Whenever Twitter gets to be too much for me – and as of recently, it often does – I find myself turning to the more inspirational parts of the internet. This week, I was treated to the annual Forbes 30 Under 30 list, where 600 Millennials and Generation Z-ers were recognised for their vast achievements. The youngest, a 14-year-old from Ohio named Maanasa Mendu, has created a device to harvest energy from sun, wind and rain to deal with energy scarcity. Just one of the many teenagers on the list, she is joined by nearly 30 of her under-20 peers, ranging from actors to digital founders.
The rise of the “teentrepeneur” is no secret in the UK, where more than 26,400 registered directors of companies are aged 21 and under. The UK’s digital sector has been outgrowing the rest of the economy by more than a third, meaning we can expect to see more and more young tech geniuses rising to the top of the business world through the ubiquitous dual founder/chief executive role. Just in September, Fortune released its 18 Under 18 list, to celebrate teens who are thriving in the business world – with companies ranging from full-service childcare to intelligent drones for first-responders.
But the road to Old Street – and Silicon Valley – is one strewn with roadblocks. Last month, the Harvard Business Review laid out a series of arguments on the challenges faced by teenage entrepreneurs that are unknown to their adult counterparts. They primarily fall under the “practical” category, ranging from the inability to enter into a commercial contract under the age of 18, to the inability to legally obtain a loan. The article notes that many teens also lack access to a steady network within the tech world, making getting off the ground more difficult.
But at the same time, the barrier to entry into the digital sector has never been lower, meaning that teenagers with brilliant ideas – such as sign-language instant messenger Five, developed by 18-year-old Polish entrepreneur Mateusz Mach – are no longer relegated to the school science fair, but are bringing their ideas to fruition. Having originated as a “silly” app allowing friends to send custom hand signs, Mateusz has locked in funding and is working with the United Nations to develop and distribute Five across the US for speakers of ASL (American Sign Language).
To their benefit, today’s teenage entrepreneurs have never known a world without internet – the youngest may have never even heard a dial-up tone! A significant portion of this exposure now comes from school: the British Educational Suppliers Association expects student exposure time to ICT (information and communications technology) to reach 58% of teaching time this year, compared with 50% in 2014. With 71% of UK primary schools making use of tablets in the classroom, the entrepreneurs of the next decade will have grown up mobile-first.
In 2014, schools in the UK began testing a new computer studies syllabus in classrooms, replacing computer literacy with coding and programming. This structured exposure to technology as an integral part of life, along with the democratisation of consumer technology, means that young entrepreneurs have at their fingertips access to all the resources needed to launch an idea off the ground: a computer, a smartphone camera, the internet and skills.
Despite the legal boundaries constraining teenage entrepreneurs, governments are beginning to get in on the issue as well. Just this week, the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation in Ireland announced plans to award €1.5m to a total 180 young entrepreneurs between the ages of 18 and 35 spread across the country via Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur competition. Business entries range from an Irish whiskey distillery, to ‘glamping’ accommodations and exercise equipment to be used with an app. Similarly, Young Enterprise in the UK works with young people to develop skills and business acumen through a number of programmes, including investing £10 at a time in business ideas.
Nevertheless, it would be naïve to discard the difficulties of being a young entrepreneur, regardless of growing available resources. Growing debt among Millennials – most notably student debt – is a deterrent for would-be business owners, and a study by the Kaufmann Foundation has shown that the rise of student debt has coincided with a decline in startups in the US – although this is countered by programmes such as Stanford University’s d.school, which equips students with the ability and mindset to tackle global problems. Similarly, the challenges unveiled by the Harvard Business Review are very real – and young entrepreneurs without the support to navigate these challenges could find themselves without the necessary early-stage incubation.
It would be equally naïve to disregard the role that privilege plays in determining whether a young entrepreneur can get their ideas off the ground. Access to technology and education, along with the family-based support to develop ideas, assumes a certain degree of wealth found more easily in developed countries. However, this gap can be at least somewhat alleviated by leaders in the industry who incorporate youth development into their missions.
Ultimately, it is in the interest of both of governments and larger companies to give young idea-havers the space to bring their creations into the world. Much in the way that sixth form students complete work placements during their final years before university, larger businesses would benefit from providing a space for young entrepreneurs to test out their ideas – similar to the incubator programmes already seen from the likes of Tesco, Boots and Argos. As companies continue to see their online sales outshine those in store, they will need to find more ways to innovate on the internet to keep clients interested, and will benefit from young eyes and fresh ideas.