8 up-and-coming Gen Z founders to watch right now

January 20, 2022, 12:00 PM UTC

The oldest members of the Gen Z are just now hitting age 25, so it’s a bit early to know how their career journeys will unfold. But there is one thing we do know—this generation, commonly defined as anyone born in 1997 or later—is entering the work world with one common goal: to be their own boss. One recent study from EY and NGO JA Worldwide, found that a full 53% of Gen Zers hope to be running their own business in 10 years.

Of course, some Zoomers aren’t content to wait a decade to fulfill their entrepreneurial dreams. Here are eight who are already making a name for themselves as founders.

Celine Chai, cofounder of Ninety-Eight
Courtesy of Celine Chai and Ninety-Eight

Celine Chai, 23
Cofounder, NinetyEight
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 
Industry: Marketing

Chai, who is originally from Malaysia, but attended college at Loyola Marymount University in L.A., originally hoped to become a professional dancer. But graduating in 2020 amid the pandemic, opportunities for live performance were few and far between. So Chai got creative and, along with five of her fellow classmates, decided to embrace the “big learning curve” of starting their own business. Relying on their experience studying advertising and brand strategy—and with the mentorship of several of their professors—they launched NinetyEight, a creative marketing agency. (The name is a reference to the age of the founders, who were all born in 1998.)

The company focuses on providing marketing strategy, from branding to social media, for brands that are looking to target Gen Z. Chai says clients include food and beverage giant PepsiCo, virtual chat platform IMVU, and activewear brand Fabletics. The company is fully remote, with the co-founders operating from multiple countries.

According to Chai, brands are starting to wake up to the influence of and importance of reaching Gen Z. “We have 40% of consumer buying power, and that’s only going to rise,” she says. “And we are so good at being on our phones.” She believes that her generation’s connection with technology allows them to both speak up and reach audiences beyond their own respective towns, communities, and cultures. “We have a voice and we’re unafraid to use it,” Chai says. “We can really boost your brand and we can also sink your brand.”

Oddli cofounders Ellie Chen & Jensen Neff
Courtesy of Ellie Chen & Jensen Neff and Oddli

Ellie Chen, 23, and Jensen Neff, 24
CEO and CCO, Oddli 
Los Angeles
Industry: Fashion

Thanks to COVID, Chen and Neff missed out on their college graduation ceremonies in 2020. But the pair have no regrets about the year, which became all about their “obsession with building Oddli,” Chen says. She and Neff had become friends four years earlier over make-your-own burritos and long chats about sustainability outside Stanford’s freshman dining hall, and their business idea stemmed from a senior class project.

They knew they wanted to make a difference in the fashion industry, which has been notoriously wasteful. The Environmental Protection Agency reported that 17 million tons of textiles went to waste in 2018. Oddli clothing is made entirely from deadstock fabric (textiles that companies and manufacturers have discarded.) They built buzz with a TikTok that “gained us thousands and thousands of followers overnight,” says Neff, who spent long nights sewing their first pieces by hand. The company also bucked the usual path by turning to Kickstarter. “To me, being entrepreneurial is just, you have a dream and you’re willing to be scrappy and pursue it,” says Chen. “And I think, at least in our ecosystem and L.A., all of our friends who are in Gen Z are absolutely doing that.”

CLLCTVE founder Kelsey Davis
Courtesy of Kelsey Davis and CLLCTVE

Kelsey Davis, 24
Cofounder, CLLCTVE
Los Angeles
Industry: Content Creation

Davis started creating content for brands like Coca Cola in high school, and Puma while still an undergrad at Syracuse University. She founded CLLCTVE to help connect such companies with other young creators. The networking platform is designed to empower all kinds of creators to assemble careers out of their unique skill sets, no matter where they live. Users can build a profile with background information and links to their work for brands to find, and can connect with the other creators on the platform. Brands such as in-app food delivery service Good Uncle, influencer marketing company Whalar, and banking technology Current have all tapped into CLLCTVE’s creator network. “Our ultimate goal is really democratizing the playing field within the creator economy,” Davis says. “We think everyone’s a creator. I think it’s a matter of people being able to see themselves as such.”

Generation Z, said Davis, is not receiving, or at the very least, not accepting the same messaging about career trajectory as previous generations. She said young people are asking themselves: “What do we want to do? And then how can we take the things that we’re passionate about, and then monetize them?”

“We’re really into fueling people’s independent work journey,” said Davis of her goal to make CLLCTVE a global force. “I think that, you know, Gen Z specifically, we’re understanding, ‘Hey, I really can be whatever I want.’”

Turn founder Ida Johansson
Courtesy of Ida Johansson and Turn

Ida Johansson, 20
Founder, Turn  
Industry: Recruiting

Johansson got her first experience with recruiting at 15.  She’d been promoted from volunteer to project manager at an events company, and suddenly found herself with the responsibility of a team to build and a pile of resumes to sort. The experience convinced her that the hiring process was broken—full of individual bias, unlikely to determine compatibility between an employer and employee, and a poor fit for the youngest generation of workers.

So, Johansson, a self-taught programmer, set out to create an equitable recruitment platform that helps young people find part time work and gig jobs based entirely on a 40-question personality test, without the need for a formalized CV and personal letter. The questions were developed in collaboration with psychologists at the University of Sweden and take about eight minutes to complete, she said. Currently, there are 5,000 registered students using Turn in Sweden, and Johansson’s goal is to expand across Europe by 2025.

Rather than competing with other recruitment firms, Johannson plans to share her innovations so that she can collaborate with other companies in reforming the recruitment process. “I think that’s the right thing to do, to be able to share that information.”

“We can find people that have taught themselves how to program through YouTube today. Not all have to go to a university for five years,” Johannson explained. “The new generation is taught in a new way. And we need to find them and measure their skills, not only based on which school they went to, and who they know, or which last name they have.” 

Force of Nature founder Clover Hogan
Courtesy of Clover Hagen and Force of Nature

Clover Hogan, 22
Founder, Force of Nature
London, UK
Industry: Environmental and Social Impact

Hogan says she knew she wanted to be an environmentalist by the time she was eleven years old. “I was very lucky to grow up in and around nature and develop this really deep relationship with it from a very early age,” she said. By age nineteen, she was leading an organization that connects climate activists across the globe.

Force of Nature is a collective of young activists who create resources and programs for people to turn their “eco-anxiety,” or distress in the face of an environmental crisis, into action. They work with educational institutions and businesses like the University of Oxford, consumer goods company Unilever, PepsiCo, and department store Selfridges, to turn both students and corporations into environmental leaders. 

“I realized that the threat even greater than the climate ecological crisis is how powerless so many of us feel in the face of it,” Hogan said.

Before starting the organization, Hogan had been working at a sustainability consultancy, but staying up until three in the morning to plan workshops for people with eco-anxiety like herself. Eventually she left her day job to devote herself to the programming full time. “That first year was, like, incredibly difficult,” Hogan admits, “But I also kind of lived for that, like, hustle. And you know, there was a day where I literally had, like, 73 pence in my bank account.”

For Hogan, her experiences with Force of Nature has reinforced how powerful her generation’s voice can be when it comes to bringing the climate crisis to the forefront of public attention. “We’ve had so many conversations at the boardroom level, where we posed the question to business leaders: ‘Why are you here chatting to a bunch of 20 year olds about climate change?’ Hogan said, “And it is never because of an IPCC report, or because of the latest COP. It’s always because their kid has come home to them at the end of the day and asked them, ‘Mom, Dad, what are you doing about climate change?’”

Kona cofounders Corine Tan & Sid Pandiya
Courtesy of Corine Tan & Sid Pandiya and Kona

Sid Pandiya, 21 and Corine Tan, 22
Cofounders, Kona
Industry: HR software

In retrospect, the company that Pandiya and Tan, along with co-founder Andrew Zhou, started pre-pandemic seems prescient: Kona, which was created in October 2019 and is itself fully remote, aims to make remote work “better, healthier, and happier.”

Kona bills itself as giving employees and managers a way to better communicate about moral, burnout, and mental health. The platform lets employees use emoji like different colored hearts and/or a line of text to provide context to describe how they’re feeling at a particular moment, and tracks those responses over time. It also records and displays data like how many hours of meetings employees are taking on. The goal is to give managers a window into how employees are faring and, ideally, help detect incoming burnout. “The biggest thing that people are dealing with is relationship building. People just are dying to connect with their workers,” Tan said.

The company reports that it has about 1,200 monthly users, with subscribers including GoodRx, Greenhouse.io, and Vonage. Says Tan: “We’re seeing a lot of companies face The Great Resignation, and finally have to face the music that if they don’t prioritize their people, they’re going to lose them.”

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