When the world collapsed in March 2020 and students were stuck at home for months, it gave them time to rethink their career paths. And for some 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 working, and social payroll last summer and saw opportunities to start their own businesses.
The pandemic led to an unprecedented surge in new business applications in the second half of 2020, which lasted until spring 2021, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. And it’s not surprising that some of them were founded by young entrepreneurs: more than half of Generation Zers (under 25 years of age) said they would own their own business in the next 10 years, according to a recent EY study.
One of these students was 23 year old Agustin Cortes. In early 2020, Cortes completed an internship in project management at Google and applied for positions in Silicon Valley. But then the Covid pandemic hit and his remaining interviews were canceled due to layoffs. It was then that Cortes created Learkn, an online platform that provides free educational content to anyone with an internet connection.
Agustin Cortes, Founder and CEO of Learkn
Photo: Cesar Cortes
Another student, Etienne Lunetta, was dissatisfied with virtual learning and left the University of Southern California just 12 credits before graduation. He founded Leonard Cyber, a web security consulting and proficiency testing company, 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 entire novels from a short paragraph or a couple of sentences.
Mani Kandan, who just graduated from Arizona State University this spring, started Morality, which uses artificial intelligence software to eradicate inefficiencies in small law firms. Automating tasks performed by paralegals and personal assistants can reduce errors, according to Morality. The pandemic gave Kandan the clarity he needed to pursue a more typical career at a Fortune 500 company as an entrepreneur.
“Just before the pandemic, I did an internship at a large company that does 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 effect of what I was doing. That was important to me: to see that I was creating changes or bringing something new into a field, and I couldn’t see any of it. [The pandemic] helped me figure out what I wanted. “
Tips for starting a business:
1. Make the most of the time you have.
2. Keep an idea booklet.
The massive industry dislocations caused by the pandemic have created a multitude of business opportunities. McKinsey & Company reported that between December 2019 and July 2020, the average proportion of products and / or services that are partially or fully digitized rose from 35% to 55%, an acceleration seven years ahead of the observed average adoption rate from 2017 to 2019. In other words, during the pandemic, the share of digital offerings grew exponentially, particularly in the healthcare, pharmaceuticals, financial services and professional services industries. These three entrepreneurs saw the upheaval in the industry and the massive increase in digital products and services as an opportunity to create innovative new businesses to meet demand during 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 averse and not as technologically competent as other industries such as healthcare and finance, Kandan said. But when lawyers were forced to work remotely, many saw the promise of AI technology in the legal field. Kandan stated that the pandemic had accelerated both morale growth and market confidence in his product as law firms adopted digital technologies at an unprecedented pace.
Likewise, Cortes noted a huge surge in the demand for online learning – a trend he expects will continue after the pandemic ends.
“The move to online learning will continue,” said Cortes.
Noticing an increase in cybersecurity incidents during the pandemic, Lunetta founded Leonard Cyber to provide credentials and certifications to individuals looking for cybersecurity jobs.
Etienne Lunetta, co-founder of Leonard Cyber and Holo AI
Courtesy: Etienne Lunetta
Why are so many Americans – especially young Americans – choosing entrepreneurship over traditional employment and education?
Kandan believes that younger generations are inherently entrepreneurial and risk-prone. As they become familiar with newer technologies and lifestyles, “they grow into a culture of trying new things”.
“The younger generation always has a responsibility to be experimental. We have to be the guinea pigs because if nothing works for us it’s kind of doomed,” said Lunetta. “Young people have the broadest demographics, are the least risk averse, and have not yet lived life. We don’t have any experiences that deter us from trying new things. So I think it really rests on the shoulders of the young generation to try new things and to convince the older generations to try new things too. “
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As with any entrepreneurial venture, starting a new business carries a great deal of risk – especially if you give up a full-time job or an apprenticeship. However, these entrepreneurs believe that there is no better time to be more risk-taking than when you are in your twenties. Left a promising career in Silicon Valley, Cortes took a chance at Learkn because of few commitments at 23.
“When you’re young, you have fewer financial risks. If I lose my money, I lose my money. I don’t have to worry so much,” said Cortes. “In 2021, the culture of starting your own business has become much more important, especially through social media.”
Lunetta agreed that now was the time to take a risky venture.
“I could get along if something bad happened, ”said Lunetta. “I’m not too worried about having to go down a safe and stable path. For us the risk is much lower, I’m still young. Whatever happens over the next 10 years, I believe I can win that back. Even if everything fails. Sure, I’ll stand behind people my age and probably people five years younger than me, but that’s the risk I’m willing to take. “
Another reason Kandan thinks he is at risk is because of his parents, who immigrated to the United States from India. Her perseverance shaped his entrepreneurial mindset and ambitions:
“I’ve seen my parents’ courage over the past 30 years. It’s almost a shame if I don’t work as hard, if I don’t try something just as risky,” said Kandan. “My parents did this just so that I would go to work regularly from nine to five, but my own ambition is to be more risk-taking. And we’ll see how that pays off.”
Mani Kandan, Arizona State University graduate, founder of Morals
Courtesy Mani Kandan
Lunetta, Cortes, and Kandan have more in common than starting tech startups during the pandemic: they’re all first-generation Americans. These young entrepreneurs are in good company: Almost half of the Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children, including prominent corporations like 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 aim to revolutionize and revolutionize industries by developing unique technical solutions to mitigate inefficiencies and solve complex problems.
Cortes wants to create a solution for people like him – who haven’t gone to college – by providing access to free educational content. He hopes Learkn will eventually produce educated individuals and become a recruiter pipeline that provides a legitimate alternative to a college degree or qualification that often requires substantial student loans.
Lunetta wants Holo AI to become a ubiquitous digital office tool, analogous to products from Microsoft and Alphabet. He hopes his universal writing program will be used nationwide for composing emails, documents, long articles, letters, nondisclosure agreements, and even novels.
Kandan’s aim is to make the judicial system less stressful and enable his clients to close in a timely manner by bringing the legal industry up to date with industries that have more fully embraced digital technologies. He hopes morality will eventually become an integral part of the legal industry.
Kandan’s advice to potential Generation Z entrepreneurs? Convince your parents.
“If you can convince your parents, you can convince anyone,” said Kandan. “They will be your greatest doubters, but also your greatest 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 starting their careers during these extraordinary times. Ryan Waterman Aldana is a talent development intern at CNBC in the summer of 2021. He recently completed his bachelor’s degree summa cum laude from James Madison University. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.