They're bright, they're driven, they've achieved considerable success and they're still in their 20s.
Beyond the youthful faces, the Los Angeles twentysomethings share several traits with their predecessors. They have an incredible drive, single-minded focus, a willingness to sacrifice everything else in their lives, and an unshakable confidence in their skills.
The Business Journal recently brought together several notable up-and-comers. The group was made up of Vince Arena, 28, an investment banker at Jefferies & Co.; Bassil Dahiyat, 28, co-founder and president of biotech firm Xencor; Erik Kellener, 29, head of technology at Hollywood Online; Deborah La Franchi, 29, assistant deputy mayor of economic development for the city of Los Angeles; Jamie LeFrak, 25, project manager at TrizecHahn Development Corp.; and Danielle Perez, 22, owner of fashion design company 7 and 7 Inc.
Q: Let's start off with the obvious question. How big an issue is age? Is it a major factor in your business dealings?
LeFrak: It may be less so for me than for those in other industries, because in an entrepreneurial business there is generally less expectation of age. But in the deals, things are not sealed until the CEO shakes the other CEO's hand. And both CEOs generally have gray hair.
Kellener: It's a little more common to see someone my age at this level in technology, but it is still a challenge. There is always someone in the room who will say, "Well, he may be bright, but he's just a kid. Does he really understand the business?" One thing that has helped immensely is that I started off early. At 18, I visited the heads of Wells Fargo and AT & T; on projects. So I learned not to be intimidated, and they grew more accustomed to seeing someone young in their offices.
La Franchi: I had an interesting experience two years ago. I pulled together the heads of several departments to discuss streamlining issues in City Hall. When I went into the meeting I was chairing, I realized not only were they all men, they were all over 50. It was quite a realization. I knew I had to step up to the plate, and prove I was serious. It's a challenge I have to confront regularly, and I have to fill some pretty big shoes. If you can't, then you don't cut it.
Perez: There are a lot of young people in the fashion business, but the age thing comes from my suppliers. You can be any age to be creative. The business part is hard, especially when dealing with the textile firms. You have to go in and be ballsy. I tell them what I want, and tell them, "Don't try to change the price just because I'm young."
Q: At your age, most people are still trying to determine what they want out of life. Who got you so focused so young?
Perez: I come from a single-parent home, and my mother was really driven to keep everything going. Then I lost my brother, which was tragic, but made me focus. I could either fall out and do drugs with my friends, or take all of my energy and do something that he would be proud of me for.
LeFrak: For me, it's more of a behavioral neurosis. I hear that voice of my father or grandfather at 6 on a Saturday morning saying, "Wake up, you're sleeping your life away." That voice drives you forever. Maybe it's genetic, since all young successful people seem to have this bug up our butts in common. You can't just go surfing.
Dahiyat: Same for me. My parents immigrated here, and they just constantly worked. They'd come home from their work, and then they'd do their part-time jobs. That kind of ethic drove me through high school, then college, then graduate school. I don't know how to let up.
La Franchi: My family owned a small grocery store, and the whole family worked there. It was just a very work-oriented family, and that theme continued to play out for everyone in my family.
Q: It's always hard to analyze yourself, but you all have accomplished quite a bit for your age. Do you feel that you stand out among your peers?
Arena: Investment banking is most definitely a career in which you pay dues. I very much feel like an employee at this point rather than an employer. For my level, I'm as advanced as anyone I know. I have some great friends who I think are excellent bankers as well. I try to judge myself against them and keep one step ahead. That's been my goal as far as advancing as quickly as possible in this business. I've laid 10 years of groundwork, and have five years to go as far as where I want to ultimately go.
Perez: What I do takes an enormous amount of risk-taking. You can't just travel a straight line, because if you do, that's where people fall out of competition. I feel that I totally have learned as I go along, but I'm willing to roll up my sleeves, get to work, and take chances.
Q: Do feel that you have room to make mistakes in your work? After all, you're all still learning.
LeFrak: When you're older, you're not able to take the same kind of risks that people can take when you're younger. You may end up at square one, but how far away were you from that to begin with? It's not like you have a mortgage or (children's) tuition to pay.
Perez: I probably shipped a whole season that was totally unwearable, so that was a major learning experience. Usually I'm very hard on myself. I don't accept mistakes very easily.
Arena: I don't think about screwing up. You just concentrate and you don't make mistakes. If you don't know the answer, you're in the office until 5 in the morning making sure you have the right answer. You just do that.
Dahiyat: It's funny you say that. In biotech, we don't know if there is an answer. We spend years investigating an issue, hope we're on the right track. If we are, great. If we can't, then it's back to the drawing board.
Kellener: You have to own up to your mistakes and reflect on yourself, which is really hard to do at a younger age. A lot of younger people sometimes don't want to admit they're human. But the longer you're in it, the better you get at least one would hope.
Q: So how bad are the hours, really?
Arena: My job has been everything since 1992. I don't go to sports events, I don't date, I don't do anything but go to work. I know how to get to the airport from almost anywhere in town, but I don't know where major streets like La Brea are without a map. For the first year in my apartment, there was nothing on my walls. You get used to it.
La Franchi: My hours go up and down depending on what political problem is at the forefront. Tax reform is obviously a major issue, so I've been leaving the office really late and working the entire weekend recently. Other times are much better.
Perez: My hours are long, but I love it so much it's not hard. I'm fortunate that I can go to concerts, go people watching and see what people are wearing. That's working for me. But there is no room for relationships. It's all about you and your job. Friendships come later, unfortunately.
Dahiyat: I think I get most of my real work done on the weekends, since I spend most of the week putting out fires. It's only on the weekend that I can work on my business plan and line up my calls.
Q: Is not being able to leave your work behind at the office a common problem?
Kellener: Absolutely, but sometimes it works to your advantage. I go to sleep Friday night with a problem still in my mind, and I wake up Saturday morning with the solution emerging. I look at it as quality sleep time.
La Franchi: I spent a whole night dreaming about tax reform last week.
Arena: Some problem with a deal that I hadn't even identified before hit me in the shower last week. It's pretty scary that your brain is working on things and you're not even aware of it.
Q: What kind of free time do your schedules leave you?
La Franchi: I came home one Saturday night a while ago, and sat on the couch. All I could think was that I should really be doing something right now rather than taking five minutes of personal time.
Dahiyat: My wife is very adamant that we take one week completely off every year. That thought is just completely alien to me. I did do it for our honeymoon, though.
Kellener: Free time gets squeezed to the point that you have to choose either between a social life or sleep. But there are important things outside of work. You have to at least try and stay balanced.
Q: What were the college years like for you?
Dahiyat: Mine were relentless. I went to Johns Hopkins in bioengineering. I think I went to one party a year, maybe. If I had to meet my wife at a party, it just wouldn't have happened. Grad school at Caltech was even more intense. Biotech is such a technical field that you have many years of things to learn before you can do anything. It's eight or nine years straight through before you get to do what you want.
LeFrak: I had a lot of fun. I could party a lot, because when you're 19 you can bounce back after two hours sleep. In a sense, college seemed frivolous to me. Just getting to go to school and study things for no reason was fun. I loved doing that.
La Franchi: I was juggling a hundred balls, but I wasn't in a lab 24 hours a day. I was on the tennis team, I had internships. Having a social outlet was also very important to me.
Perez: School didn't do much for me. I didn't learn anything. I had to go out and do it myself. Everyone is different, and everyone learns in different ways.
Q: Despite the intense hours, do you genuinely enjoy what you do?
Arena: The two things my parents taught me were to put off gratification and work hard for something, and to only do something you love. They didn't know what an investment banker was, they don't know much about college, to tell you the truth. But that was the best advice.
Kellener: I remember my mother telling me, "Do what you love, and you'll never work a day in your life." It's true. I do work a lot of hours, but I love it. That's what keeps me going and makes me wake up every morning with some excitement even before the coffee. If I couldn't do it, I would be depressed.
Perez: That's what makes us unique. Not a lot of people get to do what they love. I can do my own work month after month, season after season. That's amazing to me.
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