Why you should care
Because these kids are the future.
Like many people who were children in the 1990s, my most important role models for a precious few years were teen entrepreneurs: Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club series about seven plucky tweens who start their own small business looking after neighborhood children while navigating problems like crushes, mystery phone calls and how to tell people you have diabetes. They were smart, dedicated, creative and responsible — the perfect role models.
That series ended in 2000. But the middle schoolers of today, aka Generation Z, aren’t without entrepreneurial role models. In fact, with the news full of stories about teen inventors, teen creatives and teen businesspeople, thinking of yourself as a potential startup genius before you can legally drive a tractor is ever more a reality.
The image portrayed by Silicon Valley at large is that it’s all or nothing, and that doesn’t need to be the case.
Ed Hardy, co-founder, Young Founders
“If [a] tween is spending a lot of time with a hobby, or just on social media, why not look to see how they can make money from it?” says Brittany Galla, editorial director of Teen Boss magazine, which launched last month. Galla says focus groups about what teens and parents wanted led Hamburg-based Bauer Media to the idea of a 96-page quarterly mag that retails for $6 and has a circulation of about 200,000 — so far. Teens interviewed, she says, were excited about their business ideas — sometimes mentioning shows like Shark Tank as inspiration — and wanted something to help them start Etsy stores and side hustles. Teen Boss, accordingly, provides kids with business card templates and vision boards that’ll help get them started, and Galla says she’s heard zero pushback from parents who might feel weird about encouraging their kids to monetize every hobby or talent.
But it’s not always so straightforward running a business as a teenager. Ed Hardy (not that Ed Hardy) and his friend Kit Logan were only 16 when their skiing companion app, Edge, took off. Partly as a response to the steep learning curve, they then worked together to start Young Founders, a summer training program for would-be teen entrepreneurs, attempting to prepare them for the world of startups. “We had next to no idea what we were doing,” Hardy explains, saying rookie tycoons who don’t know what they don’t know can run into big problems quickly when it comes to accounting, hiring, taxes and myriad other administrative and structural issues that startups face.
The British education system, like that in the U.S., can also stymie young people with ideas by nagging them that if they don’t focus on certain exams they’ll be on the wrong track for life. Young Founders, which is on a yearlong hiatus while Hardy and Logan concentrate on their university degrees — the training program will restart in 2018 — is an intro to best practices of running a business and a way to give confidence to young people. Last year there were so many applicants that only 1 in 14 got a place in the free program, and Hardy says working directly with schools and communities helped them find more applicants of diverse backgrounds and shift the gender balance from only 27 percent female the first year to 40 percent female the second year.
Young Founders is about teaching people to be successful, but it’s also about teaching them to be successful in a healthy way. While part of the program is learning how to break down a startup idea — and understanding what makes a good one — Hardy and Logan also try to instill a sense of balance and the importance of mental health. “The image portrayed by Silicon Valley at large is that it’s all or nothing, and that doesn’t need to be the case,” Hardy says. While the all-consuming burnout work schedule is part of the startup myth, he’s hoping that participants in the program learn to sustain themselves as well — and with 90 percent of their first year’s cohort still involved in early-stage businesses a year later, the method seems to be working.
To be sure, as The Baby-Sitters Club attests, teens and tweens have had jobs for as long as there have been teens and tweens. Adolescence as a concept is relatively recent, and even after teenhood was given its halcyon glow, many teenagers then and now have needed jobs to support themselves and their families, while wealthier teens have had jobs to build character, enhance college applications or just to have something to do. Melissa Milkie, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, says that while there may be a philosophy that says kids should be allowed to be kids, “it is likely competing with [a mentality that says] … kids need to be in a competition to excel at an early age and compete for a narrowing range of good jobs.”
But there may be a reason teenagers, aware of the future they’re careening into, are drawn to startups: It’s a self-directed way of problem solving. Though some young people may be creating Uber for laundry, Hardy — who is now working toward a geography degree — says many are aware that climate change and other “huge, huge global problems” are going to require a generation equipped with the tools to solve them. “You’re far better dying to try to solve something tricky,” he says, “than dying trying to solve a very niche problem.”