Kids Inc: Meet the youngsters running their own companies
- 4 July 2014
- From the section Business
It is not uncommon for shrewd high-tech chief executives in California to keep their cards close to their chest until they are absolutely ready for a product launch. It is called being in "stealth mode".
Thomas Suarez is typical in that way. He is working on a patent-pending 3D printer which, he says, will work 10 times faster than the MakerBot model he uses at home.
But in most other ways, Thomas is anything but typical. At 15, he is a seasoned businessman.
The teenager tinkers with 3D printing technology when he's not in school or codes new apps for smartphones or Google Glass (which he wears all the time outside of school).
He also has his own company, CarrotCorp, formed when he was 11 years old and making his first apps.
Thomas' most popular creation to date is "Bustin Jieber," a smartphone game that allows people to pretend to whack pop star Justin Bieber to make him scream and it all happens to the Benny Hill theme song.
Between Hollywood and Silicon Valley, California has always celebrated youth culture and entrepreneurs. Increasingly, these worlds are colliding as kids here start their own companies.
Thomas also does product and technology reviews for the Tribeca Film Festival and is already a popular speaker at technology conferences. But isn't running a company as well too much pressure for a teenager?
"There's something that makes me want to keep going and keep innovating," he says, laughing at being asked if he'd be better off outside climbing trees or riding a bike.
"I feel that my interests will always lie in technology. Maybe I should go outside more but I just really like this stuff."
Thomas is completely self-taught when it comes to coding and business, although he gets help from his parents on the business end.
He thinks it's a mistake that his school in Manhattan Beach and other California public schools do not offer more technology courses.
"A lot of kids my age want to learn, but there's no place to go because the schools aren't teaching programming," Thomas says.
"It's really frustrating actually. It was really frustrating for me and it still kind of is that we don't have any programming classes or any real tech classes at my school.
"It's something I really believe we should have."
To fill the void, he started an app club with some like-minded friends so they can help each other create games and new apps.
By contrast, at the Incubator School in Los Angeles, becoming a billionaire is the goal for many kids.
In class, they combine the jargon of corporate America with the language of video games. Instead of graduating, they "level up". They discuss profit-sharing strategies for the school lemonade stand.
And at this school, starting a business is not only encouraged, it will soon become a mandatory part of the curriculum.
"It's an entrepreneurship-themed school that focuses on innovation. It wants kids to launch start-ups and we think of ourselves as a start-up, so we're constantly refining, experimenting, iterating our product, which is trying to create an education that kids actually want," says Sujata Bhatt, the school's founder and head teacher.
The school looks like a Silicon Valley start-up, with motivational posters on the walls and laptops and tablets on the desks. Only the people using and creating the technology here are children aged 11 to 13.
When you ask the kids at this school what they want to do when they grow up, nearly all of them say they want to run their own companies.
"We actually think a lot about that, what we want to do in the future. We came up with a statement about what we want to do when we grow up," says 11-year-old Ehsan Varnous.
"We want to make our own businesses. In the beginning, it might just be selling some cookies but now it's more like, 'What are you going to do? How are you going to fund it?'"
The Incubator School, which is a pilot programme in the Los Angeles Unified School District, is just one year old.
When asked if she worries about creating greedy students or if the kids are too young for so much business education, Ms Bhatt says the school philosophy is to nurture an entrepreneurial spirit.
"One of the things we are exploring is the teamwork, we're exploring collaboration, we're exploring the ethics of profit sharing. Social entrepreneurship is as important as money-making business entrepreneurship," she says.
"We want kids to look at the world and say, 'These are problems that need to be solved and what are the tools I need to solve those problems to make the world a better place?'"
While many kids at the school have lofty dreams of becoming future Zuckerbergs or Spielbergs in the worlds of technology and entertainment, 11-year-old Heidi Mendez is already applying the skills she has learned here in the real world.
When Heidi's mother lost her job as a dog groomer and started her own mobile pet-grooming business, Heidi got involved. While her mother is experienced when it comes to working with animals, she knew nothing of the internet, advertising or social media.
Heidi started designing the logo - scissors artfully create the "L" in her mother's business name, Lucy's Mobile Grooming - and built her mother a website.
"I had already drawn some ideas on my whiteboard at my house, but I wanted to put it in a website," she says. "I learned that here."