have to impact as many young people as we do. It's a very motivating, powerful thing. There is nothing more empowering than meeting young people who are building businesses and social enterprises. It gives you hope for the future and takes away any shred of pessimism that you have.

The way we think of jobs has been redefined. You may choose to do something entrepreneurial, fail at that – or succeed in a modest way – and then you'll still be hired elsewhere based on the skills that you bring to the table. And then you might get tired of that job, or just find something better. Hopping around with a portable skill set is the future.

One of the most critical skills that young people need for the work force of the future is learnability – the ability and willingness to learn new things. There will be so much change and many of the jobs of the future have not been created yet. For most people, the idea of a job for life is gone. The average young person today will have up to 20 jobs over the course of their career. I think this fact is underappreciated in today's education system.

I feel very Canadian. I think you can tell someone's true loyalty based on who they root for in the Olympics. I've been living in the U.S. for over 15 years now, but for winter Olympic hockey there is no doubt that my loyalties are Canadian.

My 11-year-old twin boys are very sporty. They play soccer on three teams and have games on both days of the weekend. So come what may, I'm home every weekend. One way to maintain work-life balance is to try to really be present when you're home.

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When I meet someone new, I like to ask about their family. I'm actually really interested in people's family life. You learn so much about a person by how they talk about their family. You learn about their values and can see their eyes light up when they talk about some element they're really proud of. So it's an important part of how I connect with people.

As told to Karl Moore. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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