This summer, I was introduced to three remarkable 16-year old entrepreneurs who began their business startup pitch this way: "60 years from now I don't want to be forgotten; 60 years from now I want to continue to pursue my dreams and 60 years from now I want to be in control of my life!"
The young women — Molly Leifer, from New Jersey, Sofia Remez from Florida and Inés de Lestapis from Spain were talking up NextStepLiving.com, their prospective company that they called "a TripAdvisor.com for assisted living homes.” Its goal: to help candidates for those facilities who are eager to retain control of their lives by making their own decisions as long as possible.
'Entrepreneurs in Training' Camp
Their audience: a group of entrepreneurs and venture capital investors at Barnard College's Athena Center for Leadership Studies program, "Entrepreneurs in Training,” in New York City. The 11-day intensive summer camp for female high school students from around the world launched two years ago in collaboration with Barnard’s Office of Pre-College Programs and leading business and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) educators.
Its founders are Nathalie Molina Niño and Kathryn Kolbert. Molina Niño, a passionate supporter of female entrepreneurs, founded a successful tech startup at 20. Kolbert, recognized by The National Law Journal as one of the "100 Most Influential Lawyers in America,” created an entrepreneurship platform at Athena because "young women are discouraged from thinking of entrepreneurship; young boys are not."
When I met the three teenage entrepreneurs, I immediately wanted to learn why they decided to pursue a business targeting people in their 50s through their 80s. After all, many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have avoided that market for years.
The Origin of Their Assisted Living Idea
The girls explained that NextStepLiving.com was Remez's idea and grew out of her personal experience: Her grandfather was having a difficult time finding an assisted living center that he liked and that met all his needs, including physical therapy for a recently broken pelvis.
"It was so frustrating to watch my mom trying to help him research different facilities,” Remez said. “She found three or four websites, but they were primarily online brochures with no consumer interaction. So my mom ended up having to travel to the facilities to take tours and interview residents and staffers and assess cost and expenses. I knew there had to be a better way to do this."
Her business conceit: create an interactive web platform with descriptive information, photos, reviews and ratings. Prospective assisted living residents and their families would be able to search among facilities using filters — such as level of healthcare, outdoor activities and access to cultural centers — without having to step outside their front door.
Doing the Research
Remez and her two new partners interviewed potential customers at churches and other venues in New York City where older people congregate. “We garnered valuable insights as we asked other seniors if they had had this same problem and, if so, what would make it better?"said Remez.
Since they wanted to create an online business, the trio started probing their customer base’s technology expertise. They soon discovered that, contrary to popular opinion, many boomers and people their parents’ age are eagerly embracing technology.
Excited, the girls threw themselves into the entrepreneurial process of designing a startup that could help assisted living candidates eager to retain control of their lives by making their own decisions as long as possible.
(MORE: Assisted Living Basics)
It turns out that these young women are part of Generation Z’s entrepreneurial boomlet. A study produced by New York City advertising agency Sparks & Honey found that 72 percent of Gen Z’ers want to start their own businesses and that 60 per cent want jobs making a social impact.
Why They Were Taught Improv
The Entrepreneurs-in-Training program is ideally suited for Gen Z girls, since it’s designed to foster the confidence and develop the skills they’d need to launch ventures. Working alongside instructors and entrepreneurs aged 40 through 70+, the girls develop their ideas, learn core entrepreneurial concepts from successful leaders and pitch their business plans to respected investors from the startup sector.
In some ways, this boot camp is similar in structure to the eProvStudio workshops that my colleagues and I have created at Senior Entrepreneurship Works to introduce men and women aged 40+ to entrepreneurship through the art of improvisation.
Athena leaders, instructors, and mentors come with impressive theater and storytelling experience. For instance, Michaela Murphy is a former Microsoft exec who has been advocating for improvisation and theater in business development for years. (She said what impressed her most was the girls in the program’s “willingness to investigate their ideas and ask zillions of questions."
De Lestapis came to the training predisposed to appreciate play and improv, thanks to her 5th grade teacher. "I had always been shy, my nose constantly in a book. But this teacher opened my eyes and made me close the book,” she said. “He had a special way to teach, not with boring scripts or individual work, but with fun and competition. He made us work in groups, to learn from each other and to become a team.”
His games also taught her “that failure can be a way to succeed, and that your team won’t feel resentful towards you if you give the wrong answer.”
Molina Niño reinforced de Lestapis’ positive failure concept, saying, "the most vital part of the program is that it creates a safe place for failure.”
Teachers With a Flair for Storytelling
Athena's pitch training by theater coaches is one of the most original aspects of its boot camp. Persuading funders to raise working capital is an art form, requiring a great deal of confidence and skills not innate in a typical 16-year-old.
The girls pitched as a team, and Inés described how, "Once we nailed the most important details about our business,” said de Lestapis, “the Broadway actors and Michaela Murphy taught us how to make those details funny, dynamic and interesting for the people hearing our pitch."
Remez admitted that the idea of pitching to venture capitalists was "scary” but the program taught her how to “create a theatrical intro to the pitch” to capture the VCs in the room. And the improv lessons helped her “respond to their questions as if I really knew what I was talking about.”
Impressing the Venture Capitalists
One of the those VCs, tech investor Jeanne Sullivan, said: "From just ideas and brainstorming as a team, these young gals created a business idea from nothing.” Many of the businesses, Sullivan added, “could be real and scalable — given great advisory and follow on, some financing support and some magic fairy dust."
Amy Nederlander, a strategic business development expert and Broadway producer concurred. "The teens created impressive presentations — professional, considered, logical and with intent. Other business presentations are far too frequently sterile. I wanted these young women's businesses to succeed.”
The Future for the Girls' Business
What’s in the cards for NextStepLiving.com?
While the three founders told me they were excited about the possibilities, they were also very realistic about the fact that they're still in high school and would have a difficult time trying to simultaneously run a business. Said Remez: "I can hardly carve out 20 minutes for a conversation with my parents."
Still, the three extraordinary Gen Z’ers came away from their Entrepreneurs@Athena boot camp even more enthusiastic about finding ways to solve problems that could change the world. Now, they also understand that it’s okay to make money in the process, too.
Said Leifer: "All great businesses' main objective is to make the world a better place and we want people to know that giving us money would not be a charitable donation, but rather it would be a smart investing opportunity."
Elizabeth Isele wrote this article with support from the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows program, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.