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Center for Development & Entrepreneurship

Unleashing the Power of Youth Entrepreneurship

In 2015, 23-year-old Ankiti Bose was hungry to prove two things: a young woman from India could build a company with a global impact, and The South/Southeast Asian market still had plenty of room for innovation and growth.

Ankiti identified a clear gap in the local market: traditional manufacturing businesses and factories were often not directly connected and were forced to go through many intermediaries across the supply chain – creating complexity, inefficiency, and impacting the bottom line.

Many of these factories also lacked the tools and technology to maximize productivity, and they found it highly problematic to manage opaque and outdated business processes. Simultaneously, harmful environmental impact and exploitative labor practices stifled small brands’ growth.

Ankiti saw this as a $27B Southeast Asian market opportunity, and Zilingo was born. The dream was to create a digital supply chain solution for wholesalers, brands, and retailers across South and Southeast Asia. Zilingo aimed to drive transparency, sustainability, and B2B sourcing for the fabric and fashion industry. Both Zilingo Factory, proprietary software to revolutionize how garment industries track quality and efficiency, and Zilingo Connect, a software to align brand inventory with e-commerce platforms, enabled a new method to overcome decades-old operational bottlenecks. Zilingo works with over 17,000 merchants and thousands of factories on the forum while also helping retail businesses to operate sustainably and source over 500 certified, recycled, and organic fabrics.

After only five years, the startup grew substantially, propelling itself towards a $1.1B valuation. They have created a multiplier effect on the ecosystem of suppliers and employees who now have access to 100,000 new jobs, better healthcare, better education, and greater security.

Having successfully built Zilingo from scratch, Ankiti has become a role model within the Southeast Asia entrepreneurship ecosystem. She is also proof that a young female leader can bring a digital company to the global stage.

Ankiti stated that her learning mindset was the prerequisite for her success at 23. She was astute enough to identify critical supply chain gaps, gauge market dynamics strategically, and execute an innovative value proposition with excellence, speed, and efficiency.

By working collaboratively, she continued to refine her skills to the needs of a complex market. Her age was her driver – it contributed to her creativity, stamina, and resilience when the odds were stacked against her. As Ankiti said, “We have dangerous responsibility, and we have that consciousness.” Her journey is an important story of the power of youth entrepreneurship and conveys that unicorns and ecosystem drivers are built on grit more than years of experience.

Toufic Al Rjoula was living in a Dutch asylum camp, and his birth certificate was destroyed in the Gulf War. Toufic was, on paper, invisible. According to the UNHCR, more than 1 billion people worldwide lack proper identification papers, excluding them from accessing insurance, financial services, job opportunities, and even housing. At the camp, Toufic met thousands of other Syrian refugees facing the same dilemma.

In collaboration with Khaliki Maliki and Jimmy (JP) Snoek, Toufic founded TYKN – a blockchain-powered digital identity management system. TYKN provides an eternally verifiable digital credential, allowing refugees to prove their identities for traditional institutions. The digital IDs are tamper-proof, private, and give people complete control of the information they store and share with institutions. This significantly reduces bureaucracy and allows refugees the opportunity to reenter the workforce and access necessary services.

Globally, 600 million jobs need to be created to solve global unemployment needs over the next 15 years. National strategies and development paradigms often advocate for youth entrepreneurship to meet this growing need. However, Ankiti and Toufic’s success stories are rare, with only 9% of all entrepreneurs being under 30 in even the most developed economies.

What is the unique potential of youth entrepreneurship to transform economies? And how do we enable young entrepreneurs to be successful?

WHAT MAKES YOUTH ENTREPRENEURSHIP UNIQUE?

Ankiti’s and Toufic’s successes share three main characteristics:

  1. A Clear and Obsessive “Why?” Toufic had a distinct motive to solve the systemic problem of refugee exclusion. Not only was his community impacted by the lack of identification, but Toufic was also stripped from any opportunity. His business plan was to generate profit and unlock opportunities for himself, his community, and the 1 billion other ‘invisible’ people globally.

    Ankiti also aimed to solve a systemic problem in her region. Recognizing older generations’ apathy and resistance toward environmental protection, she was adamant to prove to old school corporate business that tech and digitization can enable more sustainable practices while still improving the gross profit margin.
  2. Early Tech Exposure Before Toufic’s asylum, he was a blockchain senior analyst for wikistrat.com and a bitcoin miner. He built a skillset that broadened his tech knowledge and fueled his digital appetite in his youth. Integrating these learnings into his startup, he could rapidly scale his idea. TYKN is currently exploring how to utilize this technology in broader humanitarian operations.

    Another industry accelerating as quickly as blockchain is e-commerce, with the sector projected to represent one-quarter of total retail sales by 2025. And at 23, after working with McKinsey and Sequoia Capital, Ankiti began her e-commerce journey. Zilingo is a ‘transformer’ business, turbocharging growth and innovation through tech-enabled solutions. Her appetite for solving unmet market needs paired with the hyper-growth potential of the e-commerce field catalyzed her success.
  3. Desire to Impact Society Toufic has been consistently motivated to address societal issues at the systemic level. In Turkey, he collaborated with the UNDP and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, encouraged public sector involvement and gained government traction. In addition to giving refugees more significant access to social services and employment through TYKN, Toufic was also able to work with governments to address larger-scale developmental barriers to the economy.

    Ankiti similarly drove inclusion and diversity through her entrepreneurial success. She has used Zilingo to launch SheWorkz, an initiative that finances skill-based opportunities for factory workers, recognizing that almost 40% of women leave the workforce after they get married in Indonesia. With 50% of her employees being women, she conveys the seismic impact a more inclusive workforce can have in the industry. The Zilingo team scaled and raised $308M to support its mission in only five years. In essence, Toufic and Ankiti, as young entrepreneurs, made an impact beyond profit. Toufic drove public-sector involvement in a pressing global issue, incepted and created a new blockchain solution, and provided a platform for his community to work – potentially generating a rising wave of entrepreneurs ready to solve similar issues. Ankiti also offered a practical employment multiplier effect while using technology to convey the value of sustainability and gender equality. Their knowledge and skills first, then their youth characteristics, were the DNA of their success.

ENABLING YOUTH ENTREPRENEURSHIP

If today’s youth are uniquely equipped with a “DNA” for success, what must educators, policymakers, and investors do to support this movement towards youth contribution?

An Educational Shift
School and college curriculums should include opportunities to develop business, technical and life skills. Traditional textbook schooling in today’s rapidly changing world is fast becoming obsolete. Moreover, a high school student with an appetite for impact has a distinct psychological advantage. Young people hold more weight on the potential rewards of their actions than the negative consequences. This is due to heightened dopamine release and greater levels of hyper rationality that they have over older generations. This promotes traits of persistence, risk-taking, and creativity, which ironically are the idealistic traits of entrepreneurs. Overall, suppose educational institutions can take advantage of the motivation of younger generations. In that case, schools can become an essential source of acceleration for a wave of innovators who are ready to generate systemic impact.

Corporation Collaboration
Real hands-on experience in a professional job environment holds transformational value for the youth. Unlocking exposure in a specific market or idea inspires them to contribute and gain the early courage needed for risk-taking and experimentation. Furthermore, young people are less exposed to the existing paradigms of entrepreneurial culture. Their questioning, disruptive minds may provide new and valuable perspectives that a more established business could overlook. As Ankiti said, “We are paranoid that a 23-year-old will disrupt us.” To this end, there needs to be greater collaboration between educators and the business sector, which provides a win-win situation for both parties.

Capital Provision
Support for youth access to finance can manifest in many forms. For example, “deal flow” accelerators can link angel investors and VC funding with promising start-up ideas. Incubators that host budding entrepreneurs, have mentorship programs, and link them to angel capital are also important to set up. It is time that investors take a leap of faith and evaluate how they can enable youth contribution faster instead of looking at an age as a potential hindrance.

The Domino Effect of a Leader
Encouraging youth involvement is vital, as they are responsible for innovating the way out of pressing global challenges. However, we must ensure that traditional governance in the corporate environment does not hamper rising youth entrepreneurship, creativity, and social awareness. In the private sector, the average age of board members of S&P 500 companies is 63 (with an upward trend), and less than 1% are under 40. Ankiti, driving an average leadership age of 29 in her team, advocated that “Boomer generations should not be making decisions on climate change and sustainability, as their responsibility directly affects younger generations.” Leadership positions for young people encourage a valuable voice needed for building a sustainable future.

The current state of global social problems indicates a need for disruption. The advent of tech and digitization gives us this platform.

There is still much to be done to provide a clear entrepreneurial pathway for the budding youth. There are urgent global problems to be solved, and we should invite to the stage this young generation filled with energy, awareness, and drive and provide them with the suitable enablers to drive the change for tomorrow.

Youth entrepreneurship can be a powerful tool to transform economies.

Our job is to unleash it.