13-year-old CEO

This 13 Year-Old CEO is Ready to be Your Boss!
Posted on 04/18/2016
Ribbon Cutting for Virtual Enterprises Junior Venture Pilot Program at M.S. 137

Thirteen-year-old Usha Sookai is the CEO of an event planning company called iParty. She says she originally wanted a position in marketing but got roped into interviewing for the CEO position and ultimately got the top job.

Her eighth grade class at MS 137 in Ozone Park, Queens, is part of an in-school business simulation program that helps give students experience with what it takes to build a business.

Students created resumes and cover letters to apply for the positions they wanted in four distinct departments -- human resources, accounting and finance, marketing, and graphic design. But then the class realized that no one had applied for the CEO position. “The best qualities you need to be a CEO are good leadership, to communicate with others, and also to be naturally outgoing,” Sookai says. “I’m naturally outgoing and can talk to people and make friends easily and I found communication very easy.”

iParty is the product of a New York City Department of Education program called Virtual Enterprises International (VEI) that started in 1996 and became an independent non-profit in 2010. FIve hundred high schools participate in the program nationwide and VEI just launched a pilot program in three New York City middle schools. The New York Life Foundation is providing VEI with funding to develop its VE-JV middle school program and pilot it in several cities over a four-year period.

The students at MS 137 discussed potential business ideas and democratically decided on a party-planning company that offers three packages: DIY, graduation and glow-in-the-dark. They spend class time pricing their packages and creating compelling brochures. Their efforts culminate in a trade show where they’ll share their sales pitch, and will ultimately be graded on participation and professional behavior.

Founder and executive director of VEI, Iris Blanc, says it’s important for students to be exposed to the world of business from a young age. Though the focus has been on juniors and seniors in high school, there was a huge push from school administrators, teachers and parents to bring the program to middle schoolers.

According to the Council for Economic Education, 23 states now require high schools to offer economics courses, compared to 17 in 2007. Perhaps as a direct repercussion of the financial crisis, the concept of “career readiness” seems to have become a tenet of youth education. And if you think it’s overzealous to get middle schoolers’ feet wet in the business world, they would disagree with you.

“Middle school is when you’re trying to find out what you’re going to be in life and preparing for the future. Having this program can give you guidance for what you might want to do, and even if you don’t want to go into the business, it’s just good to have a little knowledge of this,” Noelle Persaud, 14, says.

Two teachers supervise the class but students have full control over how the daily 45-minute class is run. “It’s amazing to see them be self-sufficient. I’m involved only 10% of the time when they have questions. They are really a well-oiled machine,” says Frank Bennici, an English teacher who co-teaches the class.

“My favorite part of this entire process would be that we have the chance to be independent. We can learn how we learn best, we can decide what we want to do and how we want to do it,” says Sookai.

Principal of MS 137, Laura Mastrogiovanni, says it was an easy decision bringing VEI to her school and noted how interested the students were in the challenge: “They took to this like water and were amazing from the moment they walked into the room. They produced 30-second elevator pitches within two weeks of meeting and have become empowered to take on leadership roles,” she says.

Mastrogiovanni designed the classroom to look like “businesses that are very collaborative and friendly.” There’s a group of ottomans at the center of the room and “cubicles” arranged by department. Being tasked with responsibilities like building a website and even paying employees’ wages, students are truly getting a taste of the startup culture.

Dylan Deosingh, 14, is the accounting and finance administrator, responsible for coming up with a fair wage for his fellow employees. “Every week I have to pay the employees, so I log onto our master account and see who gets a raise, who gets overtime, etc. We have a standard minimum wage for $9 an hour, admin is $12 and the CEO gets $15.

The money may be virtual, but these kids aren’t playing -- they’re serious about business.

“It’s taught me a lot about being an entrepreneur. It’s very hard at the very beginning – we had to make a loan, and we had no money and it was hard to start up but once you get to a certain point, it’s really fun and it’s proud to see how your own business has blossomed,” says Deosingh.

Manraj Singh, 13, says he feels lucky to get a head start on learning about the business world: “I think this is a pretty good experience to know about the business and if in the future I can become a businessman.”

And, as with a non-virtual startup, the students are learning to handle the repercussions of risk-taking. “You have to take more risks and you have to be more willing about what you’re doing. If there’s any losses or negativity you have to keep your head up and make sure you’re doing well in the future,” says Singh.

And just like real CEOs, Sookai says she’s been struggling to find a healthy work-life balance.

“The biggest challenge of running a company is the balance between working here and at home and actually laying off of that. As a CEO I have a lot of work that I have to do -- administrative work -- and I have to make sure that every department is doing what they have to do. I sometimes work a little too hard at home,” she says. “As a leader, it’s hard to not be so hard on yourself because if something goes wrong I blame myself for that.”

Perhaps grown-up business leaders could learn a thing or two from this teenage boss, who says the keys to business are communication and confidence. “I make it my job to communicate with the administrators so that they don’t feel like I’m being biased or anything like that. I try to make it as fair as possible but also as realistic as possible,” she says. “You have to be confident in yourself to do a job like this. Because if you’re not confident in yourself then you wouldn’t be able to instruct others or lead others because you wouldn’t know where you’re going.”