We often look to our elders while navigating the trials of life, but in the entrepreneurial world, it is often beneficial to look to the younger generation for inspiration. Young entrepreneurs are known for shaking things up while showcasing the bleeding edge of innovation and ingenuity. The proof is in the many successful businesses that have been founded by entrepreneurs under the age of 40.
Entrepreneurs bear most of an enterprise’s risk while reaping the majority of the rewards. This list highlights 10 inspiring entrepreneurs under 40 who have lived up to that ideal while building empires in their youth.
Girl boss, indeed! Back in 2006, a 22-year-old Sophia Amoruso decided to take her hobby of scavenging for vintage clothing online and created an eBay boutique where she sold her thrifted finds. Fast-forward five short years, and her hot online clothing shop, Nasty Gal, was raking in $23 million in revenue, reported a three-year growth rate of 10,160%, and had more than $40 million in investments. The icing on Amoruso’s cake? Her book, #GirlBoss, an empowering account of her journey from shoplifter to multimillionaire CEO, made the bestsellers list before being adapted into a Netflix show. In 2017, she founded Girlboss Media, which provides content for young women. Amoruso now runs a new business focused on “helping entrepreneurs and side hustlers build their dream businesses.” [Related article: 50 Inspiring Quotes From Trailblazing Women We Admire]
Alexa von Tobel was in one of the best business schools in the world but didn’t have control over her finances. She realized she was not alone – many of her peers hadn’t received much in the way of financial education. Her realization led her to launch LearnVest, a personal finance website with the mission to “help you feel amazing about your money.” With accessible financial planning services and relatable, educational content, LearnVest helped people take control of their finances. In 2015, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. bought LearnVest and continued to operate it under von Tobel’s leadership. She later founded Inspired Capital, a venture fund “focused on supporting the next wave of exceptional entrepreneurs.”
You need to keep a close eye on your business’s finances, so make sure you have a relatively high degree of financial literacy before getting too far along with your company.
At 35 years old, high school dropout David Karp is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. After learning HTML at age 11 and beginning his first internship at just 14, Karp founded Tumblr, a microblogging platform, in 2007 when he was only 21. Host to more than 190 million blogs, Tumblr was sold to Yahoo in 2013 for a staggering $1.1 billion. Instead of focusing on making money, Karp was driven by passion and dedicated to keeping Tumblr a space for creativity and self-expression. He was dead set on not “selling out” and managed to stay in control of his company even when he eventually signed over the deed to Yahoo. In 2017, he left Tumblr to pursue other personal investments. We’re excited to see what Karp does next.
When Kathryn Minshew was looking for a new job, she realized the resources available online were not only frustrating but also didn’t embody what the modern, professional woman cared about. After a failed attempt at creating a job-related site in 2011, Minshew successfully founded The Daily Muse, a website dedicated to helping women discover their passions and search for jobs that reflect them and their interests. Now rebranded as The Muse, Minshew’s site has more than 75 million users – men and women alike. Her past failures and hardships led to a positive resource for others, for which she remains CEO.
Elnaz Sarraf began her entrepreneurial journey by co-founding iBaby in 2013. The company sold highly sought-after smart baby monitors to major retailers internationally. The early success was not enough for Sarraf, however. She wanted to make a bigger impact and figured education would be the best area for her to do so. In 2017, she founded Roybi Robot. The product, Roybi, uses state-of-the-art technology to support children’s learning by focusing on their interests and abilities. Sarraf raised $4.2 million in seed funding to support the enterprise. Roybi was named one of the best inventions of 2019 by Time and featured on the magazine’s cover.
At age 28, while pursuing an MBA at Harvard, Katrina Lake founded Stitch Fix. Her company mails customers five articles of clothing and allows them to choose which items they want to purchase. She relied on SurveyMonkey data and the goodwill of customers to start her mail-order fashion empire. It worked: In 2017, Stitch Fix raised an initial public offering of nearly $120 million. Her company currently has more than 4 million active customers with a revenue of $2.1 billion in 2021. After leading Stitch Fix for a decade, Lake stepped down as CEO and settled into her new role as the executive chairperson of the company’s board. [Share Lake’s passion for fashion? Learn how to start a clothing store.]
Before starting Bumble, Whitney Wolfe Herd was the vice president of marketing for the popular online dating platform Tinder. Due to growing tensions and a sexual harassment lawsuit, she left Tinder in 2014 to start the female-friendly online dating platform Bumble. The site was so popular that, in 2021, 31-year-old Wolfe Herd became the youngest woman to take a company public.
According to Wolfe Herd, Bumble was founded under the principle of “solving the problem that I shared with so many other women … to be treated as equals in our relationships.” It’s safe to say she accomplished that goal, as evidenced by the app’s millions of users.
At 21, Josh Feinsilber is the youngest entrepreneur on this list. He started Gimkit in 2017 when he stumbled across Kahoot, an application that allows teachers to test their students’ knowledge with quiz games. Feinsilber took that simple idea and decided to improve upon it. Gimkit, which provides interactive games for teachers and students, started as a school project but quickly morphed into a site with more than 3 million active monthly users. Educators are particularly excited about the brand-new free version of the site that launched in November 2021. Feinsilber is definitely an entrepreneur who should be on your radar for decades to come.
During a trip to Bali, Indonesia, with pal Andrew Cooper, Alex Schulze was dismayed at the amount of trash washing onto the beach from the ocean. After speaking with local fishermen, the two young entrepreneurs began to explore ways to clean up the ocean while making a profit. This idea was the foundation for their company 4ocean and its One Pound Pledge: For every item it sells, the company pledges to remove at least 1 pound of waste from the ocean. Since its creation, 4ocean has removed more than 18 million pounds of ocean trash. The COVID-19 pandemic hit the operation hard, but we look forward to seeing how Schulze and 4ocean continue their admirable entrepreneurial efforts. [Related article: Can You Make a Profit and Be Socially Responsible?]
This heartwarming story began in a University of St. Thomas entrepreneurship class. Brian Keller and his friend came up with a business idea that would have a positive impact on society. Their company, Love Your Melon, began in 2012 with the stated mission of providing a hat for every child battling cancer in America, which equated to 45,000 hats. They crushed that goal and did not stop. The company has provided more than 230,000 hats to children who have cancer (a significant improvement over their original goal) and contributed $9.4 million toward fighting pediatric cancer through research. Currently, the company gives 50% of its net profit to nonprofit organizations leading the fight against pediatric cancer.
The pursuit of profit alone won’t cut it for businesses starting out in this more socially conscious era. The triple bottom line emphasizes the three P’s (people, profit and planet) as the key drivers of a brand’s success. Learn how to create a sustainable business model to appeal to today’s consumers.
Clearly, you don’t need to be far along in your career with years of experience under your belt to become a successful entrepreneur. Learn from these inspiring young entrepreneurs and you too can work smarter, not harder, to change your life and the world.
Shayna Marks contributed to the writing and reporting in this article.