At 17, what did you want to be?
At this age, did you ever think of founding a startup of your own, something focused on EdTech perhaps? How about setting up a student-driven skillshare community? It certainly takes a bigger mind with bigger goals and a bigger understanding of the world to be able to have that goal at a young age. And in this modern world, it can be refreshing to realize that the younger generation is not that ‘distracted’ after all.
Harvard Business Review research revealed that the average age of a successful startup founder is 45. However, success is relative. It can be money for you and fame for others, or the simple joys of actually making an impact, putting value, and empowering others. Not all 45-year-olds know that, unfortunately.
In entrepreneurship, there’s no age limit. And Dylan Kim, a 17-year-old CEO proves that on a daily basis.
From doodling to inventing
Growing up, like most kids, Dylan always loved to doodle or sketch things. But unlike most of us, his sketches developed into ideas of inventions that later led him to a career in game development.
“The thought of commercializing these inventions, hence innovation, slowly developed as I started to monetize my games. This prospered my entrepreneurial mindset. I wouldn’t say I wanted to become an entrepreneur from a young age, partly because I didn’t know the word, but I feel like everything I’ve done from a young age was a step in becoming one,” he shared.
Dylan came from a very diverse childhood — a South Korean born in the US, moved back to South Korea for a while, and presently living in Hanoi, Vietnam for the past four years. He enjoyed the ride, quite literally. To him, the experience of living an almost “nomadic” childhood led him to have the amazing opportunity to experience various cultures, meet friends, and have the open-mindedness to try new things.
“Having this open-mindedness really helps me with swift decision-making which is crucial in running a startup.” Though unable to speak Vietnamese fluently, he tries to use it as much as he can, especially that he feels the locals’ humility and respect for him to try and communicate in their language.
Still in high school, Dylan considers himself a student in the morning and an entrepreneur at night — which requires an extreme amount of discipline and time management. “With the pandemic, everything is virtual so after finishing a call for a school class, it would often be followed by a meeting with my co-founders, a few mentors or even pitching my idea to other industry experts.
After high school, he plans to apply to universities in the US and continue his efforts to achieve his overarching vision in tech and education. Still unsure whether he ends up coming back to Vietnam or moving somewhere else, his experience in the country has definitely shaped his identity.
“I also want to say that Vietnam is very entrepreneurial. It is my fourth year in Vietnam and the passion is unreal. Whether its street food vendors selling bánh mì and chè or whitecollar job opportunities, people here are very passionate at what they do. Being surrounded in this very entrepreneurial environment is a learning opportunity for me.”
Using tech to harness the education model for Vietnamese students
When asked how a South Korean like himself intends to change and improve the lives of the people in Vietnam, he said it’s all about empowering their passion with technology and innovation.
“If I had the ability and prowess to do anything, I would love to provide all Vietnamese teenagers an environment where they can freely pursue their passions. Whether this is research, programming, entrepreneurship - they all have an underlying goal for innovation - which is a mindset I wanted to empower. As I am not superman, I looked for smaller steps that would eventually accomplish my long-term vision.”
Dylan founded Lessun — which aims to connect students to share learning experiences out of school, anytime, anywhere — over the summer of 2021 with a team of co-founders. Lessun is also incubated at LaunchX, an entrepreneurship program created at MIT.
“We felt like the main goal for students to learn was simply to get good grades rather than consuming the knowledge. This led to many problems with procrastination, lack of motivation, or forgetting the content they learned. This connected with one of my personal visions for empowerment where I wanted other students to be able to use their knowledge and pursue their passions through tangible projects.”
With extensive market research and interviews, Dylan and his team identified the underlying problem with teacher-student relationships and they learned that “methodological lectures seemed to be an unintended catalyst for this problem”
“As such, we wanted to create a student-driven academic skillshare community where students could share their learning tips and tricks for others. Social media is loved by teenagers but it is oftentimes labeled as a distraction to studying. We wanted to innovate socializing by having a platform that students would interact with one another while actually learning something out of the experience. Our proposed solution right now is an online forum page website where students could share and consume self-taught learning tricks. However, our long-term vision or our why is to set a culture of innovation and student-initiated learning within our global education systems.”
Apart from Lessun, Dylan also runs an organization called UNIS STEM that aims to build a network of student programmers to develop a more tech-savvy community here in Vietnam.
“I feel the greatest joy when I am given the ability to share and teach what I already know to empower those around me to pursue their passions. Instead of building up my qualifications, my goal is to share what I learned to help the overall synergy of our communities — my vision for a more tech-savvy Vietnam will not only benefit local communities but the long-term development of Vietnam’s youth.”
Finding the right mentor
Professor Bert Seither is Dylan’s mentor in founding Lessun. “I believe his passion and entrepreneurial philosophy helped me transform to become a stronger leader and decision-maker,” Dylan said.
Before meeting Professor Bert, Dylan was all about pleasing everyone, wanting everyone’s approval. But thanks to Professor Bert’s insights, he soon realized what he’s doing is impossible.
“He taught me to narrow down on particular customer groups and to develop loyalty in comparison to shallow support. I would sometimes be disappointed that not everyone would enjoy my work but I soon realized this wasn’t a problem.”
Dylan also learned the phrase coined by Professor Bert, “Data Drives Decisions.” “I think people will like this because I do” is common when brainstorming ideas but with his mentor’s advice to go ask people, do interviews, collect as much data as they can in order to determine what’s next, Dylan completely changed his mindset and worked a lot better and harder.
“The absence of assumptions guaranteed market validation and a group of customers. In summary, he was my mentor figure in incubating Lessun. His philosophy on selling and branding really shaped how I see things now.”
While it’s quite rare, especially in Vietnam, to see 17-year-olds building and leading their own enterprises, Dylan is just as driven as the ones who were born years and decades ahead of him.
“I really want to make an impact and achieve my long-term vision of student empowerment and developing a more tech-savvy community here in Vietnam. Out of a 100% scale, I don’t think I’m even close to 1% for me to be where I envision to be. I could be contingent on having a successful project or company built but I just think that’s just a process that helps me get closer to achieving my goals.”
“I am not as experienced as other tech leaders that have decades of experience behind them, but I feel like having my mission-forward mentality pushes me to constantly improve and thrive in stressful moments.”
When not in work mode, he continues making games to relax and exercise his creativity. Dylan is also an avid reader, it lets him go into zen, helping him focus while relaxing his mind.
CEO at 17
“I am very fortunate to be given so much support by my family and peers to pursue my passions early on in my life,” he openly shared. Dylan is aware that being a CEO comes with a lot of responsibilities and pressure, not to mention he needs to balance academics and other side tasks.
“What pushes me is my leadership philosophy. I believe leadership is an action rather than a position. To proactively inspire a team and my constant desire to improve motivates me to become a better leader.”
To him, his motivation overtakes the stress from trying to balance everything out.
However, there is definitely a stigma that teenagers are not as qualified as someone much older. But Dylan knows that kind of unfortunate barrier is everywhere, not just in his field.
“For teenagers that are worried about this, or is a factor that prevents them from pursuing their passions: My advice is simply to start. There’s a Korean proverb that says “The start is 50% of the accomplishment.” This really resonates with me. Anyone could disprove your proposed solution to it, but no one can question the underlying problem if you have the grit to continue.”
When asked what’s next for the young tech entrepreneur, he humbly said, “I am not close to accomplishing my overarching mission. Though my work has helped me progress, I believe I still have a long way to go. My plans to help empower Vietnamese youth will continue in various forms. The beauty of having long-term goals allows me to approach the problem in many ways. My current solution comes with the organizations and companies I've founded. However, I am given the flexibility to do whatever I am capable of in order to accomplish my mission.”
Dylan’s latest achievement is making it to Vietnam’s 18 Under 18 List, where he was given the opportunity to share his vision and work in the EdTech industry.
Such huge achievements at a very young age. Imagine what more he can accomplish when he’s all grown up?