Since launching my own business last year, I've been thinking a lot about my first bout of teenage entrepreneurialism. I had a knack for what today would be called "hyperlocal niche retail": I sold sodas between classes from a giant cooler. I convinced my classmates that the peppermint- and licorice-flavored sticks I chewed on all day were breath-freshening, blunt cigar look-alikes. Then I moved onto palm-size, animal-shaped, easily concealable squirt guns—my market-based solution to a campuswide water-gun ban.
Today's successes include 17-year-old Nick D'Aloisio, who sold his app Summly to Yahoo for $30 million, and the restless inventor Kelvin Doe (No. 43 on this year's Most Creative People list; see page 116). "This is the time for the young people's generation to develop our innovation," Doe says. I guess I was just too early.
"What you hope for is that these things aren't exceptional," venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar tells me. "They become the norm." Today's teens have vastly more options to realize and scale their often ambitious entrepreneurial ideas, but they can't succeed alone. How do we get to where someone like Doe isn't an outlier?
Step one: Pishevar, whose entrepreneurial streak began while selling candy in the third grade—"I was making a really good profit, and then the principal shut me down"—can rattle off at least five teen entrepreneurs he has mentored, admired, or hired in his businesses. They include then 15-year-old Anthony Casalena, who went on to found the slick website builder Squarespace. Pishevar recently spent a day on Twitter aiding any young founder who asked, connecting him or her with anyone he knew (and he knows everybody). He encouraged all his friends to do the same. If I had had Pishevar in my teenage life, I bet VerbTablz—my dream business making printed tables of Spanish verb conjugations ($1 per three-pack for regular verbs; $1 per pack for irregular)—would be a web service and mobile app, and I'd give away the basic verbs to build audience.
Pishevar wants our education system to adapt to create and nurture a lot more whiz kids. "We don't really teach business concepts or entrepreneurship," he says. "You could create entrepreneurial magnet schools." Pishevar's hope is that schools themselves evolve to support student-led projects and companies, and potentially tap into crowdfunding platforms for financial support. They should see a young peppermint- and licorice-flavored-stick salesman for the budding genius that he is.
Pishevar's message really hit home after I met the 16-year-old son of noted South African businessman Andile Ngcaba. He and his dad were on a break from their tour of U.S. colleges; Ngcaba wanted his computer-programmer son to see what full-grown developers do at hackathons. (Important lesson: We eat Korean food and drink beer.)
As we talked, the young Ngcaba told me he met a person at a school who kept talking about how graduates get jobs. "And I thought, What is this obsession with getting a job? You make a job!"
That's not what many incoming freshmen say—but more surely will. Will we encourage the trend or shut it down?
[Illustration by Helen Friel]
A version of this article appeared in the June 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.