What’s it like being a teen founder in New Zealand? And what kind of support do they value most?
Like most successful founders, 19-year-old Luca Zampese is both a self-starter and a collaborator.
“I’ve always liked figuring things out on my own, but if I need help with something or specific knowledge, I’ll go find it.”
Zampese started his first tech business aged 10, fixing printers in his neighbourhood. While at secondary school he co-founded a tech service business with local retirees as clients.
“We called it Tech Quickie Kāpiti. At that age, we didn’t understand what quickie meant...it got a few laughs at the retirement village!”
Not a big fan of school, he left at 16, when a mate’s CIO Dad invited him to work on a digital transformation project at Tū Ora. It grew into a full-time role, which he now balances with a startup he launched last year.
Equitech is a consultancy that provides IT support to NGOs, charities, community organisations and not-for-profits. Addressing the “massive inequity in the way enterprise IT is approached in this sector” is a kaupapa he’s passionate about.
When asked what’s been most helpful in his startup journey, Zampese reels off a list.
Joining the Kāpiti Coast Youth Council helped develop his confidence and leadership, while his four-year involvement with Festival for the Future (“meeting amazing people”) inspired the idea for Equitech.
“They’re brilliant. You can hook up a meeting anytime and get advice on the industry from someone who’s had their own startups.”
As a tech founder, Zampese doesn’t see the relevance of a university degree. He prefers to upskill with practical tools like Microsoft and AWS exams and certifications.
“It’s what people use in enterprise, so it’s far more useful. And experience – for me, working at Tū Ora these past three years has been awesome.”
By age 12, Luna Fukuchi had already cracked it as a solopreneur. But the ecosystem has built her connections with others – and made her young founder’s life richer.
She says her father Kenji, who always dreamed of starting his own chain of hair salons, is her greatest mentor and inspiration.
“It’s taken a few years but he’s just opened his first one. It’s been amazing watching it come to life.”
Fukuchi started her first gig at primary school, reselling online products to classmates. She went nationwide for her next venture, aged 12, selling slime products nationwide via Instagram. At Glendowie High School, she took orders for homemade teriyaki chicken and outsold the St Pierre’s version at the tuckshop.
But her first experience managing others – and discovering it’s “very, very different to working by yourself” – was taking a CEO role in the school’s Young Enterprise Scheme.
She had another epiphany during the YES Extreme Experience programme, where 15–18-year-olds work in teams to solve country-specific challenges. It’s where Fukuchi found her people.
“Until then I thought I was the only one who’d grown up with an entrepreneurial mindset. I was like, wow, there are all these other people who think like me.”
Growing her network of friends-slash-business partners has become Fukuchi’s ‘why’ for being in business.
“Money is not the biggest driver for me. My Dad has always said connection with people is the most important asset you can ever have…and that’s what I value more than anything else.”
Dr Colin Kennedy, chief innovation officer at Creative HQ, says a healthy youth ecosystem has multiple touchpoints and paths, as reflected in Zampese and Fukuchi’s journeys.
“It’s informal education, working with schools, internship opportunities, creating entrepreneurs within big organisations – it’s all of that.”
He says the Young Enterprise Scheme – which embeds starting a business into the curriculum – is the envy of other countries.
“Outside of New Zealand, it’s a real struggle to create a programme for entrepreneurship within the formal education system. It’s a significant success story.”
In 2023, YES engaged with 85 percent of New Zealand secondary schools across their various programmes, as well as providing learning resources to primary and intermediate schools.
Where we’re not quite as strong, says Kennedy, is in the extra- and co-curricular spaces. To help address that, he’d like to see the wider ecosystem help.
“My message to everyone is get involved. Don’t just point at the teachers or the Ministry of Education. In the next 10 years, informal education is going to be just as important as formal education, if it isn’t already.”
What does this involvement look like?
“If you’re a startup, create a paid internship for a young person to come in and shadow and learn. If you can’t afford to pay, ask another organisation to support it.”
And for corporates and large organisations, refresh your ideas of internship.
“Don’t ask your interns to ‘go and do what those people did 10 years ago’. That’s helping nobody; it’s just going to create a funnel of zombies.”
The modern model is Creative HQ’s Innovation Hack, where companies invite Gen Z to solve their current and future business challenges, using adaptive thinking.
The looming challenge for all countries, says Kennedy, is that AI and digitisation is about to cause a seismic shift – not only in how kids learn, but what they’ll learn.
“What a market is, how we sell...everything in entrepreneurship is changing dramatically.”
Kennedy says it’s unrealistic to expect teachers to lead this alone. It will require a new kind of pedagogy – one where the students become the teachers, and get to co-design their own curriculum.
Alex Bullot, the newly-arrived chief excitement officer (CEO) for YES, sees the potential of AI as a learning equaliser.
“Where topics are totally new to students – which they often are in entrepreneurship – AI can supplement the teaching. By learning to prompt and ask the right questions, they can push through roadblocks and keep going.”
Thirty-year-old Bullot has taken over from previous CEO Terry Shubkin, who was in the role for 13 years. With her feet just under the desk, one of Bullot’s big remits is to build a new learning platform for the AI environment, due to launch in 2025.
“Our previous platform was really just an online textbook. We’re creating a top-of-the-line learning system for our students, using gamification and AI prompting. I’m excited to see how we’ll keep adapting.”
What’s the value of having a thriving youth ecosystem? And what does success look like?
It’s not only critical to the country’s economy, says Bullot, it’s also creating a pipeline of leaders across every sphere.
“We call it making young people world ready and work ready, whatever path they choose. You don’t have to be the next CEO or next founder; you could be an amazing innovator or change maker in your community.”
The 2022 Impact Report for YES measured the social impact return on its activities at $5.80 for every $1 spent. Starting as CEO in a tight funding environment, Bullot stresses that “continual funding into our young people is super-important”.
For Kennedy, the youth ecosystem is not about quick wins, or creating the next wunderkind; it sits at the start of a lifelong journey.
“The popular narrative is the 20-year-old who hits the big time and creates a unicorn, which can happen and that’s brilliant. But the reality is that entrepreneurs often find success in their 40s. We want to create that entrepreneurial mindset and skillset at an early age...and then continue to nurture and support it right through.”
When the ecosystem grows stronger, says Kennedy, everybody wins.
“My call-out is that everybody needs to support our youth, both in terms of resources and money but also in terms of their time and giving back. And that means everybody. It takes a village to raise a founder.”
Te Kete Aronui has produced an ecomap of the 62 youth enterprise programmes available across the motu. You can download the pdf from its website. https://www.teketearonui.co.nz/about/
Libby Schultz is an Auckland-based freelance writer with a background in journalism and law. She enjoys telling the hero’s journey that lies behind every start-up.
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How accurate it will be rests on ecosystem players doing their part.