Optimism, Ideals Drive Teen Entrepreneurs

May 7, 2012

Most people wait till adulthood to discover their knack for business. But others tap into their entrepreneurial spirit before they even hold a drivers license. In the second of a two part series on young inventors, WNPR’s Sujata Srinivasan meets the teen entrepreneurs.

All solutions begin with a problem. That’s how these young folks got started – there was something that needed to be fixed. Case in point – Justin Calabrese, now 22 and a student at the University of Hartford’s school of business. When he was just 16, Calabrese’s home was broken into. He invested his savings from lawn mowing and baby-sitting in the neighborhood, to launch a surveillance business.

“We had some vandalism done to our back windows. Somebody was trying to get into our house. So the police recommended the security cameras. And then I realized hey, if I’m having this problem, other people must be having this problem as well. So that’s when I thought of launching a website.”

Calabrese obtained licenses, created an online store, chose vendors, imported home surveillance equipment, and shipped out products, which he stored in his parents’ dining room. In the process, he discovered that he had a knack for this sort of thing and even authored two books on entrepreneurship for teens.

“On average, I did sell about, probably about six cameras a week flying off the website, which was very good for a 16-year-old starting off, never started a business before. All in time it did pick up, probably made about $30,000 off of the site.”

Calabrese spread his wings further. He launched a game product company at 17 and then an online retail store at 19, financing each new business with profits from the previous one. Fourteen-year-old Keshav Patel also got his start in business through solving a familiar problem.

“The way this idea came about was I was actually selling candy for a school field trip to Washington, D.C. I wasn’t a big fan of it – half the people I talked to didn’t even want the candy I was selling, but they still supported me. Also what happened was I only got 40 cents on the dollar and on top of that, I wasn’t really learning anything.”

His solution? A crowdfunding website. To raise funds for a project via Meritbooster, applicants submit a proposal. Once approved, they open a project page and connect with friends via social media networks. Patel began homeschooling in eighth grade to give him time to focus on his company.

“I hope to sell this company and maybe continue being an entrepreneur, ‘cause I find this really, really cool. If I could change the world in one way or another, I would find that just amazing.”

Max Uhlenhuth is also changing the world – one tree at a time. The 22-year-old Yale University student of computer science teamed up with a fellow student in forestry and co-founded Silvia Terra when he was 19.

“We use satellites to tell timber companies what trees they have – the sizes and species. And to do that, we need satellite data, which isn’t that expensive and then it’s just a lot of programming and some data collection on the ground. So the startup capital was blood, sweat, toil and tears.”

Contrary to what you might think, Uhlenhuth says his experience has taught him that it’s actually less risky to start a business when you’re a teen.

“You know when you start college when you’re a freshman and you try to start a company and it fails, as long as you haven’t gone out and raised a bunch of money, you still have a roof over your head and food on the table. And so doing startups in college gives you a ton of great experiences and I actually think is one of the least risky things you can do because if it works out then you’re in a great position when you graduate.”

When Alan Tan founded a for-profit company to help underprivileged entrepreneurs, he was just a nine-year-old figuring out a way to cope with a physical disability and bullying at school. But that didn’t stop him from launching Tan2000 International Holdings. The company provides entrepreneurs with physical disabilities and other limitations – access to financial and managerial resources to pursue their business ideas.

“As somebody who’s had to suffer through bullying and also a physical disability, it’s important to me that others are helped to make their lives better and to create something for themselves that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them.”

One of Tan’s business partners, 22-year-old Nishang Gupta, runs Nishex, an investment firm for teens, which he co-founded when he was 18. Gupta encourages teens to invest at least $10 a month for retirement.

“A lot of my friends were really interested in getting involved in the stock market but they didn’t know what to do. So I kind of found it really interesting to help them out and see how I could relate the pretty dry and pretty boring information about financial statements and cash flows and all of that, trying to relate that to my teenage peers. That’s basically I guess what drives me – just trying to help others while also helping myself.”

Impetuosity, a magnetic attraction to risk, intellectual curiosity, restless energy, idealism – all typical traits of your average teen. And when they launch a company, who knows? Maybe the sky’s the limit.

For WNPR, I’m Sujata Srinivasan.