imagesAge and experience give entrepreneurs and salespeople a competitive edge.

If you remember the year 2000 (Y2K) and the fear that the Internet would crash—and take the global economy with it—then you will probably recall this: The people who were recruited to ensure we didn’t have a technology apocalypse were the recently retired, older techies who knew COBOL. (Yes, I know it was more complicated than that, but you get the point.)

There is something to be said for age and experience. There are savvy 20-somethings, just as there are savvy Gen Xers and Boomers. I marvel at the drive, creativity, and brilliance of Gen Y, but older generations have the wisdom and judgment that come from decades of experience with success and failure, loving and losing, constantly learning and innovating, and simply observing how the world works. And in both sales and entrepreneurship, those experiences can be major assets.

Don’t Believe the Hype

Contrary to popular belief, most of the wildly successful entrepreneurs in recent history were not flip-flop-wearing college dropouts working out of their parents’ garages. They were creative, well-educated professionals with decades of work experience under their belts.

World-renowned business professor Vivek Wadhwa, in his Entrepreneur article, “Why middle-aged entrepreneurs will be critical to the next trillion-dollar business,” says we must get rid of the stereotypes and focus on the wisdom of older entrepreneurs. He writes:

Steve Jobs was 52 when he announced the iPhone. That was in 2007. Years later, the Apple cofounder introduced the MacBook Air, App Store, and iPad. Tim Cook, who was 51 when he took over from Jobs, is building on his legacy. They both shattered a myth that the young rule the technology industry.

Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists, however, speak openly of their bias toward the young.

“People under 35 are the people who make change happen; people over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas,” Vinod Khosla, a prominent investor, said at a conference I attended.

Referring to the age of entrepreneurs whom venture capitalists fund, investor Paul Graham told the New York Times, “The cutoff in investors’ heads is 32; after 32, they start to be a little skeptical.” He acknowledged that he could be “tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg.” Others go so far as to claim that Internet entrepreneurs peak at age 25.

The cult of youth is so powerful that billionaire Peter Thiel announced in September 2010 that he would pay college students $100,000 to drop out. Instead of “wasting” precious years in school and then being burdened by “incredible amounts of debt,” he said, they could be “focused on breakthrough technologies that will take civilization to the next level.”

The result of this bias is that older entrepreneurs are often shunned while younger entrepreneurs receive attention and funding. This is hurting the venture-capital system as well as Silicon Valley — because the stereotypes are flawed. (Read the rest of the article.)

What This Means for Sales

The same logic applies in sales (or most any other profession, for that matter). Stop judging people by age, experience, dress, gender, and country of origin. Everyone has biases of some kind. Biases are not easy to get rid of, but when we’re aware of them, we can remind ourselves that everyone deserves a chance to prove his or her worth. Hiring managers, especially, need to be alert.

Much has been written lately about the attributes of exceptional salespeople. Willingness to learn tops the list, and it’s a quality that spans generations. People are either hungry for learning…or they’re not.

I have friends and colleagues ranging from teenagers to people in their 90s. I learn from all of them. What about you?

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