The Pandemic Created the Next Generation of Great Entrepreneurs
This story appears in the April 2021 issue of . Subscribe »
Henry Langer is 12. He has turquoise hair, lives in Los Angeles, and has a lot to keep him entertained at home — two pet pigs, two dogs, a cat, a chameleon, and a leopard gecko, all rescues, and he’s gunning for an iguana. But what he doesn’t have access to is soccer, baseball, and his friends, which school Zooms just can’t replace. When it became clear that lockdown would be long, he needed something to do, and also wanted to make a few bucks. So he started an artisan chocolate company, Sweet Henry’s. “I really like baking, and I love chocolate,” he says. “At first it was hard not to just eat it.”
Minus the reptiles and pigs, similar stories are coming out of quarantine all over the country.
Chloe Hans, 12, launched Laughing Cosmetics in a Chicago basement with best friend Olivia. Over in Philly, 10-year-old Micah Harrigan started a GoFundMe to convert a school bus into a Micah’s Mixx lemonade truck. Down in Austin, Caroline Jones, 14, set up a virtual shop on Depop to sell clothes from her closet. (“I know quite a few people doing it since March of 2020,” she says.) And in New York, Ja’lynn Patmon, 10, introduced Rochester to Ja’lynn’s Slime Factory.
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Businesses are so appealing to the young and remote, they’ve even become birthday presents. “SaNiyah has always wanted to be her own boss,” says Tiffany Henderson-Marcy of her daughter, who is interested in cosmetology. So last July, when SaNiyah turned 15, Tiffany bought her an LLC to help open a beauty supply store “and make this dream become a reality.”
Could the pandemic be incubating a boom in the next generation of entrepreneurship? It’s hard to say, exactly — but it sure looks like something is happening. Applications for employer tax IDs have spiked dizzyingly since COVID-19 began; that translated to Americans starting 4.4 million new businesses last year, according to researchers at the Peterson Institute for International Economics — a record-breaking 24 percent increase from 2019. The Census doesn’t track business applications by age, and platforms like Kickstarter, GoFundMe, and Instagram told Entrepreneur they don’t have any data or insight to share. So it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how much of this growth is kid-related.
Still, experts say that crises have historically fostered entrepreneurship — and this particular crisis comes with some unique kid-focused factors. Many entrepreneurial parents juggling work and childcare are eager to offer their kids something other than Charli D’Amelio’s TikToks and Minecraft, which makes creating a business an appealing diversion. Meanwhile, the culture at large has been speedily molting old normals for new ones and seems to be charged with a fresh surge of startup spirit. For ambitious young people, it all combines to produce one of the greatest lessons in entrepreneurship: Unpredictable times are rife with opportunity.
In the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, business applications slumped. But according to research analyzing other data in the Journal of Economics & Management Strategy, the rate of entrepreneurship actually rose. Despite the housing crisis and the credit crunch, the study found, the push was driven by those without jobs looking to survive. One opportunity they saw was a different way to monetize their homes and cars, ushering in the age of Big Sharing. In fact, the downturn birthed a herd of today’s unicorns, including Uber, Airbnb, Slack, Pinterest, and Groupon.
Although what’s happening now is very different, “anytime you have a big change, whether that’s an economic downturn or something like COVID, it brings up new needs,” says Rashmi Menon, entrepreneur in residence at the University of Michigan’s Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies. “Needs are at the foundation of a startup, right? If they don’t address a need, you don’t have a business. When everything just goes along the same as always, it’s harder to find new opportunities. Even when you do, large companies will just capitalize on them, and it’s tough to get in.” Startups also benefit in downturns because resources like talent and office space become cheaper, and large incumbents become weakened. That’s partly why we’ve seen whole virtual economies spring up during the pandemic around grocery shopping, healthcare, and work.
If children and teens are soaking up any of this spirit, they come to it as a generation that’s more entrepreneurial than any other, according to Eric Jones, VP of corporate marketing for the WordPress technology company WP Engine. He commissions an annual survey to understand what makes Gen Z tick, and his most recent data shows that 62 percent of Gen Zers (ages 6 to 25) are planning to start a business, compared with 50 percent of millennials. “They’ve been exposed to social media their whole life,” says Jones. “So this notion of how to brand themselves is maybe more intuitive, more natural to them. And that ability is super critical for any entrepreneur.” He’s had a front-row seat as the father of Caroline, the teen selling her closet. “She learned how to do the whole thing on YouTube,” he says.
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It’s true. All the online videos and new no-code tools that enable adults to start businesses make it easier than ever for parents to nudge kids in that direction. “YouTube has basically any tutorial videos you could ever want,” says Henry Langer, the boy with the chocolate company, who is counting on the platform to learn to make truffles. “He’s entrepreneurial by nature, like me,” says his mom, Meredith Blake, who founded an agency called ProSocial that designs impact campaigns around causes. “During the pandemic, he wasn’t doing other things, like sports, which was hard for him, and I thought he could really focus on this right now. And I could teach him about building a business.” To her amusement, it’s gotten much larger than she ever thought, thanks to their Valentine’s Day promotion — “pig emoji” chocolates, with partial proceeds going to the Pigsburgh Squealers, a rescue group with 100,000-plus followers on their Facebook page.
“He’d see an order for $85, and I’d be like, ‘Great — you need to get $42 of supplies,’ ” she says. “And he was mortified. At one point, after he asked for more help, I told him he had to make me a partner and share the profits. He said, ‘I don’t want to.’ And I told him, ‘Well, you have to make some tough choices because that’s how the real world works.’ So we had these conversations about investors and margins. Eventually he absorbs it all and starts figuring it out.”
Serial entrepreneur Marc Hans has also loved guiding his budding entrepreneurial daughter, Chloe, and her friend, who cofounded Laughing Cosmetics. The concept actually predates COVID-19; the girls had decided on a whim to make some lip scrub and sell it at recess. But then when school went virtual, rather than dropping the idea, they hunkered down and figured out how to make more products, build a website, ship around the country, and deal with nasty customers. (Hans turns to his daughter: “What do I say, Chloe? Kill them with — ” She pops back: “Kindness.”)
“She got all my Go get ’em,” Hans says. “But she can be really strongheaded and a little spicy. And since the business, I’ve noticed she doesn’t get flustered. It’s like her mind has changed to: This sucks, but I can solve the problem.” He credits the pandemic with focusing and motivating both of the girls. “It’s really been like the catalyst for them to grow.”
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Matthew Wagstaff, founder of Young Entrepreneur Marketplace in Rochester, N.Y., has seen another aspect of the pandemic that may be lighting a fire in kids. “Honestly, I feel the parents I’ve engaged with have a little COVID fatigue, and they’re really just trying to take care of the main revenue driver for that household,” he says. He wonders if kids are absorbing that anxiety and trying to come up with their own solutions. “I don’t know if the kids’ motives are to support the parents or they just want something fun, but there’s a small group who really have their act together; they have their website, and they’re very active on social media and very involved.”
He knows the power of entrepreneurship firsthand — in his community and in his family. He is also a business strategist for Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, has his own clothing line, and started his greenmarket-style events for kids to feel the thrill of selling their products. The pandemic cut into his plans last year, but with copious masks and gloves, he managed to pull off two of them. His son, Maison, 8, who has a cookie business, and 18-year-old daughter, Madison, with the jewelry company she started at age 7, were among the mostly Black children and teens who participated.
For SaNiyah Henderson, who got the LLC for her birthday, there’s no question that stress has played a role in her entrepreneurship. “I’ll tell you this,” says her mother, Tiffany. “We have four family members that actually passed away from COVID-19. So I started feeling like tomorrow is not promised. I thought if I could get my daughter started in a business in the industry that she wants to go into, if something happened to me, she would already have that jump start.”
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In just three months, the All Beauty Supply Store opened its doors. “On the one hand, it’s been terrible,” says SaNiyah about their personal loss. “But the store? It’s really good for me.”
Chloe Hans,12 (left), and Olivia Hysenukaj, 11
Company: Laughing Cosmetics
What: Lip gloss, balm, and oils
Why call it Laughing Cosmetics?
Chloe: We love to laugh. But we weren’t sure we wanted it to be Laughing Lip Gloss because someday we might want to expand into makeup. So “Cosmetics.”
What’s been your biggest lesson?
Olivia: How to be kind to customers if they didn’t like something. Just ask, “Do you want a refund?”
What’s your next goal for the business?
Olivia: To hit $1,000 in sales and then try to find a little studio we can both work in. I always dream about having a cosmetics business like Ulta.
Chloe: And a store soon. This is what I want to do!
Ja’lynn Patmon, 10
Company: Ja’lynn’s Slime Factory
What: Slime (scented, fluffy, glittery, with beads and jewels)
Where: Rochester, N.Y.
Where’d your idea come from?
I was scrolling through YouTube videos and saw that people are just so obsessed with slime, and I wanted to find out what that was all about. So I tried it and actually loved it. And so I thought, I’ll make a slime business and sell it to kids who can’t get the ingredients.
You made $400 in one day last year. What did you do with it?
I really just got more ingredients. I have to make sure that I have everything — the right glue, and especially the right detergent. Because if I don’t, I can’t make more slime. And I want to keep selling it!
Micah Harrigan, 10
Company: Micah’s Mixx
What: A bus that sells lemonade and iced tea
Is your mom a partner?
Co-owner. I’m the one doing all the sales and math and trying to figure out how much money. She sits on the cooler and looks at her phone, just making sure I don’t get robbed. Actually, she does help with making lemonades a lot.
But what about the school bus?
We found one that was available in our budget — $4,000 from lemonade sales and local donations. I can’t drive it. I don’t know if my mom has ever driven one.
Have you gotten smarter from doing this?
I definitely learned a bit about investing and money handling and saving. Originally I wanted to get a job until I realized you had to be 18. So I started a business, and it turned out even better.
Henry Langer, 12
Company: Sweet Henry’s
What: Artisan organic dark chocolates
Where: Los Angeles
What’s the hardest part of running a chocolate company?
After Christmas, I didn’t have orders for, like, a month, and then I had a giant blast. With almost any small business, and sometimes larger ones, you never really want that. It’s like going on a creek and one part of it is completely bare and dry, and another part is rapids. You just want a slow and steady stream. I’m working on growing my subscriber list to help that.
Is it tempting to eat the product?
At first it was like, Oooh, some extra chocolate! But I realized I need it to sell it! And now I’m really, really sick of it.
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