Is Every Ambitious Teen-ager a “Founder and C.E.O.”?

Marella Gayla  Jan 4 2021

Student at school wearing a mask

One striking innovation of modern meritocracy is the teen-age executive. High-school students used to spiff up their college applications with extracurriculars like Model U.N. and student council. Today’s overachievers want to grace their résumés with the words “founder and C.E.O.” When schools in Fremont, California, shut down in March, Jagannath Prabhakaran, a sixteen-year-old, seized the opportunity to join the ranks. He and three friends began writing a curriculum for what he dubbed cells Academy, an organization devoted to getting kids excited about science. In June, it launched two courses, Python for Beginners and Intro to Genetics, on a digital learning platform called Udemy. More than two thousand students signed up. In the next couple of months, cells added to its programming: a virtual camp in the U.S.; a tutoring program in Malaysia.

Prabhakaran and his friends weren’t the only students in their highly competitive school district who decided to change the world during quarantine. At least sixteen other ventures were launched in the months after learning went remote. Arav Tewari founded ShareNext, a food-drive group that describes itself as “Uber for donations.” Nihar Duvvuri started Project SD, a nonprofit that creates and funds debate clubs at schools in low-income areas. When classes resumed, in the fall, it seemed like every other teen-ager was running a company.

“It’s not just test scores and G.P.A. that get you into a top school,” Christopher Rim, a college-admissions consultant in New York City, said over the phone. “You need really great extracurricular activities.” Rim is twenty-five years old. When he was in high school, in New Jersey, he founded an anti-bullying organization called It Ends Today, which put him on Lady Gaga’s radar. Rim credits the nonprofit with helping him get into Yale. (He dissolved the group when he was in college.) After graduating, in 2017, he founded an admissions-counselling firm, Command Education, where his services start at around a thousand dollars an hour.

Command Education specializes in “activity development,” which turns the company’s teen-age clients into founders, executive directors, and patent holders by connecting them with lawyers, accountants, engineers, event planners, and designers who can help them realize their adolescent ambitions. During lockdown, Rim saw a four-hundred-per-cent spike in inquiries. “With school being remote, how are you supposed to participate in the school musical?” he asked.

Student founders who don’t hire consultants can find starting a company without adult supervision difficult. Aditi Morumganti, the sixteen-year-old secretary of Project SD, got tangled up in legal paperwork: “You’ll think you have everything down, and then you’re looking at a form, and you’re, like, Oh, my God, I need to file for this thing as well?”

The young founders of Fremont are an especially scrappy and well-credentialled bunch. Their Web sites have tasteful fonts, well-lit head shots, and graphics that slide like automatic doors. Many of them enunciate like high-ranking debaters—because they are high-ranking debaters. Some of them sit on one another’s executive boards.

Although the intended beneficiaries of these student-founded organizations tend to be other young people, some kids are skeptical. Aditya Prerepa, a junior at the district’s Mission San Jose High School, has a cynical take. “How do you know you started junior year?” Prerepa tweeted a few months ago. “Every student and their mother are creating a nonprofit for ‘social good’ for college apps.” Attached to the post was a screenshot of Prerepa’s Facebook notifications, filled with invitations to support his peers’ ventures. He argued that it would be more effective for them to join existing organizations than to start new ones. “But no,” he wrote. “We all have to be founders.”

Prerepa eventually deleted the tweet, at the request of a school administrator. He later clarified that he’d meant to criticize the admissions rat race, not his classmates. “Everybody’s trying to get into a good college,” he said. An amateur computer programmer, he spends much of his time working on open-source software, but he lacks the ted-talk affect of some of his peers. “I don’t blame the kids themselves,” he said. “I blame the system that’s been created.”

The teen-age Fremont execs are ambivalent about the high-pressure environment. “It’s intense, but in a good way,” Asavari Gowda, who co-founded a science-and-technology blog called steam Engine, said. “It’s just that everyone here has a lot of goals.” As for the glut of student-run companies, she said, “It’s better when these things are run by kids. Well, not better, but good in the sense that we’re more idealistic. Right?”

This article appeared in the New Yorker on Jan 4, 2021

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