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The Rise of the Young Social Entrepreneur

This story originally appeared on CNBC

Entrepreneurship is about solving a problem, not starting a company. While this isn't a new idea, today's young entrepreneurs have the advantage of the Internet, which has collapsed time and distance barriers. This means problems solved locally can have immediate impacts globally—and that's good for both people and business. A new generation of entrepreneurs is creating a new generation of technologies that are, quite literally, changing the world overnight.


Six years ago I founded the Kairos Society, an organization to help young entrepreneurs from around the world start high-impact, high-growth companies. I've been incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to bring together young people from more than 55 countries—and have been humbled by the results. Kairos has helped launch more than 150 companies tackling global challenges in health care, education, clean tech, cybersecurity and more. This experience has given me a perspective on the advantages that entrepreneurs under age 25 enjoy—and consider how my generation can pave the way for the next generation of innovators.

Today's young entrepreneur has the advantage of lower costs of entry. Just a generation ago, starting a business meant brick-and-mortar expenses. Today it requires a data plan and a smartphone. A generation ago, getting an advanced degree meant years away from the workforce. Today it means logging into an online classroom after work.

These lower costs of entry mean top talent is emerging from broader and more diverse backgrounds than ever before. It also means young people have the freedom to pursue entrepreneurial ideas rather than signing up for 30 years at the same, safe company their parents worked for.

A great example of this is the Mexico-based Solben, founded by Daniel Gomez in 2009 while studying chemical engineering at the University Technologico de Monterrey. He was frustrated by the conventional wisdom that suggested Mexico's reliance on distributed power made adopting alternative energy more difficult. So Gomez developed a new, scalable biodiesel company—and today more than 80 percent of biodiesel production in Mexico uses his technology.

Young entrepreneurs today are also "non-experts"—a unique advantage in a wired world. Access to 24/7 global information, global networks and global resources means experience is more important than seasoned business acumen.

As a result, this generation of entrepreneurs sees and solves problems through a fundamentally different lens. One of my favorite examples of this is Vital Vio, a company founded by biomedical engineer Colleen Costell after her grandmother fell sick while in the hospital—the one place Colleen's family thought she'd recover. What, Colleen wondered, could help hospitals quickly and efficiently kill germs and improve patient safety? The answer was, in a word, lights. Colleen's team developed overhead LED lights that safely kill microorganisms—meaning hospitals can be cleaner simply by leaving the lights on. This simple, revolutionary idea is being applied in laboratories, hospitals, restaurants and other facilities across the world.

Young entrepreneurs today are also unburdened by artificial timelines. Watching the enormous success of companies like Facebook and Google—started by founders who were barely out of college—has dramatically altered the under-25's sense of when it's "right" or "appropriate" to pursue a good idea.

One of my favorite examples of this is Immudicon. Its founder, Riley Ennis, was a sophomore in high school when he started working in biotech. Today his company is developing a new cancer vaccine technology that teaches immune cells how to recognize and remove tumor cells. It is partnering with Georgetown Lombardi Cancer Center and others on research. Who knows how many people suffering from cancer will benefit from this innovation? And who knows how many people would have become more ill, or even died, had Riley waited until he was done with college, or grad school or spent years in the workforce before pursuing his goal?

I'm not suggesting that young entrepreneurs have nothing to learn. Quite the contrary. One of our greatest advantages is access to an unparalleled number of smart and experienced mentors. Thanks to the Internet, we don't have to worry about finding people near our homes or in our age group to team up with. We have access to a wealth of advice, support and potential partners right at our fingertips.

I've benefited from all these advantages since founding Humin with four Kairos Society members two years ago. We didn't set out to build a company. We saw a problem and created a solution. The result is an application that dramatically rethinks the contacts on smartphones.

Relationships are at the core of the human experience, and that's why we rely so heavily on contact lists. Yet they haven't changed much over the years. Let's be honest—that unwieldy alphabetical list on your phone doesn't reflect how you built your relationships. Humin remembers how you know someone—for example, where you met—and lets you search for them accordingly.

By solving one small problem, we hope to open the door to better communication and connection between people. And that just might change the world.

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