Generation Hustle: Young entrepreneurs got creative during the pandemic
When the world shut down in March of 2020 and students were stuck at home for months, it gave them time to rethink their career paths. And for some recent graduates, a traditional nine-to-five job wasn’t the answer. Some entrepreneurial students looked at the accelerated adoption of digital technologies, the flexibility of remote work, and the social reckoning of last summer, and saw opportunities to create their own businesses.
The pandemic resulted in an unprecedented surge in new business applications in the second half of 2020, which continued through spring 2021, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. And, it’s not surprising that some of those were created by young entrepreneurs: More than half of Gen Zers (under 25 years old) said they hoped to own their own business in the next 10 years, according to a recent EY study.
One of those students was 23-year-old Agustin Cortes. In early 2020, Cortes finished an internship in project management at Google and was applying for positions in Silicon Valley. But then the Covid pandemic hit and his remaining interviews were canceled due to layoffs. That’s when Cortes created Learkn, an online platform that provides free educational content to anyone with an internet connection.
Agustin Cortes, the founder and CEO of Learkn
Photo: Cesar Cortes
Another student, Etienne Lunetta, was unsatisfied with virtual learning and left the University of Southern California just 12 credits shy of completing his degree. He formed Leonard Cyber, a web security consulting and aptitude testing firm, in 2020 and Holo AI in 2021. Holo AI is an artificial intelligence text generator that writes SEO content, emails, articles, short stories, and even full novels from a short paragraph or a few sentences.
Mani Kandan, who just graduated from Arizona State University this spring, launched Morality, which uses artificial intelligence software to eliminate inefficiencies in small law firms. By automating tasks completed by paralegals and personal assistants, Morality says it can reduce errors. The pandemic gave Kandan the clarity he needed to pursue entrepreneurship over a more typical career at a Fortune 500 company.
“Right before the pandemic I was interning for a big company doing software development,” said Kandan. And when I was working there, I hated my life. I hated what I was doing. I really couldn’t see the impact of what I was doing. That’s what mattered to me: seeing that I was creating change or bringing something new to a field and I couldn’t see any of that. [The pandemic] helped me figure out what I wanted.”
Tips for starting your own business:
1. Leverage the time you have.
2. Keep an idea notebook.
The massive industry disruptions caused by the pandemic created a multitude of entrepreneurial opportunities. McKinsey & Company reported that, between December 2019 and July 2020, the average share of products and/or services that are partially or fully digitized increased from 35% to 55%, an acceleration that was seven years ahead of the average rate of adoption observed from 2017 to 2019. In other words, during the pandemic, the share of offerings that are digital in nature increased exponentially, particularly in the health care, pharmaceutical, financial service, and professional service industries. These three entrepreneurs saw industry disruption and the massive increase in digital products and services offered as an opportunity to create innovative new ventures to satisfy demand in these extraordinary times.
In the early days of the pandemic, Kandan noticed the rapid adoption of digital technologies in the legal industry. The legal industry is relatively risk-adverse and not as technologically proficient as other industries, such as health care and finance, Kandan said. But when attorneys were forced to work remotely, many saw the promise of AI technology in the legal field. Kandan explained that the pandemic accelerated both the growth of Morality and the market’s trust of his product as law firms adopted digital technologies at an unprecedented rate.
Similarly, Cortes noticed a tremendous increase in the demand for online learning – a trend that he expects to continue after the pandemic ends.
“The shift to online learning is here to stay,” Cortes said.
Lunetta noticed a spike in cybersecurity incidents during the pandemic, and formed Leonard Cyber to provide those looking for cybersecurity employment with credentials and certifications.
Etienne Lunetta, Co-founder of Leonard Cyber and Holo AI
Courtesy: Etienne Lunetta
Why are so many Americans – particularly young Americans – choosing entrepreneurship over traditional employment and education?
Kandan believes that younger generations are inherently entrepreneurial and risk prone. As they become literate in newer technologies and lifestyles, they “grow into a culture of trying new things.”
“The younger generation always has the onus of being experimental. We have to be the guinea pigs because if nothing works well on us, it’s kind of doomed,” said Lunetta. “Young people have the widest set of demographics, are the least risk averse, and haven’t lived life yet. We don’t have experiences to scare us from trying new things. So, I think it’s really on the shoulders of the young generation to try new things and convince the older generations to also try new things.”
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As with any entrepreneurial endeavor, there is a great amount of risk that comes with starting a new venture – especially when one leaves a full-time job or educational opportunity to do so. However, these entrepreneurs believe there is no better time to be risk prone than when you are in your twenties. Cortes left a promising career in Silicon Valley and took a chance on Learkn because he has few commitments at 23.
“When you’re young, you have less risk financially. If I lose my money, I lose my money. I don’t have to worry about it that much,” said Cortes. “In 2021, the culture of creating your own ventures has become much more prominent, especially through social media.”
Lunetta agreed the time to take on a risky venture is now.
“I could make do if something bad happened,” said Lunetta. “I’m not too worried of having to take a secure steady path. There’s a lot less risk for us, I’m still young. Whatever happens these next 10 years, I believe I can gain that back. Even if everything fails. Sure, I’ll be behind people my age, and probably behind people five years younger than I am, but that’s the risk I’m willing to take.”
Another reason Kandan believes he is risk-prone is because of his parents, who immigrated to the United States from India. Their perseverance shaped his entrepreneurial mindset and aspirations:
“I’ve seen the grit and grind of my parents for the last 30 years. It’s almost a shame to me, if I don’t work just as hard, if I don’t try something just as risky,” Kandan said. “My parents did this, just for me to go work a regular nine to five, but personally, my own ambition is to be more risk prone. And we’ll see how that pays off.”
Mani Kandan, graduate of Arizona State University, Founder of Morality
Courtesy Mani Kandan
Lunetta, Cortes, and Kandan share more in common than launching tech start-ups during the pandemic: they are all first-generation Americans. These young entrepreneurs are in good company: Nearly half of Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants or their children, including prominent corporations such as Apple, Amazon, Tesla, and Alphabet, according to the New American Economy research group.
Much like many of their Fortune 500 counterparts, Lunetta, Kandan, and Cortes aspire to disrupt and revolutionize industries by developing unique tech solutions to mitigate inefficiencies and solve complex problems.
Cortes wants to create a solution for people like him – who did not go to college – by providing access to free educational content. Eventually, he hopes Learkn will produce educated individuals and become a pipeline for recruiters, supplying a legitimate alternative to a college degree or credential which often require substantial student loans.
Lunetta wants Holo AI to become a ubiquitous digital office tool, analogous to products produced by Microsoft and Alphabet. He hopes his general-purpose writing utility is used nationwide for drafting emails, documents, long form articles, briefs, non-disclosure agreements and even novels.
Kandan wants to make the justice system less stressful and give clients timely closure by bringing the legal industry up to speed with industries that have embraced digital technologies more fully. He hopes Morality eventually becomes a staple in the legal industry.
Kandan’s advice to prospective Gen Z entrepreneurs? Convince your parents.
“If you can convince your parents, you can convince anyone,” Kandan said. “They will be your biggest doubters, but also your biggest supporters.”
CNBC’s “College Voices″ is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about getting their college education, managing their own money and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Ryan Waterman Aldana is a summer 2021 talent development intern at CNBC. He recently graduated summa cum laude with his bachelor’s degree from James Madison University. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.