“You’re hired.” Those words mark a milestone for most teenagers. The moment they step into the workplace for the first time is an experience they always remember. It’s their first real job but it is also so much more.

Why is that first job so important? Because it introduces a teen to real-world accountability. In the workplace, they are responsible to a third party. They are accountable for their actions. Here, young people learn that dependability, honesty and effort are meaningful measures. At work, your performance is judged. You are evaluated.

Earn Your Place

Suddenly, it isn’t enough to just show up. As an employee, you must be on-time, alert and ready to contribute. You don’t make the rules, you live by someone else’s. There may be a dress code or no cell phones or specific procedures. Attendance is not optional. There are consequences for your actions – good and bad. The workplace does not cater to you. It sets expectations and asks you to meet them.

The first job can also be about learning to be a team player. In the workplace, you don’t choose who you interact with. The job dictates the team. As a young person, you learn to work effectively with people you don’t know or even like. The work comes first. You learn to adapt, adjust and collaborate. These are valuable life skills.

But work can also be a place where dreams are born. Sometimes, the experience can spark a passion.

Adversity and Opportunity

My mom died when I was 9 years-old. She was driving home from work when a man high on marijuana ran a stop sign. It was a nightmare that shattered my world. The climb out of that tragedy for me was long and painful. I know about adversity – I met it at a young age. But many kids do. The stories are different but the journey is familiar. That first job can be a critical opportunity to steady the ship.

I was 15 when I was hired at Chocolate Pizza Company as a dishwasher. Countless hours were spent hand-washing an endless pile of dishes, cleaning machines, stocking inventory and running errands. My hands pushed a mop for miles and my feet stomped down piles of trash in a dumpster. It was not glamorous employment by any stretch and I left exhausted most days. But I loved every minute.

I was surrounded by chocolate. Chocolate Pizza, Peanut Butter Wings and dozens of delicious treats were amazing. They made customers happy and celebrations special. It was a business built on happiness. Behind the scenes, there were also good people who took time to teach me new things. The owner rewarded my enthusiasm and interest with mentoring moments. The more I learned, the more I dreamed up new ideas for the business. I was young but I could see past the dishes to the possibilities. My excitement for business grew. The drive to take a small-town chocolate shop to another level was set in motion. I was 16 when I told the owner that when she wanted to retire, I wanted to own Chocolate Pizza Company.

Five years later, when I turned 21, she sold it to me. That is the power of a first job.

Pay It Forward

Not surprisingly, I am committed today as an owner to helping young people step into the workplace. I intentionally hire teenagers in my community who come eager to work. We live in a beautiful area but there are not a lot of jobs in our small, rural town. The hours that I can give motivated teenagers are valuable. Those young adults return that outreach with dedication, energy and effort. Together, we make a good team.

Most stay with us for a couple years. It is rewarding to watch them grow. I take it as a compliment when they leave for college but ask to come back during breaks. Long after they move on in the world, we remain friends. When they return home for a visit, they almost always stop out and say hi.

More than a Job

Business is as cold and indifferent as deep space. It does not take your feelings into account. Competition is constant and merciless. You perform or you close your doors. There is no margin for error and excuses ring hollow. As an owner, you make tough decisions every day. You do what is best for your business because your economic survival depends on it. What would drive someone to willingly step into such an arena is sometimes a mystery.

But then you look across the room at the young faces smiling back at you. Behind those smiles are dreams and passions that are just starting to take shape. You realize that it isn’t a job that you created. It is a future.

That is why a first job is so important. And that is why being an entrepreneur is so much more than running a business.