Generation Zers – individuals born after the mid-1990s – are the definition of innovators. They are forward-thinking, tech-savvy and adapt easily to change , making them the perfect candidates for thriving businesses and their new socially-driven job roles. Some Gen Zers, however, have moved past the stage of job hunting and created their own career paths, becoming young entrepreneurs and company founders before they even graduate.
The DMZ is proud to support young entrepreneurs within our community through Ryerson’s Basecamp program, which provides youth with education, mentorship and resources to become successful entrepreneurial leaders.
At the latest #DMZSession, we featured three startups and their Gen Z founders – Harsh Shah of SpitStrips, Jenna Pezzack of ClassyCyborgs and Brennan Wong of Pledges for Change. SpitStrips makes reusable strips that can read a person’s blood-alcohol level with the hope that they use the reading to make smart and potentially life-saving decisions. Pezzack’s ClassyCyborgs also acts as a personal education tool by offering an app that can teach people who are visually impaired how to read braille. Lastly, for those who want to get involved with making positive change, Pledges for Change connects students with unique and engaging volunteer opportunities then donates a dollar to a charity every time someone makes a pledge towards a cause.
Amidst a celebration of their success and a showcase of several Toronto-based youth-run startups, the trio sat down with fellow innovator Ilana Ben-Ari of Twenty One Toys to talk about the ups and downs of life as a young entrepreneur.
Here is what you missed:
On obstacles to becoming a successful young entrepreneur:
Harsh: “Unfortunately, we did obviously meet some skeptics [due to our age] but we were, and we still are, passionate about [our] issue and we didn’t take it to heart. We took it as a source of motivation to continue and make an impact on the world.”
Jenna: “Yes, there will be doubts and there are going to be people who don’t believe you, but you know what, they’re going to have to deal with it!”
Brennan: “[Y]ou’re a young person [and] you have so many conflicting things going on. You have to focus on school, you have to focus on extra-curricular activities, [and] so those internal challenges definitely exist and I think that goes on well into university as well. … I would say the biggest challenge definitely was not being a part of an ecosystem like the DMZ … [and] trying to find that supportive community that was open to this idea of innovation.”
On why it’s important that society supports young entrepreneurs:
Brennan: “We’re idealistic at times but for the most part, all we want to do is just create change for something that we’ve noticed is wrong. By giving us that opportunity to continue moving forward with our idea, maybe providing that hour of mentorship here and there, something that might seem very miniscule to an adult that has been working in the industry for years could be big for a young entrepreneur.”
On resources that have helped them succeed:
Harsh: “We [all] completed Ryerson’s Basecamp [program] last week. By going through Basecamp we found several resources we would never have had access to. So, we found mentors, we found industry professionals, [and] we found that they have 3D printers around that we could use. In my opinion, the best way to gain access to all of these resources is through business incubators such as Basecamp and by providing more of these resources, or business incubators, around the city, it’ll help more youth like us who don’t have access to all this high clientele to really push ourselves to get there and eventually grow our startup from there.”
On what schools are missing:
Harsh: “Being in the accelerator program [at William Lyon Mackenzie], I’ve learned that everyone around me is doing things outside of schools I have never even thought of. Some are executive managers at Project 5K and others are DECA provincial officers. This really inspired me to do something for myself – not for school, not for anyone else, but for myself – and this is what schools should really teach. … [I]f you have a dream you should go by yourself and do it because what you learn along the way is more valuable than what anyone else can teach you.”
Jenna: “Especially in middle school, so grades 6, 7, 8, they could have a 20-minute business class every week just to introduce kids to business and to being an entrepreneur because I know if I didn’t join the robotics club at my school I would have no idea what this was or what an entrepreneur was in general.”
On advice for fellow entrepreneurs, Gen Z or not:
Harsh: “I’d like to say no matter what anyone says, you should do what you believe in and what you’re passionate about because that’s truly what’s going to accelerate your business.”
Jenna: “Just because you’re too young doesn’t mean you can’t do it. [That’s] mainly because I know a lot of people think, oh I’m too young and I can’t do it, [and] it’s like, well, I’m probably younger than you and I’m doing it so you can too.”
Brennan: “Think big, think different, fail a lot and [celebrate with] a little bit of bubble tea. … As a young person, what you’re doing is honestly incredible.”
Ilana: “It’s so important for any startup, the power of the team and the community, but just as important is [the fact that] you need leadership that recognizes that.”