Meet 16 Teen Founders Who Are Building Big Businesses -- and Making Big Money
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Caroline Bercaw, 17, and Isabel Bercaw, 18
Cofounders and co–chief creative officers, Da Bomb Bath
In 2012, Caroline and Isabel Bercaw were, like many 11- and 12-year-old girls, obsessed with bath bombs. They experimented with their own recipes for the fizzy, fragrant balls, adding a surprise in the center, like a small toy. They tried selling a few at a local art fair in Minneapolis -- and realized they had an instant hit.
By 2015, their product was in 30 local shops, and following a successful trip to Atlanta for an international trade show in 2016, they had placement in stores across the country. “We were making 20,000 bath bombs a month, in our basement,” Isabel says.
Then Target called, and everything changed. “They wanted us in 1,800 stores,” Isabel says. “We knew we had to get our act together quickly.” Their mom stepped in as CEO, while the sisters focused on product development and marketing. Production and storage moved to a nearby warehouse. The girls enrolled in their school’s On the Job program, which let them use a certain amount of school time as work time.
“Our friends and school have been really supportive,” Caroline says. “Some people who don’t know us will come up to us and be like, ‘Hey, you're the bath bomb girls; how much money do you make?' I'd rather have them ask about what we do dat to day, or what it's like to sell a product. They don't understand the work we've put into this. It's not about money."
Today, Da Bomb remains self-funded and generates more than $20 million in annual revenue. It’s big business -- but it’s also a family business.
“We talk about bath bombs 24/7,” says Isabel, who’s starting freshman year at a local college just 20 minutes from Da Bomb’s warehouse. “Sometimes we’ll be out to dinner and say, ‘We just need to be a family for 20 minutes.’ But it’s brought us closer. We always have each other’s backs.”
Well, almost always. “I’ve been fired five times,” jokes CEO and mom Kim.
“Only when you ground me,” Isabel replies.
Cory Nieves, 15
Founder and CEO, Mr. Cory’s Cookies
At 6, Cory Nieves had an ambitious plan: Sell hot chocolate in his Englewood, N.J., neighborhood, and save enough money to buy his mom a car. “I was tired of taking the bus,” he says. “And I wanted to help my mom.”
Nieves sold Swiss Miss for $1 a cup. When he sensed an opportunity for more substantial treats, he started searching online for the perfect cookie recipe. After three months of baking with his mom, Nieves bit into what he thought was the perfect chocolate chip cookie. The recipe was a hit. “That’s when we knew we had a business -- when people started taking our cookies seriously,” says Nieves.
He and his mom began taking cookies to local races and festivals, where Nieves would pitch potential customers with irrefutable lines like “Life’s too short to not eat a cookie!”
Business (and local press) grew consistently, and in 2015, Nieves was invited to appear on The Ellen DeGeneres Show -- and the response was overwhelming. More orders came in than Nieves and his mom could possibly fill. “It caused a huge supply-and-demand issue,” he says. To scale, they sought outside investment and hit TV gold again: An appearance on CNBC’s The Profit earned Mr. Cory’s Cookies a $100,000 cash infusion. An e-commerce site was launched, “cookie helpers” were hired, and product started shipping across the country.
Today, the company offers 14 flavors, and Nieves has high hopes for expansion -- and for his own future. “When I get older and finish college, I want to leave Mr. Cory’s Cookies for a little bit,” he says. “I’ll start somewhere at the bottom and work my way up.” He’s done it once -- no reason he can’t do it again.
Sanil Chawla, 19
Founder and executive director, Hack+
When Sanil Chawla was a sophomore in high school, he wanted to launch a web development startup as a way to monetize his hobby. “But there’s just so much red tape for young founders,” he says. “I was under 18, so I couldn’t file legal paperwork or get a bank account on my own.”
He started researching ways to lower the barrier to entrepreneurship, and zeroed in on fiscal sponsorship, a common practice in which nonprofits extend their legal status and back-end support to small projects with a similar mission.
“I developed software to automate all the paperwork and basically made a really scalable version of fiscal sponsorship,” says Chawla, now 19 and a sophomore at the University of Southern California. In 2017, Hack+ was born as a nonprofit that provides free fiscal sponsorship to student-founded charitable organizations. Companies like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon have provided support and B2B resources.
Chawla and his team of 12 have helped 926 students launch their organizations, raising more than $1 million in support. This fall, in partnership with Stripe Atlas, Hack+ will launch a version of the platform focused on supporting for-profit startups.
“If we can manage all the legal and financial stuff for these young founders, they can focus on their mission, their goals,” he says. “It will open the door to so much impact.”
R.J. Duarte, 19
Founder, GreenWorx Landscaping
Last year, R.J. Duarte was accepted to Colorado State University. He didn’t go.
“College wasn’t for me,” he says. That’s because at the time, his landscaping business was pulling in six figures in annual revenue. “I figured I should stick with this.”
Duarte began cutting grass in Golden, Colo., at age 8. Thanks to his tireless work ethic, his income tripled every year, and in middle school, he partnered with a friend to hit more lawns. In high school, they named the company GreenWorx. When the friend left the business for college, Duarte took the reins, and he spotted a chance for growth.
Duarte dropped GreenWorx’s small clients and rebranded as a premium landscaping-and-maintenance company. “It’s higher margins for more risk,” he says. “That comes with headaches, but without headaches, there’s no reward.”
His instincts were right. GreenWorx now operates with four trucks and a peak-season crew of 12 to 15 people -- mostly high school students. “People always ask me, ‘How’s college going, R.J.?’” he says. “That’s the way society is: They want to hear about your degree, not your company.”
But he knows he made the right decision. This year, GreenWorx has revenues creeping toward $750,000. “We’re hardworking, blue-collar people,” Duarte says of himself and his staff. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Kenan Pala, 15
Kenan Pala has always wanted to help. Growing up in San Diego, he would eagerly donate his time to soup kitchens and beach cleanups -- but was surprised to find himself shut out of a number of causes he wanted to support. “There are a lot of nonprofits doing great things in San Diego, but many don’t allow kids under the age of 18 to volunteer,” says Pala.
So in 2017, determined to make sure that any kid who wanted to volunteer could volunteer, he founded the nonprofit organization Kids4Community. “All our events are open to anybody of any age,” says Pala. “If you have the passion, you can come.”
Through corporate donations, grants, and charitable events, Pala has raised $1 million to benefit local homelessness causes, while also engaging kids to help out with 5K runs, dinner services, and backpack drives. And when Pala eventually enrolls in college, he hopes to enlist the help of one more youngster -- his 10-year-old brother, Arden.
“I would like to hand off the organization to my brother, who is also very passionate about volunteering,” he says. “When I graduate high school, he’ll be a little older than I was when I started.”
Maya Penn, 19
Founder and CEO, Maya’s Ideas
At the age of 8, when Maya Penn told her mom she wanted to build a sustainable fashion collection, she got a response that would serve her well throughout her entrepreneurial journey: “Figure out how to do that and what you need to accomplish that goal.”
She used old clothing found in her home to create headbands and scarves, and at age 10, taught herself HTML and built a website to sell her goods. Today her Atlanta-based fashion line, Maya’s Ideas, has 10 employees, and customers around the world. “That first sale was so crazy to me, and still is,” Penn says. “It’s an honor when people like what you create. It keeps me moving forward.”
Penn is now 19, and she has spent the past 11 years nurturing plenty of other passions. She launched a nonprofit, Maya’s Ideas 4 the Planet, which distributes eco-friendly sanitary products to women in developing countries. In 2016, she created an animated digital short that was presented to Congress as part of an effort to get a national women’s history museum built in Washington, D.C. (“They have museums for stamps but not women,” she says.) She has since launched an animation studio, given three TED Talks, been celebrated by Oprah, and is now working on a second book. Her first covered young entrepreneurship.
Penn’s businesses and speaking engagements have earned her a million dollars over the years, and she has raised more than $500,000 from angel investors. And though all her projects are about creating change for others, she has learned that it’s good to put yourself first.
“I’m always pushing myself to do more, but that can take a lot out of you, especially when you’re still trying to figure out who you are,” she says. “You have to find ways to calm yourself. Take a walk. Read a book. Stay grounded. Taking care of yourself makes you a better entrepreneur.”
Brandon Martinez, 13, and Sebastian Martinez, 11
Director of sales, and CEO and head designer, Are You Kidding Socks
“We always have disagreements,” says Sebastian Martinez, CEO of Are You Kidding Socks, a Miami-based business he founded with his older brother, Brandon. “We argue about whether we should make this sock or that sock. And the compromise is: Make both socks!”
The company was born five years ago out of Sebastian’s obsession with patterned socks. He started designing his own and, with the help of their mom, lined up a manufacturer. Brandon stepped in as director of sales. “I just have a thing for talking to people,” he says.
Despite their disagreements, their complementary skill sets make them great business partners. “We’re like a puzzle,” says Brandon. They’ve built a company that’s sold nearly $1 million worth of socks, moved offices to accommodate growth, appeared on Good Morning America, and introduced Charity Socks, a collection that gives a portion of sales back to charitable partners. But they’ve learned tough lessons along the way.
“We trusted some charitable partners who didn’t really do what they said they would,” says Brandon. “So: contracts! That’s what we learned. Always have contracts.”
Next up, they’re looking for retail partners and exploring expansion. “We want to make T-shirts, hats, shoes,” Brandon says. “Socks and shoes are like peanut butter and jelly. And if you don’t wear them, you’re weird.”
Langston Whitlock, 17
Cofounder and CIO, SafeTrip
It sounds like the windup to a punchline: a techy teen and an opera singer walk into a community outreach event and…stumble upon a million-dollar app idea. But that’s what happened when Langston Whitlock and Ja’Nese Jean -- who met years prior working at these kinds of local gatherings -- learned of a problem facing their community.
“A homeless veteran told us that [people across Atlanta] don’t have transportation to get to medical appointments,” says Whitlock, a longtime coder. “Ja’Nese turned to me and said, ‘Can you make an app for that?’ ”
In 2018, they launched SafeTrip, a ride-sharing app geared to the homeless and elderly that lets patients, caretakers, and healthcare providers book medical transportation; it accepts various forms of insurance. The company has raised $2 million, with
$3.4 million in revenue last year.
With Jean as CEO, Whitlock serves as CIO, overseeing a team of 10 -- all older than he is, of course. “We have a great bond,” he says. “They love me cause I’m a kid, I guess.”
That youthful perspective has proven valuable, like when Whitlock told his team that plenty of teens today learn defensive driving and CPR. The company created a feeder program, in which high school seniors train to become SafeTrip drivers after graduation.
As for Whitlock, who works at SafeTrip full-time yet will still graduate in 2020, his plans are singular for now. “My mom has worked since I was little, and my goal is for her to have her ultimate happiness,” he says. “So whatever it takes, that’s what I’m gonna do.”
Erin Smith, 19
Three years ago, Erin Smith was watching a video of Michael J. Fox and made an observation that she couldn’t stop thinking about. “Whenever a Parkinson’s patient would laugh or smile, it came off as really emotionally distant,” she says. The Lenexa, Kansas, teen reached out to clinicians and caregivers, and she learned that they’d noticed similar facial expressions in some of their patients -- often years before an official Parkinson’s diagnosis would eventually be made.
Smith -- a longtime science enthusiast who grew up conducting experiments in her kitchen -- got to work building a diagnostic system called FacePrint, a super-smart selfie that captures changes in facial expressions over time to detect disorders like Parkinson’s. Until now, diagnoses have been subjective; Smith hopes FacePrint will become an objective tool to diagnose and monitor the disease.
FacePrint’s algorithm has an 88 percent accuracy rate (the standard is 81.6 percent), and she’s received support and funding from the Michael J. Fox Foundation and pharmaceutical companies. The technology is currently undergoing a clinical trial at Stanford University, where she is enrolled but on leave while she completes her research, funded by a Thiel Fellowship.
“I really want to optimize for my personal learning,” she says, “as well as for the best way I can help shape and build the future of neurological and mental healthcare.”
Riya Karumanchi, 16
Founder and CEO, SmartCane
When Riya Karumanchi saw her friend’s visually impaired grandmother struggling to move around her own home, she knew there had to be a better way. The white cane -- that simple tool that helps the blind identify obstacles -- hadn’t really changed in nearly 100 years. “I thought that was insane,” says the 16-year-old. “Change in tech wasn’t being distributed equally -- not just geographically, but community-wise.”
Karumanchi -- who taught herself to code in the fourth grade and has participated in youth innovation programs in Toronto for years -- talked with the visually impaired community and heard a common refrain: The white cane was great at identifying obstacles on the ground, but users were still vulnerable to things like errant branches and fallen twigs.
She started building a device dubbed SmartCane, using ultrasonic sensors to identify a wide variety of obstacles and alert the user with vibrations; different levels of intensity and placement on the cane help signal just where the obstacle is. A navigation system plots a safe route, while sensors identify other dangers, like wet, slippery sidewalks.
With the help of four part-time employees, Karumanchi has raised $85,000 in funding and in-kind services from companies like Microsoft, Arrow Electronics, and Inertia Engineering. Next up: user testing.
“When you’re creating a device for people within the accessibility community, there’s a saying that goes, ‘Nothing for us without us,’ ” she says. “Input from [the visually impaired] has been so important every step along the way.”
Ideally, SmartCane will hit the market by mid-2020 -- just in time for Karumanchi to finish the 11th grade. And while she’s open to the idea of eventually attending college, her ultimate dream is a little loftier: become what she calls a “unicorn person.”
“Instead of [building] a company that has a valuation of a billion dollars, it’s the person that can impact a billion people,” she explains. “It’s ambitious, but that’s my goal.”
Femi Adebogun, 20
Cofounder and CEO, ScholarMe
Four years ago, at 16, Femi Adebogun was building his first startup. He hired five remote employees -- and because he wasn’t sure how they’d react to working for a teenager, he just decided to omit that piece of information. “I was really good at hiding my age,” he says. But the ruse was up a little while later, when his company won an award and he flew his entire team out for the ceremony. “That’s when my employees found out I was underage.”
Related: 5 Priorities for Young Entrepreneurs
Today, Adebogun is no longer bashful about his age -- or his success. He’s on to his third company, ScholarMe, a platform that lets kids apply for all sources of college financing through one online set of questions. “People are so confused about how to pay for college, and there are 400 students assigned to every one guidance counselor at most schools,” he says. “We tell them how to do it, step by step.”
Since launching in 2018, ScholarMe has racked up more than 40,000 users, just less than $1 million in funding, and an $8 million valuation. Adebogun and his two cofounders, Caleb Cross and Evan Farrell -- all of whom, ironically, are college dropouts -- are currently in the Y Combinator accelerator in San Francisco, where they’re eager to absorb some much-needed expertise. “There’s so much we don’t know,” he says. “YC is helping us become better leaders, builders, and salesmen.”
Part of that is figuring out how to monetize ScholarMe. “We do not want to harvest student data,” he says. “We’re building trust with our users, and we’re focused on creating long-term relationships. We’ve tested different ideas, like a ScholarMe debit card, and people are into it. We don’t want to help them just pay for college but also find financial health while they’re there.”
Jack Bonneau, 13
Founder and CEO, Jack’s Stands & Marketplaces, and Teen Hustl
Five years ago, Jack Bonneau desperately wanted the LEGO Star Wars Death Star, which cost $400 -- way more than he had in his wallet at the age of 8. So he set up a lemonade stand at his local farmers’ market. “In 12 weeks, I made $900 in profit,” he says. “I never knew anything like that was possible.”
He wanted to make it possible for other kids, too, and launched a one-stop destination for children’s commerce: For a $15 fee, Jack and his dad will help kids in the Denver/Boulder area set up a branded Jack’s Stands & Marketplaces stand. They spend 30 minutes helping to get the operation running for the day and then check back several hours later to review a P&L statement. Over four years, hundreds of kids have operated thousands of these stands around the city.
As he starts his freshman year of high school, Bonneau is transitioning Jack’s Stands to a nonprofit organization; that way, it can partner with larger organizations and grow beyond Colorado, he says. He’s also working on his next big idea: Teen Hustl, an app that gives teens access to the gig economy. “My dad told me that back in the 1980s, millions of teens used to have their own paper routes and babysitting businesses,” Bonneau says. “I was like, Wow! Now, because of the internet, those jobs are being taken by adults. But teens are the most tech-savvy, so why not plug them in to that?”
Teen Hustl will operate as a sort of hyper-local DoorDash or Postmates, serviced exclusively by neighborhood teens making deliveries on bikes or scooters within two to three miles of a store or restaurant. “The big guys focus on serving cities, but there are 24 million teens across America ready to work these untapped markets,” he says. “That’s a big opportunity.”
Rohit Srinivasan, 19, and Sidharth Srinivasan, 17
Sidharth and Rohit Srinivasan love solving problems. The brothers frequently participate in robotics competitions and have traveled from their home in Austin, Texas, to India to teach STEM courses at orphanages. In 2015, that’s where they discovered their most intriguing problem yet: “The schools didn’t have an affordable way to teach robotics,” says Sidharth.
Conventional robotics kits typically require wi-fi and fast computers. They’re also limiting; extra robot parts cost money, but what if an inventive kid wants to experiment? So the Srinivasans launched Trashbots, a kit that allows young people to build bots using cheap supplies like rubber bands, paper clips, and ice-pop sticks. “We wanted to encourage kids to see the world in terms of tools,” says Rohit. “The only thing you’re limited by is what you have around you and what’s inside your brain.”
The hardware kit includes motors, lights, speakers, sensors, gears and axles, and some “trash.” It costs $100 and comes with lesson plans that span kindergarten through the 12th grade. The Srinivasans have shipped units all over the world, helping kids build things like temperature-controlled fans and soda-can whales.
As they prepare to fill this school year’s demand, they’re also thinking about how to turn Trashbots into the category leader for promoting STEM. Their plan: Recruit more problem solvers as they grow. “For every problem that exists, there’s one person who can solve it,” says Sidharth. “The question is: How do you find that person?”