How 15 People in Their 20s Built Million-Dollar Businesses
Think you're too young to start a business? These inspiring young entrepreneurs built companies that are making the world a kinder, more fun place for all of us.
François Reihani, 25, Founder, La La Land Kind CafeFor François Reihani, one revelation changed everything: “I had, frankly, become a dick,” he says. “Like, I wasn’t being a good person.”
Reihani was only a teenager at the time, but once he saw himself clearly, he knew he had to make a change. “I really wanted to go back to my core and just work on myself,” the 25-year-old explains. So he took action — setting himself on a course for a new life in a new city, and ultimately building a company that stands by one simple slogan: “Don’t be a dick.”
That company is La La Land Kind Cafe, a Dallas-based coffee café chain that hires teenagers and young adults as they exit the foster system. The café helps them develop skills they need to build careers rather than slip into addiction and homelessness. And yet, there is no mention of this in the cafés themselves. No signs. No pamphlets. “We just believe that when you do the right thing, magic happens,” Reihani says. That belief is paying off: La La Land Kind Cafe has opened five locations and already crossed $6 million in revenue.
Read the rest of the September issue cover story here!
Cami Téllez, 24 Founder and CEO, Parade
"Everyone has an underwear story,” says Cami Téllez. “It’s the first piece you put on to create the foundation for your day. It touches the lines of gender and sexuality; it’s a strong expression of our identities.” Téllez grew up in New Jersey, where her parents settled after immigrating from Colombia. Like most American teenage girls in the past 20 years, Téllez went to Victoria’s Secret when it came time to buy “grown-up” underwear. “I was a 32A cup,” she says. “So I’d look at the bombshells and ‘Angels’ and think, Is that what I’m supposed to be?”
The answer became clear in college, when Téllez drilled into the disconnect between Gen Z’s values of diversity and self-expression and the “sexy,” exclusionary, unsustainably produced (and rapidly declining) Victoria’s Secret brand. So in 2019, her senior year, she dropped out to found Parade. “I wanted to tell a new kind of underwear story,” she says, “with bold color, dynamic design, and sustainable fabric innovation.” Parade’s aesthetic is fun and irreverent, featuring diverse models with every kind of body. Its fabrics are certified recycled with compostable packaging, and the company promises to be carbon-positive by 2025. Parade has raised $23 million and is now valued at $70 million. “I’m the youngest Latina founder to have raised that amount,” says Téllez. “Our impact in such an emotional category takes my breath away. And we’re just getting started.”
Oliver Zak and Selom Agbitor, 24 Cofounders, Mad Rabbit Tattoo
For some founders, getting a wave of orders before you’ve developed a product might be a nightmare. But for Mad Rabbit Tattoo founders Oliver Zak and Selom Agbitor (from left), it was their whole game plan. In 2019, the seniors at Miami University in Ohio identified a potential opportunity after Zak got a tattoo and was looking for natural after-care products. “Tattoo after-care brands weren’t doing a good job of branding themselves digitally,” Zak says. “They were trying to develop their sales through contracting with tattoo shops — whereas our digital marketing skill set was a competitive advantage.”
To see if their hunch would pay off, Zak and Agbitor built a brand called Mad Rabbit before making the natural balms, sunscreens, and gels they would eventually produce. “We started running ads to the website,” Agbitor says. “Within the first few days, people were buying. Since we didn’t have inventory for those orders, we had to cancel them. But I think we knew then that this was going to work.” This March, the Mad Rabbit founders appeared on Shark Tank, where they earned a $500,000 investment from Mark Cuban, and they’ve already done more than $4 million in sales this year. “It’s not just about driving sales for us,” Zak says. “It’s about improving other things, like customer service and the value we bring to the tattoo market.”
Corine Tan, 21 Cofounder, Kona
Corine Tan’s first internship was at her parents’ staffing company in the Bay Area, and as it came to an end, her mom sat her down for a talk. “When you leave our office, just know that it’s not OK to cry at work,” her mom said. “Folks will discount you if you do that once, because as Chinese-American women, we’re always seen as weak and feeble.”
That message never sat right with Tan — because, even harmful stereotypes aside, it just seemed unhealthy for workers to hide their emotions. “As Gen Z, we pride ourselves on being open about who we are,” says Tan, who also came out as queer last summer. “Tears are a sign of what it means to be human at work.” So she set about opening those lines of emotional communication. In 2019, she founded the startup Kona with her friends Siddharth Pandiya and Andrew Zhou. It makes a Slack-based app that, every day, asks teams, “How are you feeling today?” People respond with a green, yellow, or red heart emoji to indicate their mood, which they can then choose to explain to their colleagues. If that sounds scary, it’s supposed to be. “Folks owning up to their emotions aligns with the kind of trust and vulnerability that we’re trying to create, because trust is really the foundation of effective team performance — especially remote team performance,” Tan says. It also gives managers a valuable snapshot of overall team engagement. In December, Kona raised $1.2 million in pre-seed funding, and it already serves clients like Coffee Meets Bagel, The Athletic, and Happy Money.
Mackenzie Drazan, 26 Cofounder, MiResource
During Mackenzie Drazan’s freshman year of college, her worst fear came true: Her younger sister, Shelby, who had struggled with depression and an eating disorder, died by suicide. “I was beside myself,” Drazan says. “Why weren’t we able to get her the right care?” It wasn’t for lack of trying on the Drazan family’s part, or willingness on Shelby’s part. “We were ping-ponged around the mental healthcare system,” Drazan says, “going from residential program to residential program, three different psychologists, three different psychiatrists.”
While physical health providers typically handle mental health referrals, there’s often a frustrating disconnect between the two systems. In the years following her sister’s death, that’s what Drazan zeroed in on. She met cofounder Gabriela Asturias in a dorm room at Duke University, and in 2017 they founded MiResource, a service that helps patients find the right mental healthcare for their unique needs. “We empower health institutions,” Drazan says. “Historically, that’s been university counseling centers. We help them make better connections between students and local mental health providers. We’re creating a system that guides you through that process of finding the right care. We try to take all the complications out of it, like understanding insurance, so the process of finding care is therapeutic in and of itself.”
MiResource recently raised a $3 million seed round from investors including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas and Tim Draper. They also recently received a $1.2 million NIH grant, and are starting to work with insurance companies to connect members with in-network care.
Brandon Wang, 24, Athena Kan, 23, and Shiroy Aspandiar, 33 Cofounders, Dreambound
Athena Kan (center) grew up watching her dad juggle his day job as an insurance actuary with nights of studying to become an electrical inspector. As a kid, she couldn’t wrap her head around it. “I just didn’t really understand,” she says, “Like, why would he not just hire someone to do that?”
The answer, she now appreciates, is because outsourcing skilled help is expensive. As immigrants to America — her father arrived from Malaysia, and her mother from post-Mao China — times were lean. “With that mentality,” Kan reflects, “you think more about survival and less so how you can pay your way through the problem.”
Two years ago, as a senior at Harvard, she began channeling that awareness into the concept of Dreambound (initially called Ladder). It’s a gateway to gainful employment, which helps workers secure funds for job certification training and then placement in occupations like certified nursing assistant or truck driver. Then she assembled the right team to make it happen: Her friend Brandon Wang and his friend Shiroy Aspandiar (from left) had both worked with Teach for America and saw a lot of opportunity to build upon that work. The three cofounders launched Dreambound in early 2020, have since raised $4.3 million from investors including Union Square Ventures, and hired a staff of 20. “One of the big advantages of being venture-backed is that we’re able to leverage all these resources that nonprofits are just not able to,” says Wang.
For Kan, it’s crucial that their employer clients carry most of the up-front educational costs, allowing Dreambound to, as she puts it, “reengineer incentives” that make entry into the workforce more accessible. “There was this one customer who told me about how she wanted to be a phlebotomist,” Kan says. “But that class costs $300, and she wasn’t able to afford it, so she had to work seasonal jobs. That kind of clicked in place for me: This is the same pathway my father took. I wanted to help people get their license.”
Ben Pasternak, 21 Cofounder and CEO, Simulate
When Ben Pasternak founded his company, Nuggs, in 2019, the then-18-year-old Australian tech whiz had grand plans for the humble chicken nugget. “I wanted to create a techno-optimistic nutrition company that would protect the intersection of food and tech,” he says. Translation: Pasternak had noticed an anti-tech sentiment in the food sector, and he wanted a plant-based, alternative meat product to build a bridge. “People universally like chicken nuggets, but it’s also universally agreed that whatever is in them is probably not so great,” he says. “Their negative reputation meant there was a low barrier to entry for people to try an alternative.”
This wasn’t Pasternak’s first big idea. Back in 2016, venture capitalists spotted a mobile app game he’d created and paid him half a million dollars to drop out of high school, move to New York, and build whatever he wanted. He created the buy-and-sell app Flogg, and then a social networking company, Monkey, which he sold to Holla. That’s when he set his sights on nuggets. “For most Americans, their first meat product is either a chicken nugget or a chicken tender,” he says. “So getting them in at the ground floor is really important in the transition to sustainable nutrition. Plus, the nugget was really big in meme and internet culture.” Nuggs, now a product of parent brand Simulate, was an instant success. It raked in $8 million last year, and current reports project $40 million in revenue by the end of 2021. In June, Simulate announced that it raised $50 million in Series B funding. “Being super young, you’re super naive, which enables you to take risks perhaps someone older would not take,” Pasternak says. “That’s served me really well.”
Adrienne Cooper, 26 Founder, Moonlight Roller
When Adrienne Cooper told her boss at a catering company in Chattanooga that she was quitting to build an adults-only roller-skating rink, he said, “Okaaaay. Let me know if you need your job back.” But between two investors, a Kickstarter, and her own savings, Cooper rustled up $100,000 and, in March 2019, founded Moonlight Roller. That was the most straightforward part of her soon-to-be wild journey.
While designing her dream roller rink with a bar-slash-lounge, she worked with a factory in China on rental skates; she wanted them to be comfy around the ankle and body-positive for all sizes. “When I started skating, I weighed 220 pounds,” she explains. “Our boot is wide, with an aluminum plate, so no one has to worry about it breaking.” To jump-start revenue, she did mobile pop-up roller parties, and she was booked for the Atlanta Comic-Con and Bonnaroo when the pandemic hit. “Everything just stopped,” Cooper says. “Thank God we weren’t under contract yet with the rink, because I would have gone bankrupt.” Thinking quickly, she turned the 1,500 pairs of rental skates she’d started in production into Moonlight Roller’s first retail line.
Then she sought guidance. “The big roller-skate companies are all run by white men,” she says. “As a 25-year-old Black girl, it was really hard to make headway. So I looked for a different perspective and used the sneaker industry as my example.” One tactic she borrowed was teasing a drop. She would do an untitled Instagram post or story, “something that people can screenshot and share around to get them excited,” she says. She tried it before launching her skates, The Moon Boot, on May 15. “They sold out in, like, four minutes, all 1,500 pairs,” she says. “We did $200,000 in sales in one day.”
That’s when she hired her first employee. As the skates kept selling, Cooper diversified her revenue. Taking another page from the sneaker industry, she looked for partnerships with brands she could see her customers connecting with. Now the company has done everything from giveaways with GoPro to a skate collaboration with Coach. Despite COVID-19, it did nearly $5 million in revenue in 2020, and Moonlight Roller — which now has three stores, a thriving mobile business, and 28 employees — projects $10 million for 2021. As for the bar and rink? It’s finally set to open in early 2022. Cooper’s toddler, Emmett, won’t be able to come, but he got his first pair of skates this Christmas. “He’s obsessed,” Cooper says. “Now I have a three-nager human and a terrible-twos business.” And they’re all on a roll.
Aaron Coles, 22 Founder and CEO, Drift Net Securities
When Aaron Coles was in high school, school shootings were often on his mind. “I was always one of those kids who would look around and see where the exits were, where all my classmates were, where my siblings were, and I’d think about what I’d do if something happened,” he says. On February 14, 2018, when he heard about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., his heart dropped. But Coles, who was 19 at the time, felt like he could do something to help: He had taught himself to code at age 12, and he set about building the robust security system he wished every school had. “The security services provided to schools — school resource officers and CCTV cameras — really hadn’t changed since Columbine,” he says, “and I saw that as one of the reasons we were getting the same results as in the ’90s.”
Coles’ work would quickly evolve into the company he formed, Drift Net Securities. Its core product, KnowWhere, uses a combination of HD and thermal cameras, as well as artificial intelligence and mapping technology, to show school staff and law enforcement exactly where students and staff are in the building, and how many people are in each area. (He holds two patents on the product.) KnowWhere struck a nerve immediately — the parent of a Parkland victim made Coles an offer in the “double-digit-million dollars” to purchase it outright before Coles even had major customers or patents. But he turned down the offer, instead raising $7 million in seed funding through a group he was introduced to by a church acquaintance. “I was always scared of someone wanting to purchase KnowWhere, because I very much believe it’s not about the number of dollars collected but the number of lives protected,” he says. “We price our system to be incredibly affordable so that schools don’t have to choose between safety and other things they need. That’s led to some difficult conversations with our sales team.”
In the nearly four years since, Drift Net Securities has grown to a team of 102 employees, and KnowWhere has been installed in hundreds of schools across the country. For his part, Coles is more passionate about his work than ever
before. “I’ve always been a problem-solver at heart, which is what I think entrepreneurship is,” he says.
Jamie Steenbakkers, 24 Cofounder and COO, Busy Co.
When Jamie Steenbakkers was a college freshman, she sat in business class brainstorming a solution for every party girl’s greatest dilemma — how long it takes to get ready. She and a classmate, Michael Leahy, started thinking about a number of products that could help, including disposable wipes. They’re great when someone needs to freshen up quickly, but the duo soon learned that they’re terrible for the environment. “No one was really doing anything about it,” Steenbakkers says. “So we saw this huge white space in the market. We could help people get ready in five minutes or less and do something amazing for the environment at the same time.” Thus was born Busy Co., a zero-waste beauty brand launched in 2018 that specializes in biodegradable wipes made of upcycled fabric scraps.
Now 24 and 25, respectively, Steenbakkers and Leahy are business partners and have raised more than $3 million in funding and made more than $2 million in revenue. The product has been picked up by major retailers including Kohl’s and Macy’s, and Busy Co. soon plans to launch a first-of-its-kind metal container for multi-packs. “It’s really just about being committed to something and jumping in with full force,” Steenbakkers says. “If you put all your effort into it, then you can make something happen.”
Dmitry Dolgopolov and Kesava Kirupa Dinakaran, 21 Founder, DigitalBrain
Many Bay Area programmers put their pride on the line during hackathons. But in 2019, Dmitry Dolgopolov and Kesava Kirupa Dinakaran (from left) had much more to lose than that. “There was a point when it was almost like life or death,” says Dinakaran. Both he and Dolgopolov were newly arrived immigrants — Dinakaran from India, Dolgopolov from Russia — without legal full-time working status. Hackathon prize money is paid in cash, so for seven months, that’s how the then-19-year-old friends (who met at, yes, a hackathon) scraped by.
At one hackathon, they built what would become DigitalBrain, a program that sits on top of customer service software to help representatives process tickets more efficiently. They were sure their product solved a real problem, but they weren’t getting interviews with investors or accelerators. “You can’t do hackathons all the time,” Dolgopolov says, “because you stay up all night. It was exhausting and stressful.” They were at their breaking point when they finally got an investment from immigrant-focused fund Unshackled Ventures. Two months later, they were accepted into Y Combinator, and they’ve now raised $3.4 million. “It was much harder than we expected,” Dinakaran says, “but we realized if we did well, this country would welcome us.” Dolgopolov agrees. “The Bay Area is filled with strange kids who didn’t fit in where they grew up. The wonderful thing about people here is that if you create value, they will listen to you.”
Naomi Shah, 26 founder, Meet Cute
Growing up in the ’90s and early 2000s, Naomi Shah had her favorite romantic comedies: Bend It Like Beckham, She’s the Man, Legally Blonde, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. “It didn’t dawn on me until later that the characters in these stories all looked the same,” Shah says. “And they didn’t look like me.” Shah’s parents immigrated from India in their 20s and went on to found a software consulting firm in Portland, Oreg. But still, for many years, it never occurred to Shah that she could be the one to tell a different kind of rom-com.
After college, Shah began working at Goldman Sachs before moving over to VC firm Union Square Ventures. “I realized there was an underfunded area in media and entertainment,” she says. The pitch sold itself: a production studio for rom-coms with diverse leads. “I started building out the business plan so I’d know this company when I saw it and we could invest.” But by mid-2019, Shah still hadn’t found that company. Apparently, it didn’t exist. So the partners at Union Square Ventures asked if she’d be interested in founding it. She was.
In the months that followed, she built Meet Cute: It’s a modern rom-com studio that tells stories through 15-minute podcasts, and so far its 300 podcast episodes have been listened to more than two million times. With $9.25 million in funding, Shah is now focused on making Meet Cute a go-to source for millennial and Gen Z listeners looking for inclusive, diverse, creative stories. “Something I love to think about is that there are meet-cutes happening millions of times a day,” she says. “That’s eight billion rom-coms to tell.”