BOSTON — Irene Kim is probably a lot like the other 6,000 or so young adults here this week for the third annual Forbes Under 30 Summit.
She's 19. She's part of a tech startup with fellow college students. She skips classes at the University of Michigan to work on the startup. She's a user experience (UX) researcher for Campus Insights, which conducts marketing research and usability testing.
Kim wants to make her mark in tech, just like Brian Wong did when he was her age.
Wong, the 25-year-old founder of mobile marketing provider Kiip, spoke to a crowd at Emerson College's Cutler Majestic Theater Monday about his journey from a video-game obsessed Vancouver, British Columbia kid to Silicon Valley CEO of a profitable company that has netted $32 million in venture capital. His investors list includes North Atlantic Capital, US Cellular, Relay Ventures, HWVP, Verizon Ventures and True Ventures.
"What do you do while in a wheelchair?" Wong recalled of the time he broke a bone and began to conceive his startup idea. "You could start a company."
So what's the verdict here in Boston this week for the event run by Forbes Magazine? A group of so-called 'spoiled' millennials hanging out, buried in their smartphones during speeches like some spotted in the audience Monday?
Or is this a week for Irene Kims, the grinders who want to innovate and stand out and eventually be the next Brian Wong?
"Yes, we have an easier life, I guess," Kim said when asked to compare hers to prior generations. But she said there were also greater expectations, especially around innovation.
"I have an entrepreneur class, and every idea we have has already been realized. It's hard to appeal to someone who may want to invest. Yes, we have 10 times more resources than when our parents were in college, but it’s that much harder."
Forbes held the conference for the third year to inspire young entrepreneurs like Kim and "serve as the definitive place to network, collaborate, recruit and exchange ideas of the future."
The attendees should have confidence about entering the tech world. According to PayScale, the median age at Facebook, LinkedIn and SpaceX is 29. Tech giants IBM, Oracle and HP have a median employee age more than 33, according to the March PayScale report.
Trusting Over-30 Speakers
It wasn't a complete under-30 party for Forbes this week. Speakers throughout Boston hotspots like Faneuil Hall and the theater district already hit the 30-year mark (in some cases decades ago). Some are former Under-30 honorees invited back to impart their wisdom on the younger masses, according to a conference spokesperson.
Attendees got to see hotshot actors like Ashton Kutcher (also a tech investor). But it was probably the younger entrepreneurs on stage that made the biggest impact.
Take the opening act at the tech track Monday, for example: it featured Matan Berkowitz, 30, the CEO of Shift, a Tel Aviv company that specializes in "impact-driven innovation" like helping disabled people play instruments. His former startup GlassBeats, a music application, won first place at the Google Glass Hackathon in Tel Aviv. Forbes named him in the past one of Israel's promising under-30 leaders.
Berkowitz was asked to give advice to young techies wanting to break out and run successful startups. He said they can learn from his drive to to attend the hackathons, where "people create together."
"It's a place where things have to happen quickly," Berkowitz told CMSWire after his speech. "There's no money, and there's not a lot of time. It's all collaborative. I started winning these hackathons and that organically built up momentum I was able to leverage."
Don't start with the most grand, complicated, expensive idea in the world, Berkowitz said. Go with the idea, he added, that will make an immediate impact.
Banner Ad Leads to Startup
Wong told the crowd his idea for Kiip came through his experience as an app user. He knew people get turned off by intrusive banner ads.
"Why not reward the consumer with something," Wong thought. "Like for someone who finished a run in a running app, all of a sudden a Gatorade is there."
And, voila. Kiip (pronounced "keep") was born, and Wong, based in San Francisco, now has a staff of about 120. His company has offices around the globe and partnerships with 1-800-Flowers, Amazon.com, American Apparel, Best Buy, Carl’s Jr. and Disney, among others.
Wong advised his fellow millennials at the summit to "know their superpowers."
"I'm really good at getting super excited about stuff," he said.
He also told them to be obsessed with something and follow their passions. And ask for things, he said.
"Asking," Wong said, "is so underrated."
Knowing Your Future
For now Kim, the 19-year-old junior University of Michigan student, plans to continue juggling college and startup life. "I enjoy doing it. It's almost been a year now," she said.
Another conference attendee, Andrea Nicolas, 25, a Purdue University graduate student, is going for her Ph.D. She's thinking about going for a head of research position with a company like an airline — helping to improve travel experiences. Nicolas graduated in Aeronautics Engineering focused in manufacturing at the Aeronautical University of Queretaro, Mexico in 2014.
Asked about the temptation to leave school for the tech startup world, Nicolas said, "It's not quite about leaving school but knowing what to do once you finish."