Ryan Orbuch, 16 years old, rolled a suitcase to the front door of his family’s house in Boulder, Colorado on a Friday morning a year ago. He was headed for the bus stop, then the airport, then Texas.
“I’m going,” he told his mother. “You can’t stop me.”
Stacey Stern, his mother, wondered if he was right. “I briefly thought: Do I have him arrested at the gate?”
But the truth was, she felt conflicted. Should she stop her son from going on his first business trip?
Ryan was headed to South by Southwest Interactive, the technology conference in Austin. There, he planned to talk up an app that he and a friend had built. Called Finish, it aimed to help people stop procrastinating, and was just off its high in the No. 1 spot in the productivity category in the Apple App store. Ryan was also eager to go because, as he put it: “There were really dope people, and I really like smart-people density.”
Ms Stern loved her son’s passion, but told him that he could go to Austin only if he finished the schoolwork he’d neglected while building the app. But Ryan didn’t comply, and, like battle-weary parents everywhere, she let him go anyway.
Ryan is now 17, a senior at Boulder High. He is among the many entrepreneurially minded, technologically skilled teenagers who are striving to do serious business. Their work is enabled by low-cost or free tools to make apps or to design games, and they are encouraged by tech companies and grown-ups in the field who urge them, sometimes with financial support, to accelerate their transition into “the real world.” This surge in youthful innovation and entrepreneurship looks “unprecedented,” said Gary Becker, a University of Chicago economist and a Nobel laureate.
Dr Becker is assessing this subject from a particularly intimate vantage point. His grandson, Louis Harboe, 18, is a friend of Ryan’s, a technological teenager who makes Ryan look like a late bloomer. Louis, pronounced Louie, got his first freelance gig at the age of 12, designing the interface for an iPhone game. At 16, Louis, who lives with his parents in Chicago, took a summer design internship at Square, an online and mobile payment company in San Francisco, earning $US1,000 a week plus a $1,000 housing stipend.
Ryan and Louis, who met online in the informal network of young developers, are hanging out this weekend in Austin at South by Southwest. They are also waiting to hear from the colleges to which they applied last US autumn — part of the parallel universe they also live in, the traditional one with grades and SATs and teenage responsibilities. But unlike their peers for whom college is the singular focus, they have pondered whether to go at all. It’s a good kind of problem, the kind faced by great high-school athletes or child actors who can try going pro, along with all the risk that entails.
Dr Becker, who studies microeconomics and education, has been telling his grandson: “Go to college. Go to college.” College, he says, is the clear step to economic success. “The evidence is overwhelming.”
But the “do it now” idea, evangelised on a digital pulpit, can feel more immediate than academic empiricism. “College is not a prerequisite,” said Jess Teutonico, who runs TEDxTeen, a version of the TED talks and conferences for youth, where Ryan spoke a few weeks ago. “These kids are motivated to take over the world,” she said. “They need it fast. They need it now.”
The college-or-not debate neglects other questions that high school students like Ryan and Louis and their families are wrestling with now: Go to class or on a business trip? Do grades still matter? What do you do with $US20,000 when you’re 15? And when the money rolls in, what happens to parental control?
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