Careers

CEO who sold a business for $1 billion says this is how 20-somethings can succeed

GREAT NEWS -- "Squad Feud" Episode 202 -- Pictured: (l-r) John Michael Higgins as Chuck, Nicole Richie as Portia -- (Photo by Tyler Golden/NBC)
GREAT NEWS -- "Squad Feud" Episode 202 -- Pictured: (l-r) John Michael Higgins as Chuck, Nicole Richie as Portia -- (Photo by Tyler Golden/NBC)

Navigating your career in your 20s as you try to assess your likes and dislikes, as well as which advice from others you should take, can be challenging.

Sometimes the most useful lessons come from listening to what conventional wisdom smart, successful people tell you to ignore.

As the CEO of The Pink Ceiling, Cindy Whitehead makes it her mission to share her knowledge of failure and success with other business leaders. Her company offers consulting and seed funding to start-ups that are working to improve women's lives.

Whitehead says the biggest lesson she hopes her success teaches young people is to ignore any advice that tells you to follow a blueprint.

"The worst piece of advice is to show up and follow all of the rules," she tells CNBC Make It. "The idea that we sort of recommend to young people that you stay quiet and do what the norm is as opposed to challenging that, and if it doesn't make sense going ahead and breaking it."

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Photo courtesy of Getty

Instead, Whitehead advises millennials not to seek permission to be themselves and achieve success.

"My hypothesis is there are a lot of people like me who are driven and have a love of science, but they are completely demotivated by society who has beaten the individuality out of them," she says.

Whitehead's suggestion that young people not try to blend in echoes that of Melinda Gates, who shared with CNBC Make It that she would also advise young people to tap into their individuality.

"The world doesn't need more people who think and act the same — so resist the temptation to conform to what's around you," she said.

"There is no such thing as perfect. Perfect will be the enemy." -Cindy Whitehead, CEO of The Pink Ceiling

Not conforming has been a pattern of Whitehead's. In 2015, after two failed attempts, her former company Sprout Pharmaceuticals received FDA approval for its drug Addyi, which has been referred to as "female Viagra." The drug is the first of its kind to be approved by the FDA.

Whitehead then sold her company for $1 billion to the Canadian-based company Valeant Pharmaceuticals.

A year later, Whitehead used proceeds from the sale of Sprout Pharmaceuticals to start The Pink Ceiling to continue to bring meaningful change to women.

"After that exit I started thinking, 'What's going to be my work moving forward?'" said Whitehead. "It's still going to be fighting injustice. It's just the injustice I'm fighting now is for other female entrepreneurs like myself and the fact that women only get access to 2 percent of capital."

The CEO also hopes that millennials today understand the value of being good enough in business.

"There is no such thing as perfect. Perfect will be the enemy. It will cost you time. You will never get there and it can cause paralysis, actually," says Whitehead.

"By contrast, I would say, don't make one perfect idea. Try 10 things. Two of them are going to work and you will be 100 percent ahead."

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