Soojung Smith thought entrepreneurship was a grownup pursuit. Then her sons schooled her.
The up-and-coming Generation Z-cohort that includes her two boys, “tend to be more independent minded and have seen the success of starting a business from social media and their icons,” Smith said. “And they have less fear. They’re like, ‘Hey, I want to try this.’”
And that’s just what they’re doing. Soojung and her 17-year-old son Douglas are co-CEO of KuriousMinds, a Bellevue-based education startup. Her 12-year-old Jonathan works on technology for the company. All three are co-founders, and the boys’ dad, Doug, is their advisor as well as a business development executive at Microsoft. They launched KuriousMinds last year.
Their first effort is a program called Young Sharks that’s focused on teaching kids the fundamentals of starting a business, including building a business plan and pitching it in front of a simulated panel of investors.
“There is no shortage of ideas,” Smith said. “But whittling them down to something meaningful that will really bring value to their intended audience, that is something that they really struggle with.”
The program targets kids in later elementary years and middle school — a sweet spot where there are few options for young entrepreneurs, Smith said.
Her sons have additional ventures already under their belts. Douglas launched a tutoring business in eighth grade, and Jonathan has created two aquarium products: a filter diffuser showcased at the 2016 Seattle Mini Maker Faire and an automatic fish feeder with AI integration that he’ll debut at this year’s fair.
Soojung Smith has worked as a product and marketing executive at Dr Pepper/7 Up, Anheuser-Busch, ATT and Microsoft where she helped incubate new products and businesses.
Smith said that Douglas plays a key role in developing curriculum for Young Sharks and figuring out which digital tools are best suited to the students. Soojung and Douglas co-teach the program. They collaborate well, she said — at least most of the time.
“We’re family. We are very passionate individuals. He gets passionate and I get passionate and sometimes we need a time out,” Smith said. “And sometimes my husband jumps in and serves as a referee.”
We caught up with Smith for this Mother’s Day edition of Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “We are on a mission to help enable Generation Z to become a generation of confident future entrepreneurs.”
Inspiration hit us when: “I’ve always had a dream of building something impactful and long lasting as a family.”
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “We are an entirely self-funded, bootstrapped business. Client work in education coaching is funding our work for the design and delivery of the Young Sharks program. This is our second startup, and we are determined to build a solid foundation by growing at a measured pace.”
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “The deep involvement of our kids provides us with a unique view into effective learning styles for this generation. In addition, we are building an active local community of mentors and coaches with domain expertise who can guide and support young student entrepreneurs.”
The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Working with partners in the community is integral to our success. We deliver our project-based experiential entrepreneurship program in partnership with city governments, educational institutions, homeschool co-ops and camp organizers with the programs tailored to the student profiles for their communities.”
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “Building a business as a family comes with both opportunities and challenges. Trust, loyalty and shared values are the ones that glue us together. Of course, there are challenges when stress and pressure from the business side sometimes spill over into family relationships. We have learned to leverage each other’s strengths to get the benefit of operating as a family while minimizing the stress.”
Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Bill Gates because he is such an inspiration to everyone not only for his business success, but, more importantly, his philanthropic work to provide opportunities through education. His work in this area speaks to us most in terms of who we’d most want to back our endeavors. We admire Bill and Melinda’s commitment to impacting the lives of others and investing in a better world.”
Our favorite team-building activity is: “Cooking as a family. We try to improvise and create our favorite dishes including crossovers between Korean and Mexican food.”
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “We look for curiosity, creativity, passion for entrepreneurship, empathy and strong success in working and connecting with kids.”
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Ideas on a piece of paper without sufficient experimentation won’t help you to build a business. Planning is critical, but implementation is king. Be proactive about learning from your customers, partners, competitors and everyone around you. Be gracious about receiving feedback from them.”