Executive Skills & Strategy Opinion

The Children’s Crusade: Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century

By Tom Segal — April 09, 2013 5 min read
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When Marissa Mayer took over the controls of Yahoo!, the internet giant whose market position has been squeezed and boxed out with the rise of the Facebooks, Googles, and Twitters of the world, it became clear that the company was ready to make a mark for itself in an effort to return to its glory days. With a new leader on board already making headlines for the breaking of corporate conventions (plus a hefty sum of cash in the bank - over $7.5 BILLION at the end of Q3 2012, or roughly a third of total assets, an impossibly high percentage for a publicly-traded company), Yahoo! appears primed to go on a run of acquisitions, partnering its way back to relevancy and beefing up its mobile presence.

Step one: the purchase of Summly, a tool that can summarize news items into 400-character passages (not quite a Tweet, but c’est la vie). For the world of smartphones and people on the go, Summly proposes to make news consumable on-the-go.

This acquisition has made headlines around the globe neither due to the product itself nor the launch of a new direction in operations for Yahoo!: instead, it is the age of Summly’s founder that has everybody’s attention. At 17-years old, Nick D’Aloisio just sold has company for $30 million, a company he founded when he was just 15.

Since the deal was announced, D’Aloisio has garnered an assortment of praise from the media and tech reporters at large. “Wunderkind!,” they shout. “Genius!” “Prodigy!” “He’s the next (fill in the blank)!!!” And these reports may in fact be correct. This is a story that we are growing quite accustomed to of late: teenager who never sleeps and spends every waking hour grinding out code as if he were experiencing some sort of binary bender creates unheralded product and sells it for $XXX Million / goes public. Zuckerberger, Dorsey, Systrom, the list goes on and on. The tools and applications that we all acknowledge to be flipping the world on its head are increasingly the brainchild of frustrated young adults looking to disrupt the status quo. An example from my own portfolio is that of Engrade, a learning management system that was originally created in a weekend as a gradebook by a high school student named Bri Holt when he was frustrated with the amount of time it took his teacher to return essays. The teenage student, as many a young hacker might do, then posted this gradebook tool online to be used free of charge. In a few years, the user base grew to millions with nothing but word of mouth in the teacher community.

While we sit in awe of these teen and twenty-something superstar programmers, it is also of little surprise that they are leading the way. After all, they grew up with computers in their blood. They never really had to learn the language: it was merely their native tongue.

Early access to computer technology is a game changer, plain and simple. Much as bilingualism has been shown to greatly benefit creative thinking in the learning process so too does the language of tech - even for a non-coder like myself.

I am not a tech-savvy person in the slightest. I have a basic understanding of computer programming (something about ones and zeros and such), and I can usually manage to find the settings menu or perform a reasonable search, but my skills do not extend much further. However, I have been using personal computers since my early childhood. I have never really lived in a world without internet (even if my first taste of it required five minutes of dial-up and I hadn’t the slightest idea what to do once I actually logged on).

While I possess just a faintly adequate working knowledge of their construct and functionality, computers (and the tech-drive at large) have shaped my way of thinking, my core instinct: techstinct, if you will. When my dad and I argue during a baseball game about the guy-on-deck’s slugging percentage the previous season, my first instinct is to reach for my pocket - iPhone - Google -www.baseballreference.com - iPocket.

By the time my mind thinks to get my phone, my hand has already unconsciously done the work. His first instinct is to just keep on arguing his position, even if it is a concrete fact. Mine is to go to the source (and once I get my Google Glass, I won’t even have to reach into my pocket. Right Jaime Casap?).

This is not meant as a negative critique of my father, who is admittedly getting better. It’s simply an interesting reality; a tangible generational gap that likely has a deep psychological impact that someone much smarter than I could explain.

And here’s the crazy thing: it will only grow.

We all know the stats: prices are down, broadband access is permeating the wasteland, software is better, smartphones, big data, blahblahblah. To paraphrase the great Buster Olney; today is better than yesterday. I grew up with AOL Instant Message and Oregon Trail. Today’s kids grow up with... seemingly anything they want. And what about my kids? Assuming I somehow find a willing female counterpart and we manage to avoid a geomagnetic storm driving us into a Revolution-like tizzy, my progeny will have unfathomable access. Literally. I cannot fathom what they will see, how they will think, how technology will influence their basic instinct. And you better believe I will make them learn to code, though I have a sneaking suspicion that such a thing will be as ubiquitous as learning to brush one’s teeth by then.

A famous anecdote from the infallible Malcolm Gladwell (or whatever you might call his stories?) is that of young Billy Gates and the extreme luck he had (and we had) in attending Lakeside High in 1975 and getting exposure to its Altair 8800. If little Bill had not been at the right school at the right time, he never would have had access to the tools that ultimately drove the founding of Microsoft and the launching of a global industry that literally revolutionized every other global industry. A one-in-a-million chance. We have scaled that up pretty darn quick.

So today we marvel at the 17-year old superstar. Tomorrow, he may be a dime a dozen.

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The opinions expressed in Reimagining K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.