Teen Girls Learn to Create Assisted Living Website at Summer Business Camp

Teen Girls Learn to Create Assisted Living Website at Summer Business Camp

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Photo: Teen entrepreneurs, from left, Inés de Lestapis, Molly Leifer, Sofia Remez are shown making their “pitch” to a panel of venture capitalists during last summer’s Entrepreneurs in Training camp. (Courtesy: Barnard College)

NEW YORK, N.Y.--This summer, I was introduced to three remarkable 16-year old entrepreneurs who began their business startup pitch this way: "Sixty years from now I don't want to be forgotten, 60 years from now I want to continue to pursue my dreams and 60 years from now I want to be in control of my life!"

The young women — Molly Leifer, from New Jersey, Sofia Remez from Florida and Inés de Lestapis from Spain -- were talking up their NextStepLiving website idea, a company they hope to launch one day. They called it "a TripAdvisor.com for assisted living homes.”

Its goal: to help candidates for those facilities who are eager to retain control of their lives by making their own decisions as long as possible.

'Entrepreneurs in Training' Camp

Their audience: a group of entrepreneurs and venture capital investors at Barnard College's Athena Center for Leadership Studies program, Entrepreneurs in Training, in New York City.

Barnard launched the 11-day summer camp for female high school students from around the world two years ago in collaboration with the college’s Office of Pre-College Programs, leading business and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) educators.

Its founders are Nathalie Molina Niño and Kathryn Kolbert. Molina Niño, a passionate supporter of female entrepreneurs, founded a successful tech startup at 20. Kolbert, recognized by the National Law Journal as one of the "100 Most Influential Lawyers in America,” created an entrepreneurship platform at Athena because "young women are discouraged from thinking of entrepreneurship; young boys are not."

Even though many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have avoided that market for years, the three teenage entrepreneurs explained that Next Step Living  was Remez's idea. It grew out of her personal experience: Her grandfather was having a difficult time finding an assisted living center that he liked and that met all his needs, including physical therapy for a recently broken pelvis.

"It was so frustrating to watch my mom trying to help him research different facilities,” Remez said. “She found three or four websites, but they were primarily online brochures with no consumer interaction. So my mom ended up having to travel to the facilities to take tours and interview residents and staffers and assess cost and expenses. I knew there had to be a better way to do this."

Ratings From Health Care to Language

Her business concept: Create an interactive Web platform with descriptive information, photos, reviews and ratings. Prospective assisted living residents and their families would be able to search among facilities using filters — such as level of health care, outdoor activities, appropriate language and ethnic factors and access to cultural centers — without having to step outside their front door.

After they met at the summer camp, Remez and her two new partners interviewed potential customers at churches and other venues in New York City where older people congregate. “We garnered valuable insights as we asked other seniors if they had had this same problem and, if so, what would make it better," said Remez.

Since the trio wanted to create an online business, they started probing their customer base’s technology expertise. They soon discovered that, contrary to popular opinion, many boomers and people their parents’ age are eagerly embracing technology.

Excited, the girls threw themselves into the entrepreneurial process [http://bit.ly/1heSyHs] of designing a startup that could help assisted living candidates eager to retain control of their lives by making their own decisions as long as possible.

It turns out that these young women are part of Generation Z’s entrepreneurial boomlet. A study produced by New York City advertising agency Sparks & Honey found that 72 percent of Gen Z’ers--the post-Millennial generations born starting in 1995--want to start their own businesses and that 60 per cent want jobs making a social impact.

Why They Were Taught Improv

The Entrepreneurs-in-Training program is ideally suited for Gen Z women, since it’s designed to foster the confidence and develop the skills they’d need to launch ventures. Working alongside instructors and entrepreneurs ages 40 to over 70, the students develop their ideas, learn core entrepreneurial concepts from successful leaders and pitch their business plans to respected investors from the startup sector.

In some ways, this boot camp is similar in structure to the eProvStudio workshops that my colleagues and I have created at Senior Entrepreneurship Works to introduce men and women aged 40+ to entrepreneurship through the art of improvisation.

Athena leaders, instructors and mentors come with impressive theater and storytelling experience. For instance, Michaela Murphy is a former Microsoft executive, who has been advocating for improvisation and theater in business development for years.

De Lestapis came to the training predisposed to appreciate play and improv, thanks to her 5th grade teacher. "I had always been shy, my nose constantly in a book. But this teacher opened my eyes and made me close the book,” she said. “He had a special way to teach, not with boring scripts or individual work, but with fun and competition. He made us work in groups, to learn from each other and to become a team.”

His games also taught her “that failure can be a way to succeed, and that your team won’t feel resentful towards you if you give the wrong answer.”

Molina Niño reinforced de Lestapis’ positive failure concept, saying, "The most vital part of the program is that it creates a safe place for failure.”

Teachers With a Flair for Storytelling

Athena's training by theater coaches, including actors, to pitch business ideas to potential backers is one of the most original aspects of its “boot camp.” Persuading funders to raise working capital is an art form, requiring a great deal of confidence and skills not innate in a typical 16-year-old.

The three women pitched as a team. De Lestapis explained, "Once we nailed the most important details about our business, the Broadway actors and Michaela Murphy taught us how to make those details funny, dynamic and interesting for the people hearing our pitch."

Remez admitted that the idea of pitching to venture capitalists (VCs) was "scary,” but the program taught her how to “create a theatrical intro to the pitch” to capture the venture capitalists in the room. She said the improv lessons helped her “respond to their questions, as if I really knew what I was talking about.”

One of the VCs, tech investor Jeanne Sullivan, said: "From just ideas and brainstorming as a team, these young gals created a business idea from nothing.” Many of the businesses, Sullivan added, “could be real and scalable — given great advisory and follow on, some financing support and some magic fairy dust."

Amy Nederlander, a strategic business development expert and Broadway producer concurred.: “The teens created impressive presentations — professional, considered, logical and with intent. Other business presentations are far too frequently sterile. I wanted these young women's businesses to succeed.”

Their Business Future

What’s in the cards for the Next Step Living website?

While the three founders told me they were excited about the possibilities, they were also very realistic about the fact that they're still in high school and would have a difficult time trying to simultaneously run a business. Said Remez, "I can hardly carve out 20 minutes for a conversation with my parents."

Still, the three extraordinary Gen Z’ers came away from their Entrepreneurs@Athena boot camp even more enthusiastic about finding ways to solve problems that could change the world. Now, they also understand that it’s okay to make money in the process, too.

Leifer commented, "All great businesses' main objective is to make the world a better place, and we want people to know that giving us money would not be a charitable donation, but rather it would be a smart investing opportunity."

Elizabeth Isele wrote this article for the PBS Next Avenue website with support from the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows program, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America. Isele is also co-founder of SeniorEntrepreneurshipWorks.org, founder of SavvySeniorsWork.com and editor of the 50+ Entrepreneurship e-newsletter.