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

Listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or Simplecast

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.”


John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada's leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization's research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. His latest book is Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future, which explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don't live here but exert their influence from afar.

This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.