Closed-Door Policy

Young And The Restless

Contest honors rising stars.

These kids nowadays. Not content to veg out on MTV and hang out at the mall like their '80s predecessors, a growing number of today's young adults are taking a more drastic, alternative route to combating teen angst--they're starting their own businesses.

Granted, succeeding in business provides more tangible satisfaction than progressing to a new level on a video game. "There's an art to it," says Steven Todd, an 18-year-old who started ST Hay Investments in Ojai, California, two years ago. "It's all about how you create your business, how you run it, and how you treat your customers."

Todd, the winner of the 1997 Outstanding High School Entrepreneur Contest sponsored by Johnson & Wales University, acknowledges that this drive sets him apart from the media portrayal of teens, which, he says, tends to publicize gangs. "When you're our age," he says, "people put you in a particular class."

In reality, life for this high school entrepreneur, who buys and sells livestock hay, is sort of like a campy John Hughes teen movie. "I go to school with a lot of preppies, and show up with hay in the back of my truck," says Todd. "Even the principal laughs. But I feel it's their loss. They just go home, and I'm building something."

The underdog phenomenon isn't anything new to those who dare to cross a new border in business ownership. When Gertrude Johnson and Mary Wales started their Providence, Rhode Island, school in 1914 with seven secretarial students, many considered the entrepreneurial women an aberration rather than pioneers. "They probably had a tougher time, simply because it wasn't `the thing to do,' " says Daniel Viveiros, a Johnson & Wales professor of business who's been involved in the high school entrepreneur contest since it started six years ago. "Now it's more accepted for younger people to go into business. There's been more exposure to the benefits of entrepreneurship in the past few years, which stimulates their interest."

This new generation of entrepreneurs, says Viveiros, "is more independent, more free-spirited, more creative. The business ideas are getting better. They're always looking for an angle."

And, like Johnson and Wales before him, Todd and the other seven contest finalists are always looking for the opportunity to break down barriers. "I hope a lot of kids follow in our footsteps," Todd says, "and that the number of entrepreneurs doubles or triples."

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This article was originally published in the May 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Closed-Door Policy.

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