On the first International Youth Day in 2000, the youth unemployment rate in Canada was about 12%.

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Twenty years later, as we reel from a global pandemic, it’s almost 30%.

On a day meant to recognize young people, it might not feel as though there’s much to celebrate. The COVID crisis has battered economies worldwide, and it’s hit youth especially hard. Graduating in a recession can have long-term impacts on the careers of young people, including slow wage growth and stunted progression up the ladder, as noted in a 2019 RBC Economics report.

But as we rebuild our economy, we’ll need the energy and creativity of young people to reimagine what’s possible.

In an RBC Disruptors podcast from September, 2019, we spoke with two 20-something entrepreneurs who pursued their own ambitions. They share how they dove headfirst into their ventures, while also navigating the barriers of being young entrepreneurs.

Not many young adults in Canada imagine themselves as the next Elon Musk: only 1.7% of the country’s entrepreneurs are under 30.

The Internet and record low interest rates have made entrepreneurship more accessible than ever, and yet the rate of young Canadians starting their own businesses has been relatively flat since the 1980s. The shine of the start-up world diminishes when placed in the context of rising student debt levels and unaffordable housing in major cities.

At our recent RBC Disruptors conversation, we heard from two 20-something CEOs who nevertheless joined this tiny minority—and haven’t looked back.

Braden Ream is the founder and CEO of VoiceFlow, a software platform making creative tools for voice interface designers building on Alexa and Google Home. Julia Kirouac is the founder and CEO of NudFud, a company producing sweet and savoury snacks with a focus on nutrition.

Ream and Kirouac shared 8 tips for starting your own business—and why your 20s might be the perfect time to do it.

1. Just Do It

When you’re young, you can dive in headfirst, full of energy and free of responsibilities. The risks are lower in your 20s—you can live on little, and people won’t judge you for gaps in your resume.

2. Don’t Focus on Your Age

Young entrepreneurs may struggle to be taken seriously. Ream suggests not bringing up your age—it’s not what’s important anyway. “You don’t want to be the best 22-year-old CEO in Canada; you want to be the best CEO, period.”

3. Ask Questions

On a fundraising trip to Silicon Valley, Ream was getting frustrated after dozens of rejections. When he started asking questions, he learned that his presentation wasn’t speaking to investors. People wanted to hear more about the voice tech market, and less about his particular product. He tailored his presentation—and started landing investors.

4. Find Mentors—plural

You’ll need go-to people for different things. (Don’t complain to your investors about your product’s failings!) Find someone who can giving you financing advice, someone else knowledgeable about your industry and someone else you can rant to when things aren’t going right.

5. Learn as You Go

Everyone fails—and it’s an important experience. Particularly if you lose money, it’ll be a lesson you don’t forget. “Failure teaches you how resilient you are. Either it’s going to break your spirit, or make you come back even stronger,” Kirouac said.

6. Be a Sniper, Not a Machine Gun

Starting a business will definitely be a grind, but you can maximize your output by staying focused: prioritize your time effectively, and work on the right things. As Ream put it: “You can either be a sniper or a machine gun.”

7. Take Care of Yourself

Self-care isn’t talked about enough among entrepreneurs. It can become a competition, how little sleep you’re getting by on. That’s going to catch up to you. Get a good night’s sleep, eat well, and lean on your network. “Don’t be an island, definitely reach out,” Kirouac said.

8. Pave the Way For Others

It can be tempting to move to the U.S. But every company that decides to stay in Canada, like Shopify has, paves the way for more success stories. According to Ream, “It may be tougher, but we can pay it forward to future generations of entrepreneurs.”


As Senior Vice-President, Office of the CEO, John advises the executive leadership on emerging trends in Canada’s economy, providing insights grounded in his travels across the country and around the world. His work focuses on technological change and innovation, examining how to successfully navigate the new economy so more people can thrive in the age of disruption. Prior to joining RBC, John spent nearly 25 years at the Globe and Mail, where he served as editor-in-chief, editor of Report on Business, and a foreign correspondent in New Delhi, India. Having interviewed a range of prominent world leaders and figures, including Vladimir Putin, Kofi Annan, and Benazir Bhutto, he possesses a deep understanding of national and international affairs. In the community, John serves as a Senior Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs, C.D. ‎Howe Institute and is a member of the advisory council for both the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute and the Canadian International Council. John is the author of four books: Out of Poverty, Timbit Nation, and Mass Disruption: Thirty Years on the Front Lines of a Media Revolution and Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future.

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