Teens in Tech Conference: Startups, Students & Hotshots

teens-in-tech-09Feb. 4, 2009 Sick of Sunday’s Superbowl banter and hackneyed sports phrases yet? One more quick one: 16-year old Daniel Brusilovsky didn’t fumble at the Teens in Tech Conference the day prior. Almost seems like pundits wished he would, but his fledgling new venture with business partner Sam Levin made a smooth run. Daniel even blocked and dodged with some fancy footwork when the conversation took a frat house turn, and when Microsoft didn’t have enough wireless bandwidth to run some of the full speaker presentations. (dripping with irony, eh?)

I’ll talk about all the geekery in a sec, but the over-arching media trend that’s striking me most is the causal links between press exposure, a honeymoon phase of excitement, and a predictable pattern of backlash with ‘enough already’ snipes and ‘take ‘em down a notch’ nastiness. Whether it’s Obama using The Social Media Pulpit, (great how-to-toolkit) web celebs, (top 25 from Forbes) Olympians or teen entrepreneurs like Daniel Brusilovsky, it’s odd how fast the ‘what goes up must come down’ dynamic kicks in when media gives a boost to those who acquire a public following.

Don Dodge on The Next Big Thing recently wrote a piece about this cultural phenom noting how “A list” individuals have quietly shifted gears away from all the ‘haters’ leaving TechMeme’s Leaderboard of top blogs as an ‘Elvis has left the building’ ghost town of corporate interests…

jessica-mahI guess that’s why I wish I could deploy a magic media shield for 16-year old Daniel, his keynote speaker, Jessica Mah, (at left, visual via Ypulse) and other fresh faced teens eager to make their way in the world.

Mind you, these sharp shooters don’t need mama bear protection from the likes of me, as they already handle attention a gazillion times better than I do, having been raised in a digital culture of a virtual stage…

internshipin-logoStill, the ‘trounce your heroes’ media mentality is unduly harsh, and it’s frustrating to see these so-called “teentrepreneurs” ( a pundit made that up, I’m sure) subjected to flamethrowing at such a tender age. Jessica Mah, founder of internshipIN offered young Yoda wisdom for handling this kind of public pressure so indicative of our times:

“Always identify yourself as a student not an entrepreneur…then they can’t nail you for screwing up.”

Who’s ‘they?’ Us. Adults. Media. Educators. VC funders. Press. Digerati. Bloggers. Reviewers. Anyone quick to tear down rather than build up these razor-tongued teens that can work a room with aplomb, yet still come across as sincere over slick… Example?

Jessica Mah is a Junior at UC Berkeley, and Daniel of Teens in Tech is 16 and in public high school (ironically, the same one where my daughter is headed)…BOTH teens were covered in TechCrunch for their respective startups…and heralded as cool sites launched at low cost…

BOTH are ambitious, well-connected, and tech savvy teens.

So far so good…sure beats the mall, right?

...But then? We go from this…


To this…”Another Teen Entrepreneur with a Useless Startup Gets TechCrunch Coverage”...


Maybe it’s the Silicon Valley competitiveness, but it seems a bit spiteful and green-tinged to me…As Jessica notes with a Teflon-coated comeback in her witty blue bubbled slide below, “I beg to differ.”

I think it was Antisthenes who said, “As iron is eaten by rust, so are the envious consumed by envy.”


Clearly she takes a mature ‘if you can’t stand the heat’ approach…But a quick Google search shows BOTH Daniel and Jessica were repeatedly lambasted  in other social media channels with a snarky level of judgmental reverb that lands on my citizen journalism sensibilities as nothing short of hype-n-snipe.

Why do we DO that to people in our pop culture?

Is this how we ‘break in’ new, fresh young talent? Seems mean-spirited and destructive to me…


After all, educators and business professors remind kids relentlessly that ‘who you know’ is as much a part of success as ‘what you know’

…And yet, when these teens align with high profile advisory board  members and VC power brokers they’re hammered for being ‘puppets’ and ‘mouthpieces’ with trolls on their tails. Sheesh.

Is it any wonder that I keep this blog in ‘beta’ and stay off the media radar on purpose while we quietly field test what works and what doesn’t?

tit-transitionMoreover, the clarity with which Jessica Mah addressed the human and media dynamics so matter-of-factly astounds.

Whoa. Make no mistake. This CEO is strategic…

She even added a ‘transition curve’ of uninformed optimism, crisis of meaning, and setting  expectations on a lower bar to keep the hounds at bay and avoid slams like Valley Wag’s ‘wantrepreneur,’ and Drama 2.0’s intelligent but harsh ’ verbiage.

Jessica’s (de)coy approach is basically, “know what you know but don’t show that you know it”…play the ‘kid’ card. A form of social engineering that is savvy beyond her years, yet melancholy to this media mama in a lost innocence kind of way. (cue Dan Fogelburg Innocent Age soundtrack)

tit-jm2Jessica’s entrepreneurial focus on being young and naïve essentially uses the same strategy as our own Shaping Youth mission of ‘turning a problem into a solution.’

Her advice for teen entrepreneurs is to leverage age and acumen while IN school before they hit the ‘real world with real jobs’ because youth is the best time (and best excuse) for failing, when the stakes aren’t as high.

Experiential internships and hands-on data collection and R&D is much less threatening while in school…

“An ignorant 15 year old seeking advice gets “you’re so cute, how can I help you” whereas when you’re older you can step on toes easier because they’re afraid you’re gonna take their job.”

Yep. ‘True dat’ as a friend of mine would say.

choosing-civilityStill, this ‘bluff and cover’ self-preservation as armor for the cruel world (and even crueler media) seems indicative of a devolved incivility as Dr. P.M. Forni of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project would no doubt  reinforce.

Adults behaving badly in ‘eat your young’ ruthlessness? Hardened, jaded kids at the tender ages of teens and even tweens? What are we doing here?

I guess it’s a chicken and egg scenario in this fast-forward ‘old at 25’ feeling expressed by one of the young hotshot speakers (I think it was Zach Rosen of Mission Bicycle?)

Did the societal dramedies of real life antics prompt what marketers call the ‘KGOY’ effect of “Kids Getting Older Younger?”

Or did media and marketing CREATE that dynamic through “age compression” tactics with shoulds and coulds that rob kids of their childhood, body snatching them into the morass of adulthood at increasingly tender years?

Or does it even matter?

snoopy-surfingIf students want to leap in Banzai fashion to ride the waves of their startups hoping to kick out before the surf turns to whitewash and churn, who are we as “adults” to judge?

Well…um…This is where it gets a bit dicey, as there was an ongoing subtext throughout the Teens in Tech Conference that veered into a push-pull tug-o-war on the merits of college and in the younger teens’ case, experiencing the basics of HIGH SCHOOL.

Ironically, educator Karl Fisch creator of the “Did You Know?” opening video played at the Teens in Tech conference just wrote this insightful piece called What’s the Purpose of School?

In it, he features renowned author Daniel Pink of Free Agent Nation, and über-marketing guru Seth Godin’s post on ‘what is school for?’

I definitely plan to share some of these thoughts  tomorrow when speaking to Stanford’s Innovation Journalism global youth fellows…(I’m teaming with Scott Arpajian Co-Founder of Dizzywood to discuss innovative youth learning)

It’s also particularly pertinent and timely since I’m in Godin’s “purple cow” book on innovation from awhile back. The  Teens in Tech conversation carries over onto edublogger David Warnick’s learning 2.0 chat along these lines as well.

Food for thought universally about education reform and how we need to make learning relevant…

enriqueYpulse collegiate advisor Enrique Gavidia added his voice in “What it Means to be a Teen in Tech” as he summed the undercurrent running through the eager mix of conference attendees pondering the conundrum he’s personally faced with as a university student and part-time developer,

“After attending a conference run by a 16-year-old CEO/Entrepreneur (Daniel Brusilovsky) that highlighted successful teens/twentysomethings in the industry, my mind has successfully been blown.

Where did they find the time?!

“I have no idea how these contemporaries of mine are able to dedicate themselves enough to a project to actually turn it into a real success story.”

“I am two years into a coveted computer science degree, and it seems more and more like I am being left behind by my field, as I’m studying it, and I haven’t even had the chance to participate in it!

“Even the opening video that kicked off the conference stated that most of the accumulated knowledge built up in earning a 4-year degree will be obsolete by the 2nd/3rd year of the learning process…

So why am I vouching for the pursuit of such a tedious degree, that may possibly prove meaningless in such a “hot” field? Personally, I do it for the sake of gaining a well-rounded knowledge of the field.” –excerpt from Enrique at Ypulse

Well-rounded knowledge indeed…

danny-trinhDanny Trinh (are ALL these techies named Daniel?) spoke to the issue of knowledge balance as getting both “the chips and the dip” or in conference parlay, needing to acquire the ‘cookies AND the milk” (the milk being maturity as a person, and the cookies being maturity in your skill sets).

Fascinating how all of this hits home with me.

Yah. Trust me, this is personal. I was one of ‘em.

No, not quite at 16, like Daniel B., I was blissfully beach bumming in Hawaii in those halcyon days having fun as Senior Class President to boot…

rhs-grad77But by 17 after graduation?

I was already interning summers at the ABC news affiliate in Honolulu, a college ‘guest editor’ for a fashion mag in New York, hosting a campus radio show at 18, a startup company of greeting cards and notepads at 19, and accelerating out of college at 20 with a B.A. in Communications.

(Heads up, by the way, on a new book coming out that I’ll be reviewing soon called SuperGirls Speak Out about overachieving girls, written by 19 year old Liz Funk!)

Anyway, I ‘get it’…I really do…Each individual IS different, and kids KNOW when they’re “going through the motions” vs. really LEARNING something.

But as Enrique at Ypulse  said, ‘before I invoke the ‘stay in school’ mantra’ …I have to share that it’s not an ‘either/or’ proposition nor a ‘one size fits all’ collegiate solution.

Truth be told, the day I made the decision to ‘fast forward’ into career mode, I had to petition the dean to take 38 units each quarter in order to shorten my timeline by a year. It literally hit in the time of a finger snap.

mortar-board I remember telling the flummoxed U.C. admin,

“Don’t tell me I can’t, because I can! It’s time to fly the coop and get on with it…You either know how to write or you don’t, and this theory-based rhetoric is boring me!”

It’s the same way I reacted when a Harvard recruiter was pushing me to get an MBA there…

“I’m SURE the contacts ARE great. But why would I DO that? I have no desire to be a cog in a corporation. I’m indie from the get go.” Ah, young defiance.

But even recently in my role at  Shaping Youth I’ve been encouraged by Robyn McMasters and the Brain Based Biz experts in my post about kids using multiple intelligences to “go for a PhD” …

Yet my reaction is still similar, “I’d love to, REALLY, I just don’t have the time; letters after my name are a bonus for publishing and grants but neither of those fit my game plan right now.”

So you see where this is going, yes?

There is no ‘right or wrong’ answer…

I’ll admit it IS disarming to see how this ‘age compression’ has filtered down into the YOUNG teen arena…A solid five years before those thoughts crossed my mind to graduate college at 20. And if  “10 is the new 15” does that mean 5 is the new 10? sigh. How can we change that tide?

I won’t pontificate, I’ll  just say that as a mom…that mp3 of Billy Joel’s “Vienna Waits for You” may be my soundtrack of choice for awhile…

tit-11th-gradeWhile Jessica flashed her point of view on the screen showing the superfluous knowledge gain of 11th grade academics, (e.g. high school as a time sink) Danny Trinh, 18 and on deferral from college at UNC while now working at Digg went in the opposite direction:

“Embrace your teenager years…BE one. Don’t be a vegetable. Chill like a cucumber. Get friends your own age. Go to the prom. Go to parties. Get offline. Try new flavors.”

And my personal Danny Trinh favorite:

“Friends shouldn’t be ones you ‘confirm or ignore’…

dtMind you, Danny Trinh has a gazillion other clever platitudes deserving of rimshots, with a jaunty sense of humor and cocky confidence that only a teen or a late night talk show host can pull off with comedic timing. (he has a solid fallback position there)

In fact, aside from watching the few ‘girl geeks’ present painfully cringe when he flashed “Teens in Technology” as an acronym (TIT) deflating their brainpower to a brasize with a swift click that was irksome, he was amazing.

He ‘walked the walk’ in terms of his smooth operator persona too, as his entire set of visuals didn’t load right with the Microsoft wireless connection and he was left to wing it with words alone. Didn’t even phase him…

As for Trinh’s techie renegade stunts and ‘be bold’ antics?

promgownsHe shared an amusing story of how he went to the prom with “the hottest girl in school, named Sadie” after he’d created a proxy to trump the school’s security system for accessing social media sites like MySpace and Facebook, and then named it after her…

A quick Google search for Trinh/Sadie pops up his legendary rep for circulating the ‘how-tos’ along with his maverick media prowess as somewhat of a hacker rockstar.

Somehow, I felt like I was transported into one of those pithy cartoon episodes showing what kids are REALLY doing at their computers vs. what adults THINK they’re doing…

Finally…about those milk and cookies…Graciousness DOES count…That’s where Daniel Brusilovsky can credit his supportive parents for showing him the way. (the milk part of those cookies!)


Unbeknownst to me, his parents were helping out throughout the conference so when he voiced off-microphone at the first food break, “Mom is it ready?” it was utterly charming, as he pulled the mike back toward him with self-effacingly admission and said..

“Um, yes, I just asked my mom for permission.”

It was funny comic timing, but it was also raw and real and a very authentic reminder that this card-swapping, handshaking, mike-toting MC was first and foremost a teen and a son. With homework no doubt.

I’m interested in interviewing his parents about Daniel’s foray into the digerati sphere and the public eye, how it’s impacted their home life and  how he fits in being a regular teen with professionalism far beyond his years.

After all, Daniel claims only about 10 kids in his high school even KNOW “what he does” outside of the classroom, so he’s leading a bit of a double-life…which intrigues me too…

For now, though, I’ll close and merely add other notes and highlights in a separate post as this is getting long, and teens prefer 140 character nuggets to windy blather as a rule…

Here’s the much-mentioned “Did You Know” video that opened the conference with a few stats that even left Daniel in awe. Glad to see he’s still shockable.

After all, as Anastasia Goodstein publisher of Ypulse and author of Totally Wired reminds us in this headline story, “These are not your typical teens.”

Did You Know? 2008 Update By Fisch & McLeod

“3.0 for 2008 – Newly Revised Edition Created by Karl Fisch, and modified by Scott McLeod; Globalization & The Information Age. It was even adapted by Sony BMG at an executive meeting they held in Rome this year. Credits are also given to Scott McLeod, Jeff Brenman”

Amy’s Notes:

As I posted on the Teens in Tech Conference blog, here are the origins and iterations of the popular video  Did You Know?

Video Creators: Karl Fisch —An IT teacher in Colorado who won an edublogger award for the work, blogging at The Fisch Bowl and Scott McLeod, PhD from Iowa State University who blogs at Dangerously Irrelevant (Both use their full names on gmail)

For more on the backstory of the origins/iterations of this cool video, the wiki is updated at Shift Happens, and its use is open source via Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike license.

I picked up this version above on YouTube here, but the Teens in Tech 2009 Conference Blog version has some interesting commentary/media literacy analysis via pop-up boxes challenging some of the factoids via Johny Radio, so check it out too! I love the seamless dialog that emerges in this Age of Conversation! Good critical thinking skills…

Credits: Obama’s Social media toolkit via Edelman, with a hat tip to David Kinard of Marketability and fellow AOC author and Conversation Agent Valerie Maltoni‘s piece in Social Media Today: Remake the Bully Pulpit

Visual Credits: Snoopy Surfing via MaxieGraphics.com , Enrique from Ypulse, Brusilovsky avatar from Twitter, and Trinh’s photo from Facebook; all other visuals from their respective presentations/sites and the Teens in Tech Conf blog.

2-5-09 Update: Daniel’s just announced a 2 month leave of absence on the Teens in Tech blog to deal with his school work. As one who knows it well, “something’s gotta give.”

Good for you, Daniel! Do have your folks give me a call…



  1. This must have been a wonderful conference. Wish I was there just to hear the stories and see the presentations that you described. Great energy and enthusiasm. Thanks for sharing this.


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