Meet teen titans launching businesses (and still doing their homework)
Bet you thought Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg started young.
HOW DID YOUR KID SPEND SUMMER VACATION? Ethan Wong finished putting together a provisional patent application for one business he’s starting and helped develop a prototype device for another. In his spare time, the 15-year-old, now a sophomore at Winchester High School, practiced fencing (he made the nationals) and the violin. Lazy, hazy days? He hasn’t just hung out since he was 12, Wong says. “The majority of the time I’m home working on all of my businesses.”
Wong’s provisional patent is for an app he designed to help reduce car theft by tracking the GPS beacons via smartphone and to prevent hackers from infiltrating vehicles’ computer systems. He started working on his business plan when he was in seventh grade while attending an entrepreneur boot camp run by a group called Youth CITIES. As for the prototype, he’s working on that with a team of fellow 10th-graders from Winchester High. Auxivision is a tool inspired by a desire to help a blind classmate that uses Google Glass to help blind and visually impaired people make their way around new and unfamiliar places. You know, kid stuff. Users who are lost can contact a friend, link the friend to the camera in Glass, and get help pinpointing where they are.
Not to be outdone, Wong’s classmate and colleague Justin Yu in August found himself with two meetings for his two companies on the same day. In the morning, he, Wong, and their cofounders presented their Auxivision idea at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown. In the afternoon, Yu and partners from his other startup met with the innovation team at Boston Children’s Hospital, which is mentoring them as they develop an app to help kids with diabetes better manage their insulin levels instead of relying on the paper notebooks Children’s now uses.
Also presenting to the innovation team at Children’s Hospital that day was a group from Lawrence’s Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School. There, Yaznairy Cabrera and two classmates are working on an app to help kids with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder manage their condition. Cabrera has found her first experience in business challenging and fulfilling. “I like to communicate with people and I like being a leader,” she says, “and I think no other job encompasses that as well as being an entrepreneur.”
Cabrera, Wong, and Yu all went through the Cambridge-based Youth Creating Impact Through Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Sustainability. Operating out of the Cambridge Innovation Center as well as an outpost in St. Louis, Youth CITIES offers several extracurricular programs, including a boot camp that runs Saturdays from March until May, finishing up with a business-plan competition judged by prominent local venture capitalists and other investors.
Vicky Wu Davis started Youth CITIES seven years ago, when she was CEO of Froghop, which created back-end software for video game companies and closed in 2013. She’d just given birth to her first child and had a small epiphany while holding him. “Will I be the type of mom who wants my kids to pursue a major in college if it meant job stability or do I let them do what they want?” she recalls thinking. “And I thought if they were entrepreneurial, they could be their own boss and working on what mattered to them.”
Davis, who is 42, was tapping into what Fernando Reimers, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, describes as a national realization that success will “take a new set of skills for a new economy and a new kind of democratic engagement that requires a lot more sophistication.” That future will include a lot more hands-on work for students involving real problems in business and other fields.
Though Davis studied accounting in college (because her mother believed it would transfer to any kind of business), she thought entrepreneurship sounded dull. Later, she found herself drawn toward the chaos of starting companies. Youth CITIES became her way to show young people entrepreneurship isn’t about running lemonade stands but about having an impact on the world around them. “Can 11- and 13- and 15-year-olds make a difference?” asks Davis. “Absolutely.”
LEAVING SCHOOL TO GO TO WORK used to be routine in the United States. Thomas Edison, John D. Rockefeller, and Dave Thomas of Wendy’s fame never finished high school. But later in the 20th century, finishing college became de rigueur for many people hoping to start a business. Today’s iconoclastic entrepreneurs drop out of college, not high school — we’re looking at you, Mark Zuckerberg — and even they are seen as outliers.
Ethan Wong, Justin Yu, and Yaznairy Cabrera all expect they’re going to college, and they will likely run better businesses for it. They also think they’ll be better at whatever they choose to do because of these youthful experiences as entrepreneurs. And so do an increasing number of school administrators.
“At the high school level, they’re starting to see that entrepreneurship is not just about starting a new business. It’s teaching life skills,” says Heidi Neck, professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College in Wellesley who also runs a program on teaching entrepreneurship. Although the program is aimed at colleges and universities, high school teachers and administrators have also attended in the past three years.
Ken Zolot, who teaches entrepreneurship at MIT, attributes some of the interest to the rise of the stock markets and the attention given billion-dollar tech startups. Even President Obama recently extolled entrepreneurship as “the spark of prosperity.” But, Zolot says, stagnant wages and the grinding nature of the economy’s recovery from recession have led to a sense that “everyone has to be a bit of an entrepreneur in the future.” According to one study, 34 percent of American workers already spend some of their time working for themselves as freelancers.
Zolot thinks it’s irrational to think everyone who becomes an entrepreneur will hit it big. “Just because you know how to play a guitar does not mean you are going to be Jimi Hendrix,” he says. Then again, there’s no denying the enthusiasm — and raw potential — of people like Thomas Sohmers.
In 2013, Sohmers was an eleventh-grader at the Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School in Marlborough when he was awarded a Thiel Fellowship, funded by Paypal cofounder Peter Thiel, now a legendary Silicon Valley investor. An outspoken critic of the expense and wasted time of traditional college programs, Thiel since 2010 has given out more than 80 two-year, $100,000 grants to people younger than 20 to encourage them to pursue entrepreneurship instead of degrees.
Most Thiel Fellows drop out of college; Sohmers, then 17, dropped out of high school. “My mom wasn’t a fan of the idea at first glance. But she was trusting of me enough that I wouldn’t do something stupid,” Sohmers says. He says his father, who hadn’t attended college, was quicker to agree.
The Thiel folks did offer to let him finish high school first, but “I didn’t think it was a valuable use of time,” Sohmers says. He wasn’t enjoying it, preferring the work he was doing on high-performance computing systems in a lab at MIT. Besides, if he hadn’t received the Thiel Fellowship, he also had a job offer in Silicon Valley that would have paid substantially more than it anyway. He moved to San Francisco.
He doesn’t have to worry about that job for a while, though. His startup, REX Computing, is developing a low-power, high-performance processor. And earlier this year, it received $1.25 million from Founders Fund, a prominent seed investor. It also won a $100,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant via the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. On the day I spoke with him, Sohmers and his cofounder, also a Thiel Fellow, had hired their first full-time employee, a microchip designer.
Sohmers undertook his first stab at a company at 13, involving a head-mounted display to clip to glasses called EyePC. He didn’t have the option to take a class about what he was doing, but today some schools are building entrepreneurship into their curriculums.
Beaver Country Day School, a private sixth- through 12th-grade school in Brookline, offers seniors the chance to take a semester-long entrepreneurship course as a math elective. It’s capped by a Shark Tank-style event with venture capitalists and others as judges.
This year’s second-place finisher was Henry Hirshland, who hopes to turn his idea for a sleeping aid into a business. It’s a mask that records sleep data via a simplified electroencephalogram (EEG). The mask emits sound and light in phase with slow oscillating brain waves, aiming to increase the length of deep sleep, which is thought to enhance memory.
Hirshland started working on the device as a high school junior while at NuVu Studio, a five-year-old Cambridge innovation program that offers project-based learning programs. (Beaver Country Day, a founding partner of NuVu, gives elective credit to students who take NuVu classes and accounts for many of its students.) NuVu puts students through a series of two-week challenges in the arts, engineering, design, and science, led by outside mentors. Its large open space near Central Square has worktables, a giant chalkboard, and plenty of equipment for building and creating.
During his senior year, Hirshland used the Beaver Country Day entrepreneurship course to further develop the sleep aid and write a business plan. Working with his NuVu coach Nir Grossman, a postdoc at MIT in neuroscience, and NuVu founders Saeed Arida and David Wang gave Hirshland a window into the ultra-collaborative world of startups. They developed a working prototype, which was tested this summer at the Montreal Sleep Center, and they have already filed for a provisional patent.
Hirshland has the thick shoulders of an athlete — he played baseball at Beaver Country Day — and even by the standards of today’s entrepreneurs, he dresses casually, this day in a white Izod T-shirt and blue and white checked shorts. But then Hirshland is only 19, and he’s got more important things to attend to now that the initial data from the sleep test came back. “That was a really exciting moment,” he says. “Up until then it had been hypothetical, and then it was ‘This could work!’ ”
He’s attending Stanford this year, where he plans to take at least one course that will let him keep developing his concept and getting the prototype to a point where he could wear one to bed.
Henry’s dad is Mike Hirshland, founder of Resolute Ventures, a seed fund focused on technology startups. Experience helps the older Hirshland keeps his son’s startup in perspective. “It’s only the occasional 18- or 19-year-old who has a passion and ability to do something really meaningful,” he says. But he’s delighted his son and others get to take entrepreneurship classes at such a young age. “Understanding what opportunity is and risk is are great real-life lessons. Whatever they do, understanding and having some entrepreneurial skills is going to be valuable.”
IT ISN’T A NEW THING TO teach kids about business. Junior Achievement, a venerable entrepreneurship education program, began in 1919 in Springfield, Massachusetts (JA is now based in Colorado.) Then, some 40 years ago, it targeted a basic business curriculum at schoolchildren. Its programs are in 21,000 schools in the United States, and they taught about 900 courses called JA Be Entrepreneurial last year.
Most students who study entrepreneurship do it outside school, in extracurricular programs such as Cambridge’s the Possible Project or Youth CITIES, which draws kids from 50 different schools. But at least one well-known program, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, focuses on in-school entrepreneurship curriculum.
NFTE launched in New York in 1989 focused on math, reading, and writing and was aimed at schools with a majority of students who qualify for subsidized lunch programs (though any school can buy its textbook). NFTE courses are now offered in 13 high schools in Massachusetts and more than 600 in the United States and other countries. Many participants go on to start businesses, among them Jennifer LaSala, who founded Jennifer Lee’s Gourmet Bakery when she took an NFTE class at Chelsea High School and placed third in a regional championship.
Aware of discrepancies in opportunities for women and minorities, Vicky Wu Davis has deliberately structured Youth CITIES to incorporate gender and socioeconomic diversity. At least half its boot camp participants are from families that cannot afford to actually pay the $295 tuition. This “lets kids from the ‘resourced’ side realize that ZIP code does not define someone,” she says.
“There are fantastic kids everywhere who, given the right opportunities, tools, support, will do great things in this world.”
MARVI ALI IS A SEVENTH-GRADER at Hopkinton Middle School, right where the Boston Marathon starts. For the last three summers, Ali, who typically visits her grandparents in Pakistan and India in the summer, has brought back handcrafted goods purchased from the women who make them. She then sells these products via word-of-mouth and over Instagram and donates the money to charities helping the rural poor in India and Pakistan.
Ali participated in the Youth CITIES boot camp last spring and won the business-plan competition and a $1,500 prize. That made her, at age 11, the youngest winner yet.
During her time at Youth CITIES, Ali worked on a social enterprise, ZuMantra, designed to help artisans help themselves. ZuMantra will offer a platform to let rural women put their wares online for direct sales, as well as mentoring and small, short-term loans. The aim is to help poor people establish financial independence through entrepreneurial efforts.
Ali spent part of this summer in India meeting with her suppliers to explain microfinancing. She also met with nonprofits that can help the women get connected to the ZuMantra platform and find mentors. “At first I was nervous,” Ali says. “They were so much older than me.” She also faced a language barrier, but her mother helped translate.
On her trip, Ali found that she could interest most of the artisans in her concept. Little wonder, given that she speaks in full paragraphs, and more compellingly than many people three times her age. She’s working on the platform with help and advice from her software executive father and trying to get it done before the end of the year, even as she swims competitively and pursues archery and Destination Imagination and Girl Scouts.
“I’m a social entrepreneur,” she says. “I want to spark change. I believe that people don’t just want donations. If they are properly advised and financially helped, they can accomplish a lot.”
Toni Oloko started his company, PracticeGigs, in 2014, when he was a senior at Boston Trinity Academy attending a Youth CITIES boot camp and also playing tennis five hours a day to maintain his national ranking (he was in the top 150 players in his age bracket). PracticeGigs solves a problem for tennis players: finding people to play against. It’s also turned out to be a useful tool for tennis pros organizing their schedules. Oloko is now working with several big Boston-area sports clubs to implement a version of the app that goes beyond tennis.
Because of that success, Oloko has twice deferred his freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania. During what would have been his first freshman year, he spent three months in an accelerator program, Smarter in the City. Now, he’s part of Boston Design Center-based MassChallenge, one of the nation’s top accelerator programs.
Oloko’s parents are Nigerian immigrants, and they initially weren’t happy about him putting off college. But Oloko is nothing if not persuasive. He talked his way into Youth CITIES even though he’d missed the program’s first week. “He just wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Vicky Wu Davis says.
Where other kids might be watching videos about video games, Oloko is watching videos from Stanford Business School, looking for tips — one entrepreneur scored a meeting by e-mailing someone every day for 100 days. Oloko has adopted a similar approach with one of his mentors. “I just bug him; I text him constantly until he responds,” Oloko says, adding that they were having breakfast the next day.
Oloko wears the modern entrepreneur’s uniform, collared shirt untucked over jeans, and feels the same kind of stress as his older colleagues. “This is tough,” he says. “I’m a 19-year-old with a receding hairline.” Among his challenges have been trying to get 30-year-olds to work for him (he has five employees), meeting product deadlines, and figuring out how to raise capital.
Cambridge venture capitalist Jeff Fagnan judged the Youth CITIES competition where Oloko pitched his business and says watching him was eye-opening. “It was like, this guy is going to be president,” Fagnan says. He and his partners gave Oloko a desk at their firm and supplied him with advice, and Fagnan made his own personal seed investment in Oloko’s startup.
When Oloko recently requested his second Penn deferment, his proud father told his son he’d already made it farther than he could have imagined. Oloko was humbled by his dad’s vote of confidence and is determined to carry the business through. “I have to finish this out,” he says. “If I’m going to fail, I want to fail massively.” But Oloko’s betting he’ll be a massive success.
Yaznairy Cabrera says she’s also ready to see her ADHD app business through if it develops into one. But even if it doesn’t, she is probably going to college to major in business, where she expects her entrepreneurial experience will serve her well. “We’ve seen the benefit of putting effort in,” she says.