The Young Hustlers Prove Anyone Can Be An Entrepreneur

By Marissa Lang
San Francisco Chronicle

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A company run by five 12-and 13-year-old entrepreneurs is making its mark in San Francisco. “The Young Hustlers” makes music and clothing, they even released an app to teach financial literacy to teenagers.

San Francisco Chronicle

They sunk into a sofa at the Impact Hub co-working space after another long day in another long week of running their own business.

Dominique Brooks scrolled quickly through her phone as Ja’Shoun Smith, chief executive officer, took a long sip from his frozen Gatorade. Jahem Maua, a co-chief financial officer, leaned back, a pillow over his face.

Staying motivated and focused can be hard when you’re trying to get a company off the ground. It’s a lot harder when you’re only 13.

Ja’Shoun, Dominique and Jahem are three of the five 12- and 13-year-old entrepreneurs who make up the San Francisco hip-hop and lifestyle brand the Young Hustlers.

The company, which makes music, sells branded clothing and released an app to teach financial literacy to teenagers, blossomed out of an experimental after-school program that began in the Bayview area last year.

For the kids involved, it started as a fun way to keep busy and escape the sound of gunshots that ricochet off buildings in their neighborhood.

What they didn’t expect was how a business could transform into a mission. Or how their dreams for the Young Hustlers — and themselves — would grow beyond measure, moving them in step with the entrepreneurial spirit of San Francisco, a city that looks very different to them than it does to executives who sit in gleaming new high-rises just a few blocks down Mission Street.

Make Money Positively

Ask them why they wanted to start their own business and the answers vary: to make a difference, to inspire others, to help their families, to change the course of their future. But the central theme is money. They wanted a “positive way” to make money.

This came up, too, at 15 Seeds, the after-school program from which the Young Hustlers came.

The program was founded on the idea that principles — not curricula — can drive education. Its first class consisted of 10 sixth- and seventh-graders, who were encouraged to ask questions, discuss ideas and pursue whatever they were passionate about.

Take charge of lives
Veronica Morales Frieling, who is producing a documentary chronicling the program’s inaugural class, said it became immediately apparent that that kids were intrigued by the idea of business. They wanted to know how they could make their own money and take charge of their lives without resorting to the kinds of transactions they see “on the streets.”

So 15 Seeds decided to turn its after-school program into an incubator, modeled after the region’s startup factories that hatch new ventures.

“I always tell them that as long as one of you wants to do this, I’ll be here,” Frieling said. “I try to make them understand that this is a choice. So when they start complaining about the work or about working so much over summer break, I tell them the second you don’t want to do this anymore, I won’t.”

Most of the kids live in public housing less than 5 miles away from some of the biggest technology companies in the nation.

But the idea of entrepreneurship felt foreign. Some had never even heard the word.

When the Young Hustlers took up residence at Impact Hub, where they have regular team meetings and go over business strategy, the kids wondered where they would fall on the pie chart indicating who works at the shared work space at Fifth and Mission streets.

Were they interns, they asked. Were they a startup?

Frieling explained that they would be counted like any other business there.

Ja’Shoun, she explained by way of example, would be counted among the CEOs, and the rest of the officers would be counted as executives.

The kids beamed.

“I’m proud to be a CFO at such a young age,” Jahem said. “It’s cool to get to talk to a lot of people, to sell to people in our neighborhood so they can wear our stuff.”

Though there isn’t much research on the percentage of startups founded by black and Latino entrepreneurs, a 2010 study by CB Insights found that 87 percent of venture capital-backed startup founders were white, and all-Asian teams pulled in the largest funding rounds.

Just 1 percent of VC-backed founders were black.

According to data from the Kauffman Foundation, black people made up about 9 percent of the total new entrepreneurship activity in the country, though they make up about 13 percent of the American population.

But statistics don’t faze the Young Hustlers, who are mostly black and Latino.

“When people hear where you live, where you’re from, they think they know you,” said Dominique, the group’s hip-hop artist. “But they don’t know. … We’re making a difference. We’re entrepreneurs.”

The name of their brand says it all: They’re young and they’re hustling to better their lives, to make it out of poverty and public housing, to clear a path for other kids like them.

A hustler, they explain, is someone who’s willing to work hard and do whatever is necessary to get the job done.

Last week, that meant meeting with a financial adviser to better understand the ins and outs of selling their merchandise wholesale to boutique shops like the Atoms Family in the Mission District, compared with selling their shirts for retail value, which they do every week at festivals throughout San Francisco.

A path forward
T-shirts go for $25. Of that, half is reinvested into the company and the other half is split up among the employees, who work on commission. The kids set up their own booths and make their own sales pitches.

One day, they said, they might open up their own shop or sell their merchandise to big-name brands. Some want to go to college, others want to run the business.

No matter the path, they said, they know the Young Hustlers will make a difference. It already has.

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