When someone I respect suggested to me that I write a piece as a tribute to Jake Millar, my first thought was “not me”. After all, there are so many others who were much closer to Jake, who were true friends as opposed to friendly associates.
But when I thought on it some more, I changed my mind. Given what I do and what we do at Young Enterprise to encourage young people to become entrepreneurs, I felt it was my duty and responsibility to talk about this tragedy. If even just one more person takes their life because of the pressure they get from being a founder, from following a path I encouraged them to take, then it will be one death too many.
I didn’t personally meet Jake when he was a YES student. He didn’t do any of our extreme experiences nor did he make it to Nationals. But from what he and others have told me, YES made an impression on his life. Jake reached out to me about 6 months after he graduated, and I remember sitting in a café in Parnell with him for about 2 hours as he told me excitedly about his plans for his first venture – Oompher.
Jake was always a passionate YES alumnus. He didn’t just keep in touch with me, but he regularly looked at how he could give back and help the next generation coming through. In the first few years, I talked to him regularly. But like many relationships in life, over the years we connected less and less. And my last correspondence with Jake was in late February, just as all the nasty publicity was really starting. But if we were honest, the attacks on Jake didn’t just start with the failure of Unfiltered. It started well before then – back when he was a big success. But the attacks were much more subtle. And they were a classic case of Tall Poppy Syndrome.
So, after shedding more than a few tears, I’ve started to reflect on how we as a society can prevent this kind of tragedy from happening. I’ve broken down my thoughts into two areas:
First would be to prepare young people who are going down this path. We talk about the glamour and the glory of being an entrepreneur, of being a founder. And there are some great things about it. But it is hard work. And it’s lonely. And if you are successful, or “overly confident”, or run to your own rhythm then you open yourself up to criticism. We talk about building resilience, but do we really? So maybe moving forward we need to be more honest about both the good and bad of this path. Let’s not scare young people off, but let’s not sugar-coat the challenges that they will face.
Second would be to make sure that they know the importance of having a good support network around them, and that they nurture those relationships to help them through the good and the bad times. Another YES alumnus wrote to me after Jake’s death who said he felt lucky to have a support system of many people who he knew were always just an email or phone call away. I know Jake had a good network, but could one or two more have helped? And what about those who don’t have a network at all? Do those of us in the eco-system have a responsibility to offer to be that network for those who don’t have the courage to ask?
But it’s not just the responsibility of those who choose entrepreneurship as a pathway to brace themselves for the tough times – it’s the responsibility of all of us to support them, to lift them up rather than tear them down.
Looking back, I did see the Tall Poppy syndrome playing out when people talked about Jake during his successful times. But the really ugly monster came to life when he had a very public failure with Unfiltered. Don’t get me wrong – Jake wasn’t perfect. None of us are. But we are regularly telling our YES students, our aspiring entrepreneurs that failure is the “first attempt in learning” and that if you never fail, you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough.
There’s been a lot of commentary about the role the media has played in Jake’s death and don’t get me wrong, I agree that we need to shift the dial so that we don’t have the kind of media beat-ups that Jake experienced. But I’m not a journalist, so my thought goes to what I could have personally done.
An amazing associate of mine in the eco-system also wrote to me after Jake’s death and said that she needed to change to “call this pack behaviour out more”. That really hit me hard as I think back, and I was a silent contributor to what was happening.
At the time, I thought it was OTT the commentary. But I didn’t use my voice to publicly provide a different perspective to those that were making the negative statements, creating the clickbait, jumping on the bandwagon to be part of the pack. Would things be different today if, for every critical article or comment, 100 of us countered with a positive story or reflection? Talking about how amazing Jake was. How brave he was. How we’ve all made mistakes and that it’s OK.
I also didn’t do enough to reach out to Jake to see if he was OK. I sent him a cursory note after he was already in Kenya, but once I got a polite and “all is ok” email back I didn’t give it a second thought. That’s not good enough and I wish I could apologise to Jake now. For not reaching out enough. For not publicly having his back.
I know that this is a societal issue, and I can’t change how society acts and behaves. But I can change my own behaviour both in how I encourage young people to take the path of entrepreneurship and how I support them in that journey. And my request of anyone who has taken the time to read this is to join me in this journey. If we create a chorus of support and encouragement for those who dare to dream, our voices will naturally drown out those who look to cut down the tall poppies amongst us.
That will be our legacy to Jake. I’m just sorry that for this amazing, talented, passionate young man that it’s too late.
Let’s do better!
- Terry Shubkin.