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The founding dreams of teens

August 10, 2011, 7:29 PM UTC

Youth is king in Silicon Valley, even if you’re still in high school.

VentureBeat recently asked: “Do teens make good founders?”

As the parent of a teenager, my immediate thought was, “Yeah, sure, right after they clean up their rooms and set the table, they can be totally awesome founders, as long as they can tear themselves away from the latest installment of the Twilight series.” What do I know? As it turns out, some kids actually do get off the couch and take action to be the next Steve Jobs.

The VentureBeat post was about an entrepreneurial incubator put together by Teens in Tech, an 8-week summer program that helped six teams of young entrepreneurs launch six products over the course of a summer. Teams came with ideas, got paired up with mentors and resources, and were guided through the process of bringing their ideas to life. At the end of the 8 weeks, the teams presented their startups to a group of venture capitalists, tech influencers, media members and others. Instead of getting their driver’s licenses and hooking up with their prom dates, these kids are getting a lesson in how to build a business. Come with your Clearasil, leave with a term sheet.

The organization was founded on the premise that entrepreneurship can be nurtured from a very early age—all these innovateens need is education and leadership to help them create innovative and disruptive businesses. It provides access to seasoned mentors, a place to work and a guiding hand. In exchange, Teens In Tech gets equity in the companies that they help nurture through adolescence.

This is very much a Silicon Valley phenomenon, where wunderkinds are everywhere. By the time you’re 40 in Silicon Valley you are like Methuselah, hanging on for eternity and likely to get offered assistance crossing the street from venture-backed phenoms riding their skateboards to work. It’s funny, actually, because there is a huge tension in venture capital about the value of age and experience. On the one hand, youth is equated with the ability to identify the cool new thing and be truly in-touch with what’s up and coming, not to mention facile with technology. I mean seriously, whom do you ask when you can’t figure out your computer at home?

On the other hand professional venture capitalists place a huge emphasis on the experiential qualifications of a company’s leader when evaluating CEOs; we even talk about it in terms of ensuring there is “adult supervision” at companies when the preponderance of workers are so young they are still able to get out of bed in the morning without groaning about their backs.

Teens in Tech skirts this whole issue by saying that they aren’t really focused on building companies, but on building entrepreneurs. The basic idea is that this experience is like business puberty. Instead of voice changes and training bras, they get lessons in market savvy, packaging, manufacturing, pricing, selling, managing and all of the other stuff you need to know to matriculate from a kid with a dream to an entrepreneur. I wonder if it’s hard for the teenagers to work with their adult mentors without rolling their eyes and thinking, “Oh my god, I totally know that stuff already.”

Many of the six companies that went through the inaugural Teens In Tech Incubator program are definitely products of the teen mind. One is focused on knowing in real-time which of your friends is available right now to hang out (the technology answer to “I am so bored”); another is designed to let high school students share school notes (hey, back in the day that was considered cheating!); another is a Zombie game for iPhones. But some of the others sound like they would have pretty broad appeal, focusing on cloud computing, budgeting and workplace sharing.

I am surprised that none of the entrepreneurs developed an app for classifying teens on sight so parents can rapidly tell the difference between goth, emo, scene and hipster without having to ask. Even better, there has got to be a mega-billion dollar potential for a product that turns pent-up teen sexual tension into green energy.

One of the interesting points raised by VentureBeat was how badly the teen entrepreneurs want to be taken seriously by the adult mentors with whom they work, but also how they don’t want real repercussions if they fail. One of the teen participants is quoted as saying, “This is a time to experiment and learn… Since I don’t have a mortgage to pay or food to buy, I can make risky decisions and figure out the hard way what works and what doesn’t.”

That’s not exactly “the hard way,” but there certainly is an advantage to be able to take all the risk and all the reward with none of the serious consequences. As a teenager, you may be legally required to hate your parents, but they are the ones that had to co-sign to get you into this program and agree to share your equity.

I think it is really cool that there is an organization like this to help nurture the creative spark in kids who have not just a dream, but an idea for how to make it real. Great ideas can come from anywhere; often the biggest barrier to getting it over the goal line is knowing what to do next. By using experienced entrepreneurs to mentor budding ones early in life, the newbies can have even more shots on goal and help the U.S. maintain its position as the world’s technology leader. The combination of youth and enthusiasm with experience and seasoning can be a very powerful cocktail.

My one complaint about the Teens In Tech program, however, is that none of the selection committee members were women and only 5 of the 61 mentors focused on the program are female. It’s unfortunate that the “next generation” of entrepreneurs is being sent out into the world laden with the same female-free bias that is present in the entrepreneurial and venture capital worlds today. I’d like to think that those who will follow me in this field will be more enlightened and less likely to perpetuate the male-dominated reality of our current technology and venture capital landscape. Apparently the Teens In Tech haven’t quite tackled that issue yet, so hopefully they will consider this article a challenge to do so. Considering how much time teenagers spend desperately seeking the company of the opposite sex, this one seems like a no-brainer opportunity.

Lisa Suennen is a co-founder and Managing Member of Psilos Group, a healthcare-focused venture capital firm with over $577 million under management.