Change the World, Then Get a Driver's License: The New Teen Entrepreneur

By Michael S. Malone           

Not all entrepreneurs are businesspeople.  Nor do all measure success in revenues in profits.  And some haven’t even yet finished high school.  Take the case of young man I know well, Tad Malone.

            Otherwise a standard suburban high school senior:  worrying about the SAT and college, playing guitar in a garage band, and chasing girls. Yet, it is precisely the fact that Tad is such a regular kid that makes what he has just accomplished so extraordinary – and offers a glimpse of how America’s ‘next’ generation is already combining the Internet, a consumer culture, and an entrepreneurial attitude to create unique new enterprises that are changing the world in tiny, but important ways.

            To get a quick summary of just what Tad has done, here’s some TV coverage (complete with my misspelled name) of his project http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=news/business&id=6352987  As the news story explains, Tad, in what has to be one of the most unusual Eagle Scout projects ever, decided to fill a forty-foot shipping container with school supplies and then ship it to Children’s Town AIDS orphanage outside Lusaka, Zambia.  The project took two years, but this week, a truck finally hitched up to the container on its trailer and drove it away from Silicon Valley to Long Beach, to be loaded on a ship for Mozambique – and from there back on another truck to be drive a thousand miles to Children’s Town.

            The high points are all there, but the key to this story is in the details.  And it is in those details that we can get a unique glimpse of this new generation and the surprisingly optimistic future they may create.

            The story of Tad’s project actually begins with a four hour miniseries for PBS called “The New Heroes”.   The series, which I co-produced, told the stories of ‘social entrepreneurs’ – individuals who have applied entrepreneurial techniques to non-profit institutions – around the world.  One of the segments told the story of Moses Zulu and his work to provide a home and school for children who had been left orphaned by Africa’s AIDS epidemic.  Historically, local African villages had taken care of their orphans; but impact of AIDS had been so extensive and devastating that the villages had been overwhelmed, and thousands – even millions – of orphans were now making their way to cities like Lusaka and sinking into drugs, prostitution and crime.

            Moses had fought to save at least some of those lost children by creating Children’s Town, which had begun literally as a single tent shared by students and volunteer teachers, and grown to a compound of cinderblock classrooms and mud huts for more than 300 students and several score teachers.  The story of Moses Zulu and Children’s Town was one of those miracles that had inspired global social entrepreneurship movement.

            Tad watched that series as a fourteen year old high school freshman . . . and not long afterwards announced that for his Eagle Scout service project, “I want to do something for Children’s Town.”

            What is important about Tad’s statement is the amazing ambition of a kid still two years away from a driver’s license wanting to do something on the other side of the world.  Eagle projects are supposed to be the most difficult task a boy takes on in childhood – but usually it consists of restoring a hiking trail, or painting a school building, or re-landscaping a playground.  And that’s challenge enough when you are kid with no experience dealing with the adult world or managing a team of volunteers.

            But this is the 21st century, and the modern teenager – thanks to Google Maps, Wikipedia, and Skype – is very much a citizen of the world, as comfortable following English Football or breaking news in Sri Lanka as he or she is with events taking place just down the street.  They span the world with just the click of a few keys . . .and so the idea of doing a project 12,000 miles away is no more intimidating than doing one in the next town.

            So Tad e-mailed Moses and asked what he could do to help.  Tellingly, Tad just assumed that Moses would have email – and was surprised that it took several weeks to get a reply.  Moses, it seemed, had to travel four hours down a rough dirt road to get to an Internet café in Lusaka to check his mail.  Tad hadn’t considered that the developing world might not be as wired as Sunnyvale, California.

            In the course of their exchanges, Tad informed Zulu that we would be in Africa the following summer and asked if we might stop by.  Moses happily agreed, and in July 2006, Tad found himself, exhausted from a three hour drive down that same rutted road, depressed by the miserable poverty that had surrounded us Lusaka and its environs, turning into the immaculate grounds of Children’s Town – with Moses, wearing his perpetual grin, waiting to meet us.

            Children’s Town was an oasis in a landscape of poverty and squalor, but that was only the result of pride and care, not money.  The immaculate classrooms with their carefully aligned desks and swept floors, typically lacked glass in the windows and had only a single bare light bulb for illumination.  But the teachers were inspiring and committed, the students healthy and happy, and Moses was accomplishing miracles against impossible odds.

            Tad spent four hours walking around the school with Zulu, clipboard in hand, taking notes on everything the school needed (which was, essentially, everything).   He came home at the end of that summer inspired and ready to create his own miracle.

            If you know anything about Eagle projects, you won’t be surprised to learn that in the course of this project Tad grew in confidence, in his ability to communicate with adults and navigate bureaucracies, and in his organizational skills. 

            But you may be surprised to learn three other lessons from Tad’s project: 

First, the power of the Web, not just as an information gathering tool, but as a persona.   Tad was not only able to locate container resellers, shipping companies, corporate donors, etc., but he could communicate with them, via carefully crafted e-mails, that made him appear far more experienced and confident than he ever could as a teenager making a phone call to a middle-aged corporate executive.  Much has been made of the fact that Tad managed to convince such power players as super-venture capitalist John Doerr, Cypress Semiconductor Chairman T.J. Rodgers, and legendary attorney Dick Alexander to help underwrite the project, but one wonders if it ever would have happened if Tad hadn’t been able to speak to these individuals on equal terms via print.

Second, the incredible productivity of the U.S. economy.  Tad’s shipping container is entirely filled, end to end, top to bottom, with what can best be described as the stuff the average American leaves on the curb for the annual pick-up day.  There are nine pianos (donated by the local school district because it has stopped putting one in each classroom), two dozen generation-old (and thus obsolete) iMacs, several hundred used school uniforms, 5,000 textbooks (some never used before the state once again changed its standards), dozens of chairs and desks (from a company that was moving to new offices five miles away and didn’t want to ship used equipment), 20,000 sheets of toilet paper (because the schools changed their dispensers), etc., etc.  Even the container itself is ‘junk’ – used only once, then cleaned up and sold for storage.  The sheer fecundity of our society is mind-boggling – what we cast off as used or obsolete is treasured in other parts of the world . . .even the container will now be converted by Children’s Town (with the addition of some windows) into a classroom.  What Tad discovered – serendipitously, but now his work is being studied by organizations such as GlobalGiving.com – is a powerful nexus between the high production/fast churn consumer economies of countries like the U.S. and the desperate need of developing countries for the still-valuable items those wealthy nations throw away.

Finally, the third lesson is the decency of the American people.  From captains of industry to housewives, from fellow Boy Scouts to local teachers, from tycoons to Sister Georgi and Resurrection School (which patiently let the container sit on its grounds for nearly two years), almost every person Tad spoke to about his project immediately volunteered to help.  Probably not a single one those people will ever see the fruits of their efforts in use deep in the heart of Africa.  But that didn’t matter.  More than once, Tad stopped by the container to find a box of school items, some newly bought at store, left there anonymously by someone in the community.   Tad may have been surprised, but I was more so.  Having lived in Silicon Valley now for nearly a half-century, and covered it for thirty years as a journalist, I thought I knew everything about this town.  But, thanks to Tad’s project, I’ve learned something wonderful about the heart of this place.

The container will arrive, like an early Christmas present, at Children’s Town in late October – a gift to teenagers from another teenager half a world away.  One can say that it never would have happened without the technology of our modern Internet-driven global economy.  But just as important, it happened because an American boy, filled with the pervasive entrepreneurial spirit of our time – and with the ambition that comes with that spirit – didn’t hesitate to attempt the impossible.  Though as a proud father I’d like to think so, Tad Malone isn’t unique.  There are millions more young people out there just like him.

And if that doesn’t give you hope, nothing will.