By Marie Griffin, Director of Content Strategy, KidBacker
Last summer, Dylan Gambardella and Justin Lafazan defied expectations for what teenagers could do when they launched a new live event for young entrepreneurs called the Next Gen Summit and attracted more than 300 people to Austin, Texas. Dylan gave KidBacker an early view of his and Justin’s plans for the second Next Gen Summit, scheduled for early June in New York, and he shared how entrepreneurship is reshaping the way he is approaching his own future.
KidBacker: You and Justin Lafazan co-founded the Next Gen Summit and held the first event last year. Tell me about it.
Dylan Gambardella: It was held July 31 to August 2 in Austin, Texas. We had around 325 attendees, 30 speakers, and 20 partners and sponsors, including brand names like Uber and Verizon, the city of Austin, and startups such as INC.UBATOR. People came from across the country to network and learn from one another. We had a pitch competition and, through that, nine companies were able to raise over $1 million. It was rewarding to know that we had played a role in changing the lives of these kids.
Austin is an amazing environment. It’s so young and there’s so much going on. At the same time, we were able to create an intimate setting that was very special. The speakers were interacting with the attendees daily. They would give their talks, then sit down in the audience and talk with the kids. And they enjoyed just hanging out with us during the social events. We had a basketball tournament, a ping-pong tournament and live music at night.
KB: What is the target age for attendees of the Next Gen Summit?
DG: We don’t discriminate based on age, but we do target entrepreneurs in the 15-to-25 age range. We attract people who are in high school, college, or working on their companies full time. Whether or not they are going to college doesn’t matter. That said, an accountant who is 55 and decides to follow an idea to start a business is in the same place in entrepreneurship as an 18-year-old who starts a company in high school, and so they would be welcome at Next Gen.
KB: In our culture, people aged 15 to 25 are not expected to be entrepreneurs.
DG: We’re going against what is normally considered acceptable. At 15, you’re typically in high school, studying for the SATs and ACTs so that you can get a good score and get into a good college. Then, in college, you’re trying to get a high GPA so that you can get a solid internship and get hired by the end of your senior year to work at a top firm. What we’re trying to do is show that there are other ways to go about living your life.
Some people want to make a change in this world, and to follow their own passions. Entrepreneurship allows you to get that fulfillment, to go out there and make things happen. There’s no such thing as an easy path, but I believe entrepreneurship can give you satisfaction that is so important in life. If you tried and failed, at least you learned something that can inform the next step of your career. Even if you go into a corporate job later, you will have learned what type of path best suits you.
KB: How much lead time did you have to put the summit together?
DG: About eight or nine months. We got the idea in October and the summit went off at the end of July. Those last few weeks were crunch time. Justin and I were in constant communication, 24 hours a day, from the end of May until the summit.
Also, Justin and I learned that we’re not in this alone. We needed more people and found a bunch of great teammates who have been instrumental. We had college and high school students in various parts of the country, and people who found us online and reached out offering their help. All of their assistance was invaluable in the weeks leading up to the summit and during the actual weekend.
KB: If you’re going to hold an event for 300 people in a hotel, you have to put up a lot of money up front. How did you fund the first summit?
DG: Justin and I funded it all, we’re proud to say. It was very tough, but we put down all the payments ourselves.
KB: You’re now working on the 2016 Next Gen Summit. When and where will that be?
DG: It will be held June 3 to 5 in New York City at the Flatiron Hotel Manhattan.
We will be headquartered at the Flatiron Hotel in downtown Manhattan, and we will be incorporating some additional venues. We’ll stay true to the tenets of the 2015 conference, such as the nighttime events that are unique to Next Gen, as well as the sporting aspects. We have some pretty cool speakers lined up, including some big names that everyone will recognize. We will have new speakers, but we’re also having our most popular speakers back. Returning speakers were chosen based on a survey we conducted at the end of the conference last year.
KB: When you were planning the summit in Austin, you expected 300 attendees. As you plan for New York, what is your goal?
DG: Five hundred is our target number, but we may end up with 600 to 700.
KB: You had about 20 sponsors in 2015. Do you think you can double that this year?
DG: I think so. One of the difficulties in year one was that while a lot of people liked the idea, they wanted to make sure it would happen and it would work. Now we can answer those questions, and we can take advantage of our success last year to get more great brands involved this year.
A lot of people said it wasn’t possible [for two teenagers to produce the summit], but we did it. And we’re doing it again. I feel very good about that. We want to partner with companies that can add something to the event, and hopefully we can help them out, as well.
KB: Is the Next Gen Summit your first entrepreneurial venture?
DG: No. This is the second company Justin and I founded together. In my senior year of high school, my friends and their parents were always asking me to look at their college applications. I did them for free for a while. But, after doing a lot of them, I realized I could probably make money if people valued my opinion and my editing so much. I talked to Justin, and he was basically doing the same thing. So, we thought, “Why not make a business out of it?”
In the spring of my senior year, we launched Students4Students College Advisory. It is a full-service college admissions firm. We decided to attack the process by pairing high school students with counselors and tutors who have been accepted to and are attending the schools the students are applying to. For example, if a student is applying to Duke, we will provide them with an advisor who is already at Duke who can alert the student to aspects of Duke they wouldn’t ordinarily know that may help their application rise to the top. Since we started Students4Students, we’ve helped over 60 people get into their dream schools.
Justin and I entered Students4Students in the Forbes “30 Under 30” pitch competition and were selected as semi-finalists in the fall of 2014. They flew us to the Under 30 Summit, which changed my life.
KB: How was your life changed?
DG: By that time, I was a freshman at Duke. I was convinced that I had to conform to one of the traditional paths and careers. At the summit, we kept hearing from people who said, “We’re not going to follow these societal pressures. We’re going to do what makes us happy and what we believe in.” And they were doing it. It showed me that entrepreneurship could be more than a side project in life.
KB: I always ask young entrepreneurs if entrepreneurship is something that is part of their nature or something they learned or were encouraged to do. How would you answer that question?
DG: That’s a tough question. Prior to the spring of my senior year, I made school my number-one priority. I was the valedictorian of my high school class, an athlete—I played three sports—and I was also involved in a lot of clubs.
Before the Forbes summit, I thought Students4Students was a cool thing. I made a little money with it; it got my name out there; I got to meet interesting people, and I enjoyed it. But I didn’t consider myself an entrepreneur. Looking back in hindsight, though, I see that I had all the qualities of a typical entrepreneur, such as drive, motivation and passion, and I exhibited those qualities from a young age.
KB: Have your parents followed traditional career paths?
DG: They both started their careers in education. My mom was the supervisor of the New York City Board of Education for quite some time, and my dad was a middle school principal. Several years ago, my mom became one of the founders of a non-profit organization that goes into the worst performing schools in New York City and tries to work with the administration and the teachers to improve performance. My dad joined a few years later; he’s been there more than five years now.
They showed me that it’s possible to make a transition to entrepreneurship, even at a later stage [in one’s career]. I can imagine it was very tough in the beginning, but they love it and they’re doing well. And they’re showing me what’s important in life by having their careers but still focusing on family above everything else.
KB: So watching your parents move out of traditional careers to follow a dream and make a change in the world gave you a great example of entrepreneurship, right?
DG: Right. They wanted to help kids who are struggling in school to get a better education and, hopefully, to get past any constraints and get into college. I was about 11 or 12 when my mom got involved. She was one of the first ones there, and I remember her putting in a lot of hours in the beginning.
I didn’t appreciate at the time how hard it must have been, but my parents somehow managed to make it home for dinner and to be at all of my basketball, soccer, and football games, or whatever event was that night. If they weren’t there, I’d receive 100 phone calls wishing me luck. They have supported me since day one in everything I’ve done, including through entrepreneurship.
KB: Do you have any siblings?
DG: My sister Alexa is 25. My parents and my sister are the most important people in my entire world. I always say my sister is my number-one role model. She’s five years older than me, and I’ve spent my life trying to catch up to her. She was a two-time state champion volleyball player in high school before moving on to play at Emory University, where she was pre-med. She got a great job out of college and has already moved up to a VP role. We’re a competitive group, but, at the end of the day, I cherish every night at home with my family, and I miss them.
KB: You’re a sophomore at Duke University now. What’s your major?
DG: I’m a Public Policy Studies and Economics major, and I’m working on getting an Innovation and Entrepreneurship Certificate. The certificate is a new thing at Duke that started a few years ago. I’m also involved with a company called Campus Enterprises, which is a student-run entrepreneurship venture within Duke.
I lead the restaurant division, in which I work with a few of the local restaurants in Durham to coordinate a meal delivery service for students on campus. They can actually pay for the restaurant food with the points Duke allocates to them from their meal plans. Campus Enterprises is very competitive to get into, and each year they take about 14 kids. It’s great to be working with a group of people who are similar minded to me.
KB: It sounds like your experience with entrepreneurship has changed the way you are approaching college.
DG: I can’t put my finger on what exactly has changed in me, but there has been a shift. I still study, and I still do all the types of things I did in high school. For example, I’m on the basketball practice team here at Duke, and I’m also a senator in the student government. I still value succeeding academically—and I’m doing pretty well, if I say so myself—but I have discovered the importance of other things, too.
If you had asked 17-year-old Dylan how he saw his future, I think he would have told you that he wanted to get really good grades in college, get an internship at a top investment bank, go back there to work after graduation, and make a boatload of money. Today as I look toward the next 20 or 30 years, I’m thinking about how I can make an impact. I’ve become more aware of what this world has to offer and what I might want to do in it.
KB: Do you think you are sacrificing your college life by trying to run a business at the same time?
DG: I could probably do better in school if I didn’t have so many other things going on. Though I am very happy with my grades, the businesses do take away somewhat from all the other parts of my life. I think I’m pretty good at managing my time, balancing being a full-time student with being an athlete, an entrepreneur and a social individual. But, it’s tough. There are nights when all of my friends are going out, but I will have to stay in because I have client calls from 8 to 10. Then, after 10, I have to review some Students4Students applications or call the hotel where we’re having our next summit.
It takes a lot of willpower, but I choose to work on Next Gen and Students4Students because I enjoy being involved with people in working environments that help others to grow. I get a lot of satisfaction because of the impact these businesses are having on other people, and at the end of the day I wouldn’t change a thing.
Dylan Gambardella At A Glance
Location: Durham, North Carolina
Age: 20 years old
Business: Next Gen Summit
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