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6 US teenagers: Whizkids and entrepreneurs
Patrick J. Sauer, Inc.com | March 06, 2007
From Web designers to future fashion moguls, meet high-school students who have already taken the entrepreneurial leap. Meet six students who have already taken the entrepreneurial leap.
1. Laima Tazmin
When we first wrote about Laima Tazmin in 2004, as part of an article titled 25 Entrepreneurs We Love, she was a high school freshman with her own Web site design company, LAVT, in New York City. Today, as Tazmin is finishing her last semester, her business continues to expand.
Now it manages 20 ongoing projects, including designing banner ads starting at $1,000 each, for clients such as the producers of the movie Saw II and of Kanye West's second album, Late Registration.
The company earned $25,000 in 2006, and Tazmin put that money toward paying family expenses while her mother struggled to find work. "It was overwhelming, but I managed," says Tazmin. "The independence and maturity I learned helped my adult clients feel calm and comfortable."
Tazmin hasn't found it easy to make the transition from solo businessperson to manager. Lacking time for supervision and coaching, she has burned through 10 freelance designers.
The problem is that, in addition to her company, she maintains a roster of high school activities. She's a shooting guard on the basketball team ("I like scoring points -- I'm not a passer," she says) and works on the yearbook staff ("I get a little too control-ly," she admits).
Tazmin, who will attend Columbia University in the fall, is also working, predictably enough, on starting a second business. It will create Web portals for college towns.
2 & 3. Derin Coleman and Rayneshia Rodgers
Derin Coleman and Rayneshia Rodgers have been friends since the seventh grade and business partners since 2004.
Together, they run Bling Buckles, an Oakland, California, company that sells custom chrome belt buckles with white rhinestone lettering for $25 apiece. Bling grossed $2,075 during the last academic year, selling belts primarily at events sponsored by BUILD, a program in the Bay Area created to teach high school students in low-income school districts about entrepreneurship.
"They work great together," says Curtis Below, an executive at GetActive Software, who serves as the company's mentor. "Rayneshia is the more outgoing of the two, chatting up customers and constantly throwing out ideas. Derin is mature and does whatever needs to be done with a smile on his face."
The partners, who are juniors at a charter school called Lionel Wilson College Preparatory Academy, were tested during their first holiday season in business, when Bling faced a big backlog of orders.
"Derin and I were making buckles over Christmas vacation and on our lunch hours," says Rodgers.
Just as the company is taking off, however, its future is in doubt. Rodgers and Coleman are applying to colleges far apart. In fact, in addition to launching and running a company, BUILD helps students prepare for the college board exams. Eight out of every 10 BUILD graduates have been the first members of their families to go to college.
Not that the passion for entrepreneurship is lost in the shuffle: "I like school, but running a business feels more real," says Coleman. "Oh, I can learn how to make a million dollars? Okay, I'm listening."
4. Omar Faruk
Omar Faruk believes that social entrepreneurship can make the world a better place. He's CEO of BlueStream, a Web management company that specializes in helping nonprofits with limited resources. The business grossed $40,000 in 2006 and earned Faruk the Youth Entrepreneur of the Year award given out by Ernst & Young and the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship.
"Make a difference first, make the money later," Faruk says.
In 1997, at age 9, Faruk immigrated with his family from Noakhali, Bangladesh -- "The district that Gandhi visited," he notes -- to New York City. The family had been well off back home but ended up with eight people sharing a three-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn.
By the time Faruk enrolled in high school, he was spending a lot of time online and learning the ins and outs of Web design. Three years ago, he started BlueStream to build Web sites at a cost of $200 and up for fledgling nonprofits. The idea was to marry his interest in social activism to his interest in technology.
One of Faruk's customers is Intertradingcorp.com, an organization that helps women in Guyana sell crafts on eBay. "Omar helped the idea to flower, and he makes the world of commerce so much fun," says Avi Shiwnandan, Intertradingcorp.com's founder.
In the meantime, Faruk is trying to bolster his grades in an effort to get into Babson College, where he hopes to study social entrepreneurship. Shiwnandan, for one, is not worried about Faruk's prospects: "I have no doubt he will make a lot of money in his lifetime, even if it isn't his main ambition."
5 & 6. Jake Fisher and Weina Scott
Only five years ago, two enterprising teens might have mowed lawns to earn spending money. Today they can start a company on the Web. That's how it worked for the co-founders of Switchpod, Weina Scott and Jake Fisher.
And, oh yeah, they live 1,440 miles apart -- she's in Miami, and he's in Rochester, Minnesota.
The two met via a message board in June 2005, got to talking about podcasts, and started Switchpod within the month. Scott already had a Web design business, which she started at age 13.
Fisher, for his part, says, "I wanted to get into a business at the beginning of some new technology bubble."
Their basic podcasting package, which covers hosted space on their servers, costs as much as $30 a month, but they'll give it for free to customers who take out an advertisement on their site.
By the time Switchpod's product had generated 800,000 downloads, a company named Wizzard Software came calling. The Pittsburgh-based business, which makes speech-recognition and text-to-speech technology, was looking to add podcasting to its product mix.
Wizzard Software CEO Chris Spencer, 37, remembers that it took him a while to realize that the students he was negotiating with were in high school rather than college.
Odder still, Scott and Fisher met face-to-face for the first time at Spencer's home in Fort Lauderdale, where their parents brought them to sign the paperwork transferring ownership of Switchpod to Wizzard in an all-stock transaction worth $200,000. The sale also provides the partners with annual salaries of $40,000 for a 20-hour workweek. It acknowledges that their schoolwork comes before business.