Being a teen might mean you can't do a lot of things. You can't vote. You can't join the military. You can't rent a car. But you can start a business. And sometimes, being a teen entrepreneur can have its advantages.
Being a teen might mean you can't do a lot of things. You can't vote. You can't join the military. You can't rent a car. But you can start a business. And sometimes, according to Shorouq Almallah, Director of The Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at GVSU
, being a teen entrepreneur can have its advantages.
"Teens have an open mind," says Almallah. "They see limitless opportunities." Unlike their adult counterparts who may shut down an idea immediately if they see it as unfeasible, teens don't look at their limitations. "It's what I love about working with that group," she says.
And in Grand Rapids, there are teens who are using their ideas and their passions to pursue their dreams of becoming entrepreneurs. Whether they are focusing on a side business or hoping to grow their business as they grow up, these teens aren't letting the limitations of their age keep them from creating businesses and seeing the opportunities in front of them.
While their visions may be different, they are all driven by relatively similar desires; to solve their own problems, follow their own paths, and pursue their own passions.
Religion, football, and business
Allmallah has noticed that many teens are driven by a desire to be self-reliant, to be their own boss. That certainly seems to be a driver for Calvin Pimpleton, a participant and winner of Startgarden's 100 Ideas
, a pitch competition that urges anyone with an idea to pitch it in 100 seconds with the chance to win $1,000 and eventually $20,000. At just 15, Pimpleton and his partner entered the competition and won $1,000, giving them the motivation to keep going.
Pimpleton has never wanted to work for someone else. "I want to be my own boss, set my own schedule, and make my own money," he says.
A student at Innovation Central High, he's always been business savvy and driven, coming up with fundraisers for church and other ideas. His mom says he's one of the most motivated kids she knows. So, it's no surprise that one day while they didn't have anything to do, rather than cause trouble or watch TV, Pimpleton and a friend decided to ask if anyone needed their snow shoveled. "We're young, we're strong," says Pimpleton, who is driven to help out when he can. "...we wanted to help out because a lot of people can't do it themselves." This desire turned into CNJ 360, a lawn care, snow removal, and cleanup business.
While CNJ 360 started with just two snow shovels, Pimpleton used the prize money from Startgarden for supplies, a new trailer, and to help get the word out about his business. He is looking forward to the next round of the Start Garden competition in order to fund transportation for the next winter season. Pimpleton will soon turn 16 and hopes to have a license and a new vehicle to transport his snow equipment through the neighborhoods where he will be working, rather than hitching his trailer to his bike or relying on his mom.
If he doesn't get the funding and has to go without a new vehicle? "I'll be walking!" he says.
As a football player, Plimpleton has taken the discipline and strength he hones on the field and has applied it to his business and other areas of his life. While he has always had strong mentors to support and motivate him, he knows that many other kids don't have this and he hopes to one day take his entrepreneurial mindset, and the experience he gains through his snow removal business, and apply it to starting a program that mentors young kids using sports training and God. "I know how training can change you mentally and physically," he says.
Pimpleton's motivations center around not only being his own boss, but also changing perceptions. "We want people to see us as young men, entrepreneurs, that are making an impact...not just as kids playing football and not doing anything."
He also promised his father, who passed away when Pimpleton was nine years old, that he would stay out of trouble, maintain his GPA, and go to college. He uses the lessons he learned in sports, in church, and from his mentors to stay on this path, and he wants to pass that on to others.
"Religion, football, and business," drive Pimpleton forward.
Jackson Riegler has also combined his passions in order to start a business and make a difference in the world.
Living on the Great Lakes, only moments from the beach, has given Riegler a deep passion for the these bodies of water, their wildlife, and the biology surrounding them. He's also always been fascinated by entrepreneurship, reading about Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia.
One thing Riegler admired about these entrepreneurs was the fact that they would leave an everlasting impact on the people around them. So Riegler took his desire to make an impact and aimed it towards the Great Lakes. All the oncoming dangers to the Great Lakes—invasive Asian Carp, the ancient Line 5 pipeline under the straits of Mackinac bursting and creating a devastating oil spill, and the The Trump Administration’s proposed budget cuts towards Great Lakes funding—"have all seemed to come to fruition lately," he says, and his concern for his home has grown.
Last July, Riegler combined passion and business and announced a clothing company, Oshki
, that would donate 5 percent of its profits to the Alliance for the Great Lakes
, where he was already volunteering and helping with beach cleanups. The organization cleans and takes samples from beaches that will help preserve their wildlife and keep them clean. He named his company "Oshki," which means fresh in Ojibwe, a Native American tribe from the Great Lakes region. Oshki's slogan is, "Since 12,000 B.C.," referring to the time period in which the Great Lakes were formed.
Riegler chose clothing as his business because, "I think when you make a social statement through fashion, it means something. Oshki means something and people will ask about it. It allows you connect in a meaningful way...and it's pretty easy to create."
The clothing line experienced ups and down right from the beginning and while sales initially took off, Riegler says it was a reality check when they tapered off after the initial surge. Now, he says, "Things are pretty stable," and he has some new products coming out soon that he thinks will help boost sales. He has both retail and online sales and is a member of the local Chamber of Commerce.
"It's exciting to use your business to make a positive change," he says.
Their own beat
Dylan Schwartz shares Riegler's desire to connect and chooses to pursue connection through music.
Schwartz comes from a musical background. His mom was a touring Broadway actress and most of his family is musical. Schwartz himself plays four different instruments and, rather than simply enjoying music, has always analyzed the music he listens to. When he purchased a sampler, successfully created some beats, and sold them to kids at school, he knew he'd found a way to do what he loved doing-sharing his music. Now, Schwartz uses a computer to create beats that rappers can purchase and rap over.
In the music industry, the ultimate success is attaching your producer tag to a successful song. "I've heard stuff on the radio, topping the charts, where the beat was created by some random producer that had never been seen before," he says. This is the goal that Schwartz works towards.
Schwartz is driven by a desire to follow his passion, and that's music. And while he maintains that his business will remain a side venture, he's using it to fuel his career and to pursue photojournalism in school. "I look at photographers that follow artists around and would love to do that...I would love to do something around music the rest of my life and make money doing it. Journalism would be my in to the music industry," he says.
Dallas Hopson has always been interested in shoes. And while he hasn't officially started his business yet, he has dreams of opening his own shoe store, complete with all the options he says he can't find when shopping. Rather than focusing on one type, he wants to sell all types of shoes for everyone.
Preparing for his goal of owning his own business led him to the The Teen Entrepreneurship Summer Academy (TESA) at Grand Valley State University
, founded by Allmallah and her colleagues at GVSU. He's participated for the last two years after urging from his older brother and says the program taught him that the most important part of starting a business is finding an idea that's different enough so that people will support you instead of potential competitors.
He believes he's found that in his shoe store. "Most shoe stores I go to...the selection is very limited," says Hopson. While he knows most people can go online, he looks to his own desires, "I'd rather try on shoes in stores than online, and if you have a larger selection it will speak to more people." For now, he sells his own shoes online through various apps, and he says he does well. This gives him confidence in his idea and that he'll be able to pick out the right shoes when the time comes.
He's heading to another program this summer as he knows he still has a lot to learn. "I need to learn more about how to get started and how to get investors to invest in your business." He also wants to study business in college to further prepare himself. Until then, every time he goes to a shoe store, he studies up by observing pricing and selection.
TESA also taught him that, even though his creativity and passion is encouraged, starting a business is hard. "They stress it takes hard work and time, but also that anyone can do it. They said that a lot. You just have to have the resources and the ideas," says Hopson.
"I want to make customers happy and get new ideas out there."
And Hopson and his fellow teen entrepreneurs are not short on ideas.
The time is now
Most teen entrepreneurs realize that the businesses they start now won't continue through college or after, but they know they have the drive and determination to create new ideas and to solve problems, and they don't want to wait to get started. Allmallah says most teen entrepreneurs are like the ones featured here. "They look to their local environment...they look at what they like, and what's missing. If they can't find a solution to their problems in the market, they go out and do it."
Without the limitations that adulthood inevitably brings, and with the support of local resources and technology, they have the chance to pursue what their passion projects. "You find young people really good at coding or tech and they can start a business from their basement or room with very little overhead," says Allmallah. Teens are tech-savvy and use it to their advantage, using social media to market their businesses and to get support from their friends and the community. Technology gives them the ability to get started almost instantly.
Pimpleton used his neighborhood website to get the word out. Riegler started selling his clothes through social media before he had a website. Schwartz creates his music on a computer and uploads it to the cloud, and Hopson prepares for his shoe store by selling his own shoes online. No storefronts. No offices. No waiting. Just possibility.
Whether motivations are as simple as needing some extra money, or as complex as wanting to leave your mark on the world, Riegler doesn't think starting a business should wait. "You have to have awareness of mortality from a young age if you want to be successful. We all die. You only have a limited time to make your mark," he says.
Riegler and his peers aren't waiting. They're starting businesses that make an impact, help them grow, and teach valuable lessons...and they're doing it right now.
This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.