THE BLOG

How Five Women Entrepreneurs Are Building A League of Extraordinary Teens

04/20/2015 11:56 am ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015

A wise person once said to me, "You don't have to wait until you're 30 to start helping the world." These are the words of 14-year-old Hunter Zampa, the youngest winner of the Food Network show Chopped and a passionate food activist, who's doing his fair share to help others through his culinary genius and his Future Chef Fundraisers.

Once upon a time, turning 30 meant the world was suddenly going to start taking you seriously. Today, anyone who pays attention to Forbes' 30 Under 30 list and keeps an eye on young entrepreneurs and activists knows this is no longer the case. As TEDxTeen Curator and We Are Family Foundation Executive Director Jess Teutonico says, "Teens are no longer just the leaders of tomorrow, they're the leaders of today."

Take for example, teen activist Lulu Cerone. Since the age of 10, she's been redefining community service through her youth-driven initiative LemondAID Warriors, which has raised $80,000 and provided clean water for thousands of people in Africa.

And ponder the ingenuity of 18-year-old inventor Ananya Cleetus, who's rethinking prosthetics. Inspired to help people in India who have lost their limbs due to leprosy, she built an affordable robotic hand to assist the most medically vulnerable part of the country's population.

Hunter, Lulu, and Ananya are just three of the remarkable teens I've met in the last two years, who are raising the bar of what's possible at any age. While the wisdom that comes with life experience isn't something young people will acquire until many years from now, their capacity to access and process information combined with their agility and imagination creates an alchemy other generations have not had while growing up. As these teens and their magic mature, they deserve a seat at the able. To get there, they need the support and guidance of visionaries who can spot their tenacity and talent.

Meet five women leading a crusade of young entrepreneurs poised to have unprecedented impact on the world.

Ruthe Farmer, Chief Strategy & Growth Officer of National Center for Women & Information Technology

Ruthe Farmer has been building STEM initiatives for women and girls since 2001. It was a college class called Rhetoric of Women that opened her eyes to the lack of awareness society has of the many impactful women in history.

What led you to promoting STEM for girls?

I started focusing specifically on girls in technology because of a grant we received from Intel when I was working with Girl Scouts. They wanted to increase the participation of girls in the engineering, math and computer science categories at the International Science and Engineering Fair.

Why have you chosen to focus on empowering young people?

When women and minorities are excluded from participating in making the world we all inhabit, we are not only shortchanging them in terms of economic freedom, human rights and personal agency, we are shortchanging all of society. Empowering young people to explore tech and ultimately become innovators is the key to solving this imbalance in the field. Teens are so tenacious and hopeful. They don't know, what they don't know. So they approach life with a hopeful view. Sometimes when you are working on a tough, slow-to-change social issue, it is hard to stay hopeful. The young women I work with give me hope. They are so eager, focused and driven. They have actually given me really high expectations of what young people are capable of, because the girls I work with are so impressive. You'll never hear me say, 'kids these days,' unless it is to talk about how inspiring they are.

Jess Teutonico, Executive Director of We Are Family Foundation/Curator of TEDxTeen

Jess Teutonico has cultivated her personal passion and career in social action through amplifying the missions of humanitarian teens and connecting them with collaborative mentors. She knows firsthand how much adults can learn from young people.

What happened in your life that inspired you to be a social entrepreneur?

My parents raised me to be a curious global citizen. I think once you are exposed to a world outside of yourself you see the value and necessity of being a part of something larger than you. But it was officially 2006 when I jumped ship from Vogue and moved to the bush of Kenya to start my foundation Under The Acacia, which works to address basic human needs in the country, that my entire being and focus shifted to a new lens.

What's the greatest lesson you've learned from teens?

In 2008, I was selected to be a mentor to a girl in Kenya as part of We Are Family Foundation's Three Dot Dash program, founded by Nile Rodgers. I went into it thinking I was going to change her life. She ended up completely changing mine. And it was at that moment I realized the power of a young person on a mission. There is no greater force in life. They just move. Today we have so much heaviness in the world--global warming, ISIS, financial burden. How amazing is it that everyday I wake up and am surrounded by hundreds of young people literally shaping history? It's addictive. The teens I work with have taught me that there are no reasons not to do something, only reasons to take action. End of story.

Heather Mason, Founder & Exec Producer of Firebrands Conferences & SUREFIRE Girls

Heather Mason created the teen girls conference SUREFIRE to provide a forum where girls can learn to invest in their own interests and explore their own voices. From learning how to budget money to landing a dream job to navigating relationships, no topic is off limits.

Why are forums like SUREFIRE important?

I was helped by five people when I was in high school who radically changed my life, and I wanted to pay it forward to others like me. There was a debate teacher, a walking coach, a modeling school owner, history teacher and dance teacher. They gave me skills that are not taught in schools, but ones we all know are needed to succeed in life. When do you learn how to shake hands? Where do you learn how to network in a room? How do you learn to give your own opinions? These are the skills we need and they aren't taught anywhere formally.

How are young people different today than they were years ago?

I think there are two types of people in the world--those who step in the traps as you go through life and wait and watch to see when others do--and those who step on the traps and think, how can I make sure no one ever goes through that? We shouldn't have to watch young people go through the lessons we did if we really care to help them. Teens really are questioning the status quo and asking how can they solve the current problems. They are far more worldly given the internet and prevalence of information available to them. I don't think the generations that come after us are going to be into greed as a prime mover. As much as all of us love luxury, I think luxury brands are going to have a job cut out for them if they don't have a social impact message because just being a consumer is going to be more crass than enviable in the generations to come.

Jodell Seagrave, President of Rocket21

Jodell Seagrave has been helping teens thrive for two decades. Through her work with Rocket21, a social learning platform for middle school students, she's observed the creativity and curiosity teens have always possessed, and how they've learned to harness the modern tools now available to help them to produce more sophisticated projects and solutions.

Why are kids your demographic of choice?

In the early 80s, I was involved in a national campaign introducing the Apple II to kids in middle and high school. For most, they'd never seen a computer. Yet, when asked to share their ideas for how they'd put it to use in the context of winning one, they responded overwhelmingly with the most passionate, extraordinary ideas about innovation and changing the world. I remember being blown away from the start and left wanting much, much more.

What are the benefits of running a company dedicated to young people?

It's simple. I find engaging with them both directly and through projects and partners so extraordinarily satisfying on every level. And, because I think doing so is good for everyone--for the kids, for their families, for their communities, for business and government, and for the planet. Literally, I can't think of one reason not to focus on empowering young people. The ROI has absolutely zero downside. Plus, it's personally incredibly rewarding and fun. And now, working with Gen Z is a level beyond because so many forces have come together for this cohort of kids to make such enormous differences in literally ... everything. Their potential is breathtaking.

Betty LaMarr, Founder/CEO of EmpowHER Institute

Betty LaMarr founded the EmpowHER Institute in Los Angeles to empower marginalized teen girls by helping them gain necessary careers skills, training and mentorship. Her personal history gave her insight into the potential of girls who normally don't have access to the tools needed to excel.

What inspired you to start EmpowHER?

There were three seminal moments that converged to inspire me to start my business. I was pregnant at my high school graduation and became a teen mom. I traversed the ladder in corporate America to see what exposure and opportunity looks like, and I lived in South Africa for four years and witnessed the entrepreneurial spirit out of necessity instead of choice. These moments inspired me to craft a solution for inner city teen girls dropping out of high school.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about young people?

I have chosen to focus on young people because they have their future in front of them and because as a disadvantaged teen myself, I believe that teens will either live up to our expectations or down to our expectations. We just have to choose which role we want to play in their lives. If you see a teen who is acting out and bullying other kids, that kid is trying to do one of three things, be seen, be heard, be valued.

A number of young people are making great strides in business, activism and STEM. And this is just the beginning. Thank you to the visionaries with keen enough foresight to spot the young, promising leaders of today.

This post was originally published on The Toolbox, a social action platform connecting developers and activists.