You're never too young to be CEO

(CNN) — Lily Warren was just 8 years old when she decided to start her own business with her younger sisters.

The girls had already visited a marketplace for young business owners and opened their own bank accounts at the Young Americans Bank in Denver, which touts itself as the world’s only bank designed for kids.

“There were tons of young entrepreneurs selling what they made. It was a really cool place,” said Lily, now 13.

When their parents started beekeeping at their home in Littleton, Colorado, the girls found the inspiration they really needed.

While they weren’t able to harvest enough honey to sell, the sisters noticed that their parents always collected a significant amount of beeswax. Instead of throwing it away, they thought they could find a way to use it.

The girls researched what could be made at home with beeswax. By 2009, Lily, Chloe and Sophie were in business as the Sweet Bee Sisters, making lip balm in flavors like strawberry and root beer, and lotion bars in lavender and bamboo.

They sell their products at local stores and, for the last three years, at their own stall at the entrepreneurs’ marketplace that inspired them. In 2013, the Warren sisters were named finalists in a young entrepreneurs competition and were awarded $250 and mentoring from a business leader.

“Their ability to speak confidently with customers, to make decisions collectively, to work hard for something they want and to designate and fulfill responsibilities has [all] been enhanced through their business experience,” said Lisa Warren, the Sweet Bee Sisters’ mom.

Around the country, children — some of them barely old enough to read — are turning their big, creative ideas into money-making businesses. And their parents, schools and business leaders are cheering them on.

‘It’s never too early’

Business consultants and serial entrepreneurs say that it’s never too early to teach kids the benefits of sound money management and smart business practices. Some business leaders around the country started businesses as kids, including Honest Tea’s CEO Seth Goldman, who sold golf balls he dug up from the course near his home, while Vosges Haut-Chocolat’s CEO Katrina Markoff, who has said she offered Easy-Bake Oven treats to customers.

“Entrepreneurship comes with the emotional ups and downs,” said Adam Toren, who co-authored the “Kidpreneurs” books with his brother, Matthew. “Learning how to overcome obstacles at a young age definitely played a huge role in becoming who we are today.”

Today, the Toren brothers are serial entrepreneurs who founded Youngentrepreneur.com. Toren said they like to pay it forward by providing businesses with tips and ideas they’ve picked up over the years.

“Sharpening a child’s entrepreneurial skills will equip them with the skills necessary to tackle a limitless future,” Toren said.

That doesn’t mean all young entrepreneurs focus their time on business instead of school. Learning entrepreneurial skills can also put young people on the path to more learning. A study of students involved in the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a program that teaches business skills to low-income youth, showed just that.

Students involved in the program had a 32% increase in interest in attending college, while students who did not participate saw a 17% decrease, according to a Harvard Graduate School of Education study from 2002 to 2004. The study also found an increase in leadership behaviors among students who participated.

Christine Poorman, executive director of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship in Chicago, believes the numbers would be higher today — a recent alumni survey of 300 students found that 90% were in college. She often sees students who completed the program using money made from their businesses to pay for college.

While young entrepreneurship can lead to college and careers, some young people see it as a way to find their owns voices.

Nine-year-old Leila Kaufman of New York City didn’t like that adults were reviewing technology toys for kids. With the help of her dad, Michael, she created a website called RethinkToys. Together, they produce videos of Leila reviewing the latest tech toys for kids. The project launched a business and helped her create a place to voice her opinion.

“If it’s a kid’s toy, shouldn’t kids be rating it?” Leila asked.

Michael helps Leila make contacts with companies and attend product launches she wouldn’t normally be able to access. She’s been to media events for video games and sat in on closed-door meetings with a company that created a popular game she reviewed, Kaufman said.

Plans to expand and monetize RethinkToys are in the future, but for now, Leila’s parents are happy that she’s learning to give her opinion honestly, confidently and articulately.

“At all these events, she was the only kid there and just blew everyone in the media away,” he said.

Kid entrepreneurs also have powerful lessons to learn about balance. Leila’s mom, Sammy Kaufman, said they have to remind their daughter that she’s a kid, and she has other priorities beyond her website.

“I think it’s difficult for her to be an entrepreneur at this age,” Sammy Kaufman said. “There are a lot of things her parents and her teachers make her do.”

‘I teach my kids to fail spectacularly’

Canada-based business mentor Cameron Herold, who started his first company at 21, says parents and teachers could do a better job of nurturing “entrepreneurial traits” in children.

His father raised him to be an entrepreneur when he saw that Herold wasn’t likely to be a model student or employee. Herold had little interest in school, where he struggled to pay attention and believed the school system was trying to mold him into something he wasn’t.

Herold says more schools are trying to build students’ confidence in areas that match their interests and abilities, rather than focusing entirely on improving areas where they struggle.

“Let your weaknesses be your weaknesses,” he said. “Let’s teach kids according to their abilities.”

After all, not every child-led business is a precocious success.

Michigan high school English teacher Nicholas Provenzano launched “20 Time” in his classroom this fall — a program that gives students an opportunity to explore topics that interest them — and asked his students to keep blogs that document their progress. The students received only one hour of class time per week for the projects, but most invested time outside the classroom, Provenzano said.

Provenzano said the project helps students to lead their own learning and understand how to recover from failure — one of the core lessons of entrepreneurship. His students’ projects ranged from training to run a marathon to knitting hats for newborns to developing a mobile game app to designing and selling clothes.

The main thing Provenzano wanted his students to get from this project “is that failure is a part of life.” In the real world, he wants his students to be able to take risks, he said.

“I teach my kids to fail spectacularly and grow from that experience,” he said. “To be effective problem solvers and critical thinkers, failure has to be an accepted part of the process and not something that should stop people from trying.”

Emily Fleming, one of Provenzano’s students, set out to design a clothing line and set up an Etsy shop to sell it. When she struggled to complete her project, she wrote about the realization that fear of failure and the potential embarrassment often keeps her from pursuing new ideas.

“I had this amazing opportunity to create and explore and I didn’t take full advantage because of an irrational fear of failure and embarrassment,” she wrote on her project blog. “I want to be able to go out for my presentation and say that I conquered this irrational fear, and created something without a worry that someone wouldn’t like it as much as I do. ‘Twenty time’ is changing for me and I am ready and excited to take this as far as I can.”

‘She can be the creator of her destiny’

In success or in failure, entrepreneurship can be a powerful early lesson in money management.

Rich Martinez, CEO of the Young Americans Center in Denver, says that kids not only need to be motivated to be entrepreneurs, but they also need an environment that will foster the kind of risk-taking that’s required.

“Kids are motivated by money, but adults don’t give them a chance to make it. We just give it to them,” he said.

That’s not the best way for kids to learn how the rest of the world works, he said.

“Somehow we’ve created a society that isn’t OK with failure, that isn’t OK with taking risks,” he said.

Seven-year-old Scout Kingsley and her mom, Ashley, started their Happy Wear girls’ accessories line one night when they were making necklaces out of colorful paperclips.

“Scout is definitely the artistic director, telling me what looks good and what will sell,” Ashley Kingsley said. “I’ve never crafted before in my life. I had no way to really help her.”

Since Happy Wear launched in November, the company has profited more than $1,500 in Etsy sales and marketplace events, Kingsley says. Scout has also participated in the Denver young entrepreneurs marketplace.

“I know Scout loves to make money and we opened a bank account for her. She loves watching her bank account grow,” she said. They have plans for more markets and would love to see some of the pieces get picked up on a national scale.

Scout said her love of dressing up and accessories makes running Happy Wear feel fun. Apart from production, Scout has learned a lot about marketing and packaging, she said.

“I get better every time people order something,” Scout said.

Ashley Kingsley considers Happy Wear to be a learning experience for Scout; it teachers her that there’s more than one way to acquire knowledge.

“She’s a kid, but she is, I believe, heads and shoulders above the kids her age,” Ashley Kingsley said. “I hope this opens up her mind so she knows she can be the creator of her destiny.”

 

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