THE ARTS Julianne Goldmark and Emily Matson: Board Meetings and Homework
Emi-Jay is more than an amalgam of its two high school student founders’ names; it’s a growing brand that produces hair ties and accessories sold for $5 to $30 apiece at 2,000 retailers. In 2012, Emi-Jay recorded sales of $5 million.
It started in eighth grade, Goldmark says, when the friends wanted to buy some new hair ties but found that the ones they loved were all out of their price range. “So we went downtown, bought ribbons, and made our own hair accessories,” she says. “Initially, it was just for friends and family.”
But it didn’t stay that way. In the serendipitous way these things happen (and only in L.A.), Matson’s mother goes to Beverly Hills hairstylist Chris McMillan, who has actress Jennifer Aniston as a client. The teenagers had designed a simple black hair tie, planning a small cottage industry that might produce a bit of pocket money. Anniston not only loved it but wore it to a movie premiere and talked about it. “It was a big break,” Goldmark says. “It got us a lot of unexpected press.”
The ties are made at Emi-Jay’s Los Angeles headquarters. The girls can’t do it all, so both their mothers are involved, along with 25 employees. A leave of absence is coming up—both girls plan to go to college.
“We plan to stay involved in Emi-Jay,” Matson says. “We’ll take part in the important decisions.” They don’t know whether they’ll be entrepreneurs later in life, but right now their experience will look good on their college applications. “Not many teenagers can say they are CEOs and co-founders of a multimillion-dollar business,” Matson says.
Tavi Gevinson: The High School Celebrity
Although it took a lot of hard work to get where she is, high school student Tavi Gevinson is almost to the point of being famous for being famous. The blogger has been called “the future of journalism” by Lady Gaga and gets life advice from Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. She launched her fashion blog Style Rookie when she was only 11, and if the goal was establishing her as the kind of youth spokesperson who appears on national talk shows and Project Runway between homework assignments, well, it worked very well.
Gevinson has since moved on to launch Rookie as a broader online magazine that has already spawned a hot paperback book. Unlike most fashionistas, she knows the teenage girl demographic cold because—what a surprise—at just 17 now, she actually is one.
Michelle Phan: The Mind Behind the Makeup
More than 33 million people have watched Michelle Phan, 26, apply Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” makeup on YouTube, and 600 million-plus have watched her videos—not bad for footage shot in her living room and uploaded from her laptop. As one of the most popular personalities on the video channel, makeup queen Phan has clout—she became a Lancôme spokeswoman and developed a jewelry line with Glamhouse. Phan was an online success story before she and her partners raised $3.8 million to launch Ipsy, which has signed up more than 100,000 subscribers to receive $10 monthly “glam bags.”
If YouTube hadn’t made her a star, Phan says she would be “less busy, that’s for sure, but I’d still be working in a field that required creativity. I knew for sure I was going to have my own business.” Phan says that video tutorials like hers, along with blogs and how-to’s, are helping fashion and makeup become more accessible for millions—not just the select few in Paris, New York, Milan and Tokyo. “Anyone, anywhere, with access to the Internet can now look fabulous,” she says.
Neil Blumenthal: Hip Glasses with a Message Attached
In early 2013, 3-year-old startup Warby Parker, an eyeglasses company with a social mission, got some good news: successful completion of its $41.5 million funding round, including investment from Millard Drexler, J. Crew’s chief executive, and American Express. Not bad for a company started by a group of full-time students at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “We love glasses but hate paying the equivalent of an iPhone for them,” says co-founder Neil Blumenthal, 32. “We use [the profits from our] glasses to foster economic development and to create jobs.”
Blumenthal partnered with his former bosses at nonprofit VisionSpring, which trains impoverished women to sell affordable eyeglasses in their communities. “We find that being a socially conscious company helps us recruit and retain top talent, particularly millennials,” he says.
Diego Berdakin: Products with Names Attached
At 28, Diego Berdakin is an entrepreneur in a hurry, starting a bunch of companies, including iEscrow.com (online escrow payments across state lines), while a political science student at Northwestern. But that was then. Now he’s the co-founder and president of BeachMint, an e-commerce company that sells celebrity-designed products—jewelry from Kate Bosworth (JewelMint), clothes from Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen (StyleMint), and home design from Justin Timberlake and an interior-design friend (HomeMint).
But Berdakin doesn’t like to use that celebrity word. “We look for influencers, people who have an authentic interest in a category,” he says. “We need people whose opinion is credible—just being famous doesn’t work anymore, because consumers are too smart these days.”
Being passionate about a new concept is key for Berdakin, because “it’s not always clear to the people around you it’s going to work.” He looks around, sees “amazing and successful entrepreneurs” his age, and concludes that being young is “a huge competitive advantage.”
Quvenzhané Wallis: Tomorrow’s Actress/Dentist
Despite their difficulty in pronouncing her first name, Hollywood agents are falling all over Quvenzhané (kwuh-VEN-zhuh-nay) Wallis, the now-9-year old who exhibited such presence as the Oscar-nominated star of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Wallis has been tapped to star in Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave, and in a Sony remake of Annie, planned for a 2014 release. But Wallis shouldn’t be seen as a careerist with all her moves planned out—she’s a kid! It must be noted that interviews with this vivacious preteen are very short and to the point. Q: Do you like being a movie star? A: Yes. Q: Do you watch a lot of movies, and if so, which ones? A: I like animated movies like Happy Feet Two and Wreck-It Ralph. Q: Do you think you’ll remain an actor or do something else with your life? A: I want to act and be a dentist so I can see people smile. I want to be an actress/dentist!
Gustavo Dudamel: Two Places at Once
Venezuela-born Gustavo Dudamel (sometimes nicknamed “Dude”) is a man on the move. The dynamic young conductor is music director of both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra in his native country. Last March, work with the Philharmonic took him to London, Paris and New York, and that was on the tail end of a whirlwind trip to Israel as a guest conductor in Tel Aviv (where he was briefly detained by security officials).
At a time when the classical music world seems to be shrinking, Dudamel, 32, is expanding, and focusing on relatively modern composers. His 2012 was “the single most audaciously ambitious year ever attempted by a conductor,” according to the Los Angeles Times. It began with the prodigious feat of conducting all of Mahler’s symphonies in one two-week period, and it also included a live telecast from Caracas, being named 2013 “Musician of the Year” by Musical America and winning a Grammy.
Dudamel, who grew up in humble circumstances, is on a mission to bring 20th century music to as many people as possible. “This is new music for many people,” he told broadcast journalist Charlie Rose. “It is really important to bring it to audiences who haven’t heard it.”
Lena Dunham: Underachiever
Initially, it was easy to underestimate actress-writer Lena Dunham, 27. She doesn’t dress for success or come off as super-confident. After messing around with Web TV, she made two indie films that were far too idiosyncratic to suggest a mainstream pot o’ gold. But for those who looked closely, Dunham had a feel for how people actually speak, especially when they’re young and confused. She parlayed that gift into a major breakthrough in 2012, the chance to write, direct and star in the visceral comedy of her own imagining, Girls. She received Emmy nominations for her work in all three roles and won two Golden Globes for the HBO hit, proof that America identifies with the articulate-but-struggling slackers she brings so vividly to life. The show is slated for its third season, and Dunham is now writing another HBO pilot and a book of essays, Not That Kind of Girl (for which she reportedly received a $3.7 million advance). Dunham definitely doesn’t need to tuck in her shirt or brush that just-woke-up hair to find acceptance.
TECH Alexa von Tobel: Financial Advice for the Rest of Us
As a freshly minted Harvard graduate headed for a finance job at Morgan Stanley, it suddenly occurred to Alexa von Tobel that there was a gaping hole in her education.
“I was great at math, pretty good at understanding the economy and the balance sheets of businesses, but nobody ever educated me about my own balance sheet, about understanding mortgages and car loans,” says von Tobel, the 29-year-old founder and CEO of New York-based LearnVest, which aims to advise the 87 percent of Americans who von Tobel says have never had access to professional financial planning.
“If you’re making a big decision such as buying a home or going through a divorce, it’s really important to have targeted advice,” says von Tobel, who took a leave from Harvard Business School to turn her “big idea” into an 85-employee company with $25 million invested. “Helping make that happen is such a burning passion for me I literally jump out of bed in the morning,” she says. Clients pay an upfront fee ranging from $89 to $399, then a $19 monthly fee that gives them unlimited access to a team of advisers.
Von Tobel hasn’t let her age or her gender get in the way. “Age is just a number,” she says with a shrug. So is the $100 million Business Insider estimated LearnVest is worth.
Jack Dorsey: The Dropout Who Founded Twitter and Square
Jack Dorsey didn’t just drop out of college once—he did it twice. With Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, he became a billionaire as an entrepreneur so eager to create he couldn’t wait to finish school. But he didn’t create Twitter right away, even if that would make a tidier movie. He flopped with a startup named DNet, crashed as the head of a bicycle courier service, got bored working for a podcasting company, and studied to become a massage therapist. And then, with partners, he created what became Twitter in a two-week coding blitz.
Launched in 2007, Twitter got big very quickly, probably too big for a then-31-year-old with little managerial experience. Dorsey was forced out as Twitter’s CEO in 2008, but despite feeling “punched in the stomach,” he quickly bounced back with Square. Its mission could not be more different than Twitter’s—Square’s elevator speech is letting users buy stuff with their smartphones in lieu of credit cards or cash. Dorsey says the goal is to “just make payments feel amazing.” That fits on a tweet, and Dorsey—“a modern Edison in a cynical world,” says Fast Company—is also back at Twitter, heading product development. What does he do for an encore, run for mayor of New York? He’s considering it.
Daniel Ek: Diving Into the Music Stream
Sweden’s Daniel Ek approaches music as the anti-Sean Parker—and it’s working. Instead of defying the record companies like Parker’s Napster did and offering every song on earth as a free download, Ek’s fast-growing Spotify lures listeners in with 20 million tunes they can legally stream. What’s more, via Facebook you can see and learn from what your friends and family are checking out on Spotify. “I decided I wanted to create a product that was better than piracy,” Ek told ABC News. You can listen to any new album in its entirety—free—so what’s the catch? For listeners, there isn’t one, unless it’s the ads that come with the free version of the service. But ad-free on a home computer is only $5 a month, and the company sees the huge mobile market as its biggest growth opportunity.
Ek, 30, and worth an estimated $300 million, first struck gold writing code for an online advertising company. With that windfall, the music-loving Ek (he collects guitars) created Spotify with a partner when he was only 24. Record companies—notoriously resisting the online siren call until Steve Jobs created iTunes—loved the Spotify model. EMI, Universal, Warner and Sony have all signed on, as have more than 20 million consumers (5 million of them paid). Of course, iTunes has nearly a half-billion users worldwide, so Ek has his work cut out for him.
Ben Silbermann: Focusing the Troops
The thing about Pinterest is that you may not get it right away. It’s the web equivalent of a bulletin board, designed to inspire your creative side. Indeed, not that many people realized they needed Pinterest in their lives when the company launched in 2010.
Co-founder and CEO Ben Silbermann, 31, a Google veteran and college entrepreneur, realized that the intrepid few who had actually taken the time to check out the site loved it. The response from Yale-educated Silbermann was to focus the company on encouraging and building from that small base—even holding meetings with early users to get them fired up and sharing with friends. The first 5,000 even got his phone number in lieu of a help desk. The company cranked out smartphone apps and gave away T-shirts. Everybody, including Silbermann, toiled nearly around the clock.
It worked. From 3,000 registered users a few months after the launch, it has grown to 25 million. The site reached 10 million unique visitors per month in 2012, a faster trajectory than any other website. Pinterest shoppers spend double what Facebook shoppers spend, and major retailers such as L.L. Bean and Nordstrom have millions of followers on the site. Pinterest is now valued at $2.5 billion, which is not bad for a company that might have failed if its fledgling CEO hadn’t kept his team’s eyes on the prize. “I still feel tons of urgency to make it better, to hurry up and fix all the problems,” Silbermann says.
Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger: A $1 Billion Photo Finish
In retrospect, it seems obvious that the world was waiting for a great photo app, especially one that unleashed personal creativity. Flickr went viral, didn’t it? Instagram is the product of two Stanford University fellows, Kevin Systrom, 29, and Mike Krieger, 27, and grew out of an embryonic note-and-photo app, Burbn, created by avid photographer Systrom. A key decision, Systrom says, was to cut Burbn down to its photo-centered essence. “What remained was Instagram,” he says. You don’t just use your phone to post photos to Instagram; you use online tools to filter, frame and color them, creating fun images that are great to share with your friends.
The Instagram site launched in 2010 and hit immediately—the young entrepreneurs saw the number of users rise so fast they doubted their software was working. Today the site has more than 27 million users and was acquired by Facebook in 2012 for an unbelievable $1 billion. (Google veteran Systrom had the chutzpah to ask for $2 billion.) “Insta-Rich,” blurbed The Wall Street Journal. Then again, the company was valued at $30 million in 2011, and the partners undoubtedly felt rich then, too.
David Karp: A Slow Build
In 2007 David Karp needed a little help with Tumblr—not with the site itself, because he’d already created the template for it, but with seeing that this short-form blogging platform could be a business. The then-20-year-old, who’d already skipped college to work online full time, wasn’t sure he was ready to dive into a turbulent startup.
At 26, Karp took the plunge, and Tumblr has exploded in growth, registering nearly 170 million visitors to its pages on a good month. Even before the traffic climbed, Tumblr had been valued at $800 million. But David Karp is no Mark Zuckerberg, and has been famously hesitant to grow the company or maximize its moneymaking potential. There was no advertising on the site until mid-2012, and a sale isn’t in the cards—Karp, personally ascetic, says he has no interest in cashing out for a big payday. “We’re not motivated by money,” he told Mediabistro. “We are into this thing we’re building.”
Still, there are signs of a maturing Tumblr. Early in 2013, candidates for the chief operating officer position were asked whether they were prepared to be Karp’s “Sheryl Sandberg.” The company’s revenue reached $13 million in 2012, but it could grow steeply this year.
*Update May 20: Yahoo! has purchased the blogging site for $1.1 billion, despite Karp’s previous objections to selling. He will remain CEO of the site, and Tumblr will remain independently operated as a separate business, according to Yahoo!
Brian Chesky: The Homeless CEO
In 2008 Brian Chesky and co-founder Joe Gebbia advertised their San Francisco apartment for use during a tech conference and got an overwhelming response. Without that experience, the short-term apartment rental site Airbnb might not exist.
Obviously the pair found an online niche, tapping into the revenue potential of temporarily uninhabited living spaces. Airbnb has now been the broker for more than 10 million guest nights, and as many as 60,000 people a day find accommodations through the site. Hotels must hate the site, which is huge in Europe—the U.S. market is secondary.
Chesky, 30, who has a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design and remains passionate about how things look, has no actual fixed address to stow his drafting pens and sketchbooks. He told an audience at the 2013 South by Southwest conference that he has been mostly “homeless” since 2010, when he moved out of his apartment. “I live in Airbnb apartments,” he said. “It’s the best way to take the pulse…. The key is to always use your product.”
FOR A BRIGHT FUTURE Leslie Dewan: Going Nuclear
MIT graduate Leslie Dewan, 28, knew science was her calling in the seventh grade. “It’s so much fun for me!” she says. “Ever since I was little, I’ve always had a few science experiments going on.” As a student, she helped analyze Ecuadorian balsa rafts to estimate how far they might have traveled in the days before Columbus, built humanoid robots and a cyclotron, and crafted LED-based light installations. Now she’s helping jump-start the moribund American nuclear industry as co-founder and chief science officer of a new company, Transatomic Power. Its reactors, which could produce electricity by 2030, run on spent nuclear fuel (nuclear waste)—currently a major disposal problem.
“Nuclear power is a young technology—there’s so much more to be discovered,” Dewan says. “That’s what makes it so exciting to me. Yes, there are problems, but innovative people are going to be able to come up with solutions and bring the technology to its full potential.”
Josh Sommer: Fighting for the Cure (Including His Own)
Josh Sommer was a freshman at Duke when he learned he had chordoma, a rare bone cancer with a low cure rate. Although he was just 18, he’d been handed a life’s mission: improving the prospects for his fellow patients. He began working at the chordoma research lab that also happened to be at Duke, but grew frustrated by its lack of resources. His solution, in 2007, was to create the Chordoma Foundation, which provides seed grants for research programs, tests U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs for efficacy in treating chordoma, and awards prizes for valid cell lines. “Quantifiable results in combination with a compelling story are a winning combination,” Sommer says today.
For this 25-year-old, the best part of working in philanthropy is “getting to solve interesting and meaningful problems, and sharing the excitement of the experience with others who are similarly motivated.”
Angela Zhang: A Researcher’s White Coat at 15
In 2011, when she was 17, California high school student Angela Zhang won the $100,000 Siemens Foundation science competition for a potential cancer treatment. Mentored by a professor at nearby Stanford University, she developed a system that uses nanoparticles to deliver medicine only to targeted cancer cells.
“My friends thought it was cool,” says Zhang, now a freshman at Harvard. “They said, ‘Now when you disappear from school, at least we know where you’re going.’ ” She had been disappearing to the Stanford lab since she was 15, when she finally convinced Zhen Cheng, Ph.D., she was serious about research. She put in 1,000 hours on the nanotech project.
Zhang is also a young entrepreneur, having created the nonprofit Labs on Wheels, which aims to help regional high schools share scientific resources. “One school may have a teacher who’s awesome in physics, but no lab, and down the street they may have the resources but no teacher,” Zhang says. “We’re trying to bring them together.”
Zhang credits her father, who, starting when she was 5, took her for ice cream and asked her science questions such as, “Why is the sky blue?”
Jason Silva: A World of Wonder and Awe
“In order to understand something, you have to become aroused in some capacity,” says Jason Silva. “So I’m trying to create an experience where people have a new form of aesthetic arrest, or a new way to engage with an idea.” The Venezuela-born ideas man, who’s been called both “the new Carl Sagan” and “a Timothy Leary of the viral video age,” has created a mega-popular series of Youtube videos (more than a million views) he calls “shots of philosophical espresso.” It’s not enough to just present ideas, he says; viewers have to be fascinated, almost enraptured, by what they’re watching. He spits words and concepts out like bullets, as rapid-fire images ricochet past with just enough screen time to register themselves in the viewer’s cerebral cortex.
Silva, 31, has a relentlessly optimistic and dazzling view of a scientifically enabled future for humankind. His favorite word: awe. These days he’s a futurist for hire, as a conference keynote, producer of corporate videos, advertising gadfly and program host—most recently for the National Geographic Channel series Brain Games. “We need creativity to find ways to transcend our limitations,” Silva says. “We need to be cosmic heroes.”