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November 26, 2019

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Meet tomorrow’s moguls

Nicholas Penaloza is still in high school, but he's already found success in the startup world. Indeed, he recently helped organize a forum for teen entrepreneurs like himself where he shared his journey as a young business founder.

During the event, he and other participants networked and received free mentoring from business insiders such as Shaun Rein, author of “The End of Copycat China.”

“Nobody is ever prepared to be an entrepreneur. The key is having the courage to pursue your passion,” Penaloza, a senior at Shanghai American School, told the audience at What's Poppin Teen Founder Forum.

Penaloza knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur in 2016 after witnessing the devastating impact air pollution had on his life, his community and Shanghai, the city he lives in and loves.

Outdoor activities were strongly discouraged at that time, and Penaloza hated the rare occasions when he had to leave the house. He couldn’t stand to see Shanghai covered in smog and passersby coughing through their facial masks.

“Everyone knew the air quality was bad, but how bad was it really? What does AQI 200 really mean? My heart capered with joy when I found research by Arden Pope, a world-renowned researcher, linking AQI to cigarettes in 2016,” said Penaloza.

He then created CAPISCE (China Air Pollution In Standard Cigarette Equivalents), an app that shows users the quality of the air they are breathing expressed in terms of cigarettes. The app has more than 36,400 users so far.

Penaloza’s entrepreneurship continued in 2018, when he created What’s Poppin, a bilingual curated news service for teens, by teens.

Service expansion

“The impetus for What’s Poppin was my deep sense of guilt at being ignorant about the Israel-Palestine conflict. What struck me even more was the fact that none of 15 other international high school debaters knew anything about the conflict either. The fact that 16 international high school students, who all have the privilege of an elite education, didn’t know anything about the Israel-Palestine conflict inspired me to create What’s Poppin,” said Penaloza.

Every week, his team of 27 teenagers from five different international schools in Shanghai finds relevant news articles for teens, then breaks down the articles so other young readers can easily understand complicated world events.

“The target audience for What’s Poppin is international school and local Chinese teenagers ranging from 13 to 19 years old,” said Penaloza. “We have distilled the key points of 996 work culture, the Notre Dame fire and many other important current events in English. Bilingually, we have broken down fake news detection algorithms.”

The team uses a variety of sources such as The Guardian and Washington Post. The source for their most recent article on fake news detection algorithms was The Conversation, a non-profit media outlet that uses content sources from the academic and research communities.

“The biggest obstacle facing What’s Poppin currently is the fact that all 27 of my teenage writers are part-time due to intense schoolwork. This prevents us from creating short, weekly and funny videos about important current events which is ideal for our target audience who prefers video content,” Penaloza explained.

Nevertheless, plans to expand the service are underway.

“Currently, one of my writers is coding a What’s Poppin function that allows users to follow topics and writers they’re interested in. Global expansion would also include Snapchat, Youtube and Instagram accounts that post short and funny one-minute videos breaking down important current events. Once What’s Poppin establishes a large user base via viral videos and other means, I will approach major news organizations and propose to add a teen section that leads directly to our website with all our articles,” Penaloza explained.

Based on his experience, Penaloza is strongly considering a career that uses the power of business and entrepreneurship to improve social well-being.

“I believe that an entrepreneurial approach to humanity’s biggest problems is an effective and efficient way to direct resources and energies to empower communities and protect the environment,” said Penaloza. 

Penaloza met Brandon Zhang three years ago at SAS. They were both new students at the school and members of the Innovation Institute, a self-selected, interdisciplinary project-based learning center.

For their first Innovation Institute project, Penaloza worked with Zhang and two other students on researching plastic pollution. During the research process, Penaloza noticed that Zhang had a unique sense of humor: He loves making puns.

Zhang and Penaloza were also debate partners at the 2018 China Open where they debated topics such as citizenship for artificial intelligence robots.

When Zhang shared Bartr, a multi-platform app which tracks currency exchange rates in tourist destinations, on his Instagram, the boys’ passions aligned once again. Like Penaloza, Zhang was also passionate about teenage entrepreneurship.

Zhang’s entrepreneurship started when he met with four fellow teens. They all had international travel experience and wanted to impact the tourism industry. They started by focusing on common tourist frustrations.

Zhang remembered one time, during a trip to Sri Lanka, that his family exchanged money at a tourist hotspot but soon realized that they could have gotten a better exchange rate elsewhere.

“Because of that experience, we set out to prevent infuriating traveling experiences dealing with currency exchange. We brainstormed Bartr, an app that tracks currency rates and their locations,” said Zhang.

Their target customers are inexperienced, low- to medium-income millennials who love to travel. Their beta test will be taken in Toronto, where one of their group members lives. But soon they will bring their product to London, according to Zhang.

As the marketing manager of his startup, Zhang’s primary role is to promote the app once it’s released. Currently, his primary role is helping the head of sales and doing outreach to find investors and mentors. He also tries to find test users to do market research while the app is in development.

“The three other members of my startup are teens, but it almost feels like they are well into adulthood for all the wisdom that they carry. They often have an unrelenting focus on the task that they are working on, and that inspires me to be more focused as well. I like to think that I influence them positively through my energy and my focus on creating productive relationships. I think that if a group is to be productive, their relationship and energy are crucial. Thus, I try to elevate the energy every time to be positive,” said Zhang.

Teen depression

Penaloza first met Stella Chen five years ago at YK Pao School. He was intrigued by Chen’s idea of using fashion to raise awareness of teenage depression.

One of Chen’s friends committed suicide eight months ago. This friend had good grades and an excellent profile, yet was deeply troubled.

“After I met him, I found that he was an introverted person. Once our family went to Wuxi in neighboring Jiangsu Province and visited him. We had dinner just beside a gorgeous lake, mountains settled far away to the background. The beautiful landscape offered us a comfortable space for a chat,” Chen recalled.

“However, he barely talked. He was always staring at someplace and it seemed as if nothing could excite him. I thought his personality was just like this. However, after he committed suicide, I realized it was actually because of depression,” said Chen.

She later founded Ashy Zone, an organization dedicated to raising awareness of teenage depression by hosting fashion shows that map the mental state of people suffering from depression.

“Patients with depression may not admit they have it. Therefore, if we directly say the shows are especially open only for people with depression, they may never come. So we open these activities to all people who have interest in fashion. Also I will give out pamphlets during the fashion shows to give information to people who might have depression,” said Chen.

Ashy Zone held its 2019 Glimmer fashion show at the MIFA 1862 Art Center on November 9. The show featured a range of themes and colors and 40 clothing sets (including 20 designer pieces) that were showcased via high school students and professional models.

“Furthermore, our group is planning to do a mental health week inside the school to prevent high school students from becoming depressed. This plan includes inviting all the students to listen to people who have suffered from depression, and to listen to presentations by professional psychologists at school,” said Chen.

The girl, who loves trendy, fashionable and simple items, dreams of joining a big fashion company and running fashion shows before she opens her own brand.

“After my own brand becomes profitable, I want to raise awareness for minority groups by designing collections for charity purposes,” said Chen.

Old Shanghai culture

Penaloza met Qinyi Ma three years ago in a geometry class at SAS. Ma impressed him as an attentive and hardworking student. Unfortunately, Penaloza didn’t have any classes with her in their sophomore year. But their paths aligned again when he saw her share an Unsung Shanghai article on her WeChat moments in their junior year. Ma, too, was passionate about teenage entrepreneurship.

She founded Unsung Shanghai, an organization that aims to record and share the culture of old Shanghai via collecting narratives of the elders in longtang, or traditional alleyway.

At Unsung, Ma’s team of 16 high school students fulfills the roles of interviewers, writers and artists, and strives to embody three main virtues: empathy, open-mindedness and initiative.

“Longtang, to many of the elderly we’ve met, symbolizes a sort of lovely, undemanding simplicity that manifests itself in a wide array of ways: a bittersweet flashback, a core virtue or belief, a singular and deep-running feeling. These warm wood walls, the modest furniture; they have a unique, unspeakable value for those who spent their childhood there, those who came back when they were old, and those who had been here all along,” said Ma.

When interviewers watched the elders move and speak in their element, the members of Unsung came to a greater understanding of their subjects.

“And therein lies empathy — the greatest ability we learned from this experience,” said Ma.

For the writers, editors, artists, translators and interviewers of Unsung, they believe modernity isn’t the foe of history. Urbanization and the preservation of the past shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

“Shanghai, in its essence, is a blend of multiple cultures from multiple time frames. Look at the dichotomy of the Pudong and Puxi sides of the Bund — two skylines, a multitude of sleek skyscrapers against a line of old, mixed-culture buildings. This is a prime example of the coexistence of two sides of the same coin. If we were to apply this simple analogy to every other aspect of Shanghai, allow cultures to complement and build off each other as they should, then Shanghai would be much more harmonious in its diversity,” said Angela Chen, one member of Unsung.

Sex education

While recruiting for young founders, Penaloza reached out to a friend from Shanghai High School International Division whom he knew from debate. She connected him with Anzhi Weng on WeChat and sent him an article that featured “Self-Reliance,” a video game to educate Chinese teenagers about sex.

Weng, a member of the Eroducate (a combination of eroticism and education) team, created “Self-Reliance,” a sex-education video game tackling taboo topics, and was the game’s programmer.

“Self-Reliance” uses interactive videos as game content. For example, at the beginning of the game, when a young man and a young woman decide to have sex, two options appear on the screen: buy a condom or not. If the player chooses “not buy,” the game goes on to show the young woman pregnant. Then team members come on the screen to discuss the value of contraception.

“The shooting was funny. In one episode, when we wanted to show a young man kissing a young woman, he was actually kissing the camera while I as the cinematographer was bent over him. It was really funny,” said Weng.

The game made its debut on Steam on February 7. Since then, it has been downloaded about 200,000 times and more than 400 players have left reviews, with 88 percent positive responses.

Judges of the China Thinks Big competition thought so too, giving the team the Young Innovator Award.

“At the beginning, a girl whom I like invited me to join the competition together. I used my passion in writing computer games to create Self-Reliance. The experience is valuable in that I got to start something from scratch and actually impacted society with this project,” said Weng.

Currently, the team is working on their next project about promoting sex education among people who use sign language.


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