For many years, I was arrogant to believe that there wasn't much I could possibly have in common with people younger than me. I would consider them juvenile, at best.
While I was at the beginning of my corporate career, as a member of Generation X, I would rather connect intellectually or learn from those who had gone through school and worked their buns off to forge solid careers before I did. I would automatically equate that with them being wiser, more knowledgeable, and more experienced.
Almost 20 years later though, as I started working for myself, I began noticing that the young ones already knew a whole lot about building a business. So, it was sensible to, at least, take my time and observe them, see what makes them tick, and mirror their ideals.
And by the time they became my teachers -- not just in the literal sense -- my mindset has shifted.
Jared Kleinert, 19, and Stacey Ferreira, 22, are only two of these people. They started businesses in their teens, and are the founders of an online movement and co-authors of a recently released book, both named 2 Billion Under 20.
The name comes from the fact that there are more than two billion 20-year olds or younger around the world, many of them crushing the misconception that millenials are entitled and lazy. Speaking about the growing community, Kleinert said: "[2 Billion Under 20] is also a sounding board for being someone who's young and doing something ambitious, because with that comes our own challenges that most people may not face. It's like a safe place for everyone to share those ideas, and share those values and those challenges. We found it to be pretty interesting and rewarding in itself, so we're proud of the online community, as well as the book."
Kleinert was called the "Definition of Social Entrepreneur" by Forbes at 17. He worked for two venture capital-backed startups in Silicon Valley starting at 16, and he currently runs a consulting firm that works with some of the world's biggest leaders.
At 18, Ferreira raised $1.2 million from Richard Branson, Lasso Media CEO and cofounder Alex Welch, and Insight Venture Partners cofounder Jerry Murdock, for MySocialCloud, a tech startup she co-founded with her brother, which was acquired in two years by Reputation.com.
The two young entrepreneurs are a perfect example of being in the right place at the right time, and having a vision to bring into the world. If Kleinert's flight hadn't been delayed the night he was supposed to leave The Thiel Foundation Summit in November 2012, where he met Ferreira, he would have missed the last talk that sparked the idea of 2 Billion Under 20.
In turn, if Ferreira hadn't checked Twitter during one of her breaks, she would have missed Richard Branson's tweet, in which he was offering a chance for people to meet him in Miami for cocktails, in exchange of a $2,000 donation to his charity, Free the Children. She responded immediately to the tweet, and, along with her brother, got a loan from their father, which they agreed to pay back in three months. Two days later they were in Miami discussing MySocialCloud with Branson. The rest is history.
Were they always taken seriously as young entrepreneurs? No, yet they were up for the challenge. "There's this aspect that some people have been in the industry for a while, so, they're like, 'who are you, young kids, to come in and try to make a change in the industry?' I think anyone will get a little bit of that, whether it's about the age thing, or people not believing initially in your idea. But the biggest lesson I've learned is: don't let it stop you from pursuing your dream," said Ferreira.
Being even younger, Kleinert experienced that sometimes as well, especially at the conferences he attends. However, he believes young people should be judged on their merit instead of their age: "It's kind of a passive resistance because it takes away from the seriousness and the merits of someone. I used to get that a lot, not as much anymore. I think that's something our entire book will get, and really young people across the world are getting, even if it's not helping anyone and it's probably hurting us at the end of the day."
In the two years they worked on the book, their goal was to feature a diverse set of stories to represent an entire generation. They ended up including people from over 20 different countries, as well as many different industries, backgrounds and experiences: from nuclear scientists to Olympians, from depression to weight loss and tech industry. "We tried to do that purposely," explained Kleinert, "so that whoever you were reading the book, there would be some person or some story you can connect with and really relate to. Because the power of story, and getting people motivated to act on their passions is pretty powerful."
Out of the 75 unique featured stories, two, in particular, that had in common the loss of a parent, touched the co-authors. For Ferreira, the most remarkable was the one of Kristen Powers, a sophomore at Stanford University who is creating her first documentary, Twitch, following her genetic testing for Huntington's disease, a neurological brain disorder that led to the death of her mother: "A lot of stories have that entrepreneurial and education focus, and this story sticks out because it's so different than everything else in the book. But it's also something that's very personal, because a lot of people struggle with these diseases that family members have, that go on in the privacy of their home, that a lot of people don't know."
Kleinert thought of the narrative of Dou Jok, a native of Sudan and a refugee of the Sudanese civil war, founder of the Dut Jok Youth Foundation, and cocaptain of the men's basketball team at the University of Pennsylvania. Besides teaching English himself in less than six years to be admitted into an Ivy League institution, Jok started a non-profit in his late father's name, to help Sudanese youth to get ahead in academics through the vector of sports: "I met him personally," recalled Kleinert, "and he's one of the most humble and most service-oriented people that you'll find. His story of perseverance and what he's overcome has also opened my eyes."
"The great thing about the book is that it shows a lot of different people's journey, and that there's no one size fits all," pointed out Ferreira.
Going to college and adopting a more traditional life path was not something Kleinert and Ferreira embraced. Yet they are developing careers and businesses many would envy.
Kleinert took a one year off, which he's been documenting in his Gap Year Experiment blog and in an upcoming book. He is now in his second year gap from NYU to pursue projects that he would be unable to otherwise: "Stacey and I are going to be doubling down on 2 Billion Under 20 initiatives and growing a larger company out of it. My speaking business is taking off, and I'm starting to get more bookings. I'll be pitching the Gap Year Experiment book to publishers next month, and then turn that content into an information product and an online community in its own right."
As a 2015 Thiel Fellow, Ferreira is also taking off the upcoming year with big plans. "The world is shifting to one where more people want to have a flexible work schedule, and want to work as independent contractors or on-demand workers. So, I'm building a platform, called Forrge, that helps these people find new temporary job opportunities, manage finances and taxes, and find affordable insurance, so they can feel comfortable about having options to make a steady income, and not feel bogged down by the additional responsibilities of working independently, " said the 22-year old CEO.
No doubt, they both learned a few big lessons while making a difference in the entrepreneurial world. "Choose good mentors," is Kleinert's biggest learning. He elaborated: "When I started my business at 15, I ended up not fully launching the site, it was called nowigetit.com, and I made every single business mistake you can think of, including not having enough capital, not knowing my competition, and poor mentor selection."
When he was 16, he read an article in Forbes called "The Most Connected Man You Don't Know In Silicon Valley" about David Hassell, the CEO of 15Five. "After I spoke to him, and became an early team member at 15Five, I realized how valuable having world class mentors really is. And since then, I surrounded myself with top notch people in all these different industries, as well as really amazing peer mentors," reflected Kleinert.
Ferreira added to that: "For me the biggest thing I've learned is not being afraid to ask questions. You can have the best mentors in the world, but if you don't ask the right questions then it's hard to get anywhere."
Having experienced success early on in their careers not only kept them grounded, but motivates them to pursue bigger things.
With the release of the book they hope to inspire as many people as possible across the US and around the world. "We want to show them that no matter where they are in life, no matter what journey they're taking, they all have a story to create and share, and hopefully it will inspire them to go out and follow their passions, create that story, and then hopefully share that story with the rest of the world," emphasized Ferreira.
Kleinert concluded: "It's probably not going to be the last time people will hear from us, and certainly not going to be the last thing that we're going to do together. It's just the tip of the iceberg, so it's really exciting to finally get the first fruits of our labor out into the world after over two years of work. I think we set a solid foundation for growing our community and growing our movement."
To learn more about the 2 Billion Under 20 movement and book, click here.
For more by Anca Dumitru, click here.
To visit Anca Dumitru's website, click here.