Child Prodigy 2.0

The new model for Asian American child prodigies is all about the Benjamins, baby.

January 1, 2008

WATCHING DOOGIE Howser, M.D. at my house was not a joke. The opening credits of the show-with a montage of newspaper clippings claiming feats like "Six Year Old Scores Perfect on S.A.Ts"-were a blaring reminder that my brother and I were just not doing enough.

But Doogie was a farce, because the real youngest doctor in the world was an Indian American kid from New York named Balamurali Ambati, who graduated from med school at the age of 17. Or Vanessa Mae, the Singaporean British violin prodigy who started playing with the London Philharmonic at age 10. Or Chinese Australian Terrence Tao, who received his Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton at the age of 20.

But the fields of science, math and classical music are so 10 years ago. Forget the science fair and the youth orchestra - it's all about being able to elevator-pitch your idea to angel investors in a smart, concise and charming way.

Well, at least that's what the 13-year-old CEO of gaming start-up Elementeo Anshul Samar says.

"My goal is to raise $1 million by the time I graduate from middle school," Samar says confidently from his home in the Silicon Valley suburb of Milpitas. "So, that's the end of next year. I think that's totally possible with how we're going so far."

Samar, whose project is a chemistry element-based, role playing card game (think Pokemon meets your 10th grade chem workbook), isn't a lone wolf in the new business whiz kid genre. Ben Casnocha started up his company Comcate in 2001, when he was 14 years old. And in 2007, he published My Start-Up Life: What a (Very) Young CEO Learned on His Journey Through Silicon Valley. But I predict that more kids who look like Samar - skinny, brown and with glasses - are going to take over the new bastion of child prodigies: start-up companies.

Samar admits his location has influenced him. "It's like, okay, you're in Silicon Valley. I don't want to wait another 10 years to start something. People say, 'Yeah, in 10 years you'll still be young,' but I don't want to wait until I'm 20 or 30. I want to do it now!"

Samar's father works - like the legions of other Indians - for Oracle and helped his son start a Young Entrepreneurs Club at his elementary school. The young Samar was the VP of marketing in 4th and 5th grade and helped the club create a successful eBay for kids (in my day we called it a toy drive) that raised some $1,200. The club donated $700 of that to Tsunami relief in 2005 and the other $500 to the school.

After that, the idea for Elementeo came to Samar quickly, even though chemistry isn't even taught until high school. When he describes the game, he is half pre-adolescently awkward and half-savvy businessman: "It's educational but fun. Basically, it's fun injected into education," he says enthusiastically. He got $500 in "pre-seed round money" from the California Association for the Gifted. He then designed some prototypes on InDesign and started hitting up education conferences.

"People wanted to buy them right there, but unfortunately I didn't have them ready," he said. "But there it wasproof of concept was checked off the list of things to do," he tells me seriously, as though "proof of concept" is part of my basic vocabulary.

But Samar's biggest success was when he and four friends ran a booth at the TIECON 2007. Started by a group of South Asian businessmen in the early 1990s, it's one of the nation's biggest conferences for entrepreneurs.

Samar says their booth was mobbed. Plus, he was mentioned in three of the keynote speeches. But most importantly, he was able to connect with six investors there.

When I met with Samar in the lazy days of summer vacation, he was busy preparing for his fifth VC meeting. His mother, a soft-spoken immigrant from Rajasthan, India, told me that Samar had overcome severe chronic health issues that prevented him from being very active as a child. But whatever limitations he had to work through, his sheer determination was contagious.

When I asked if he thought being Indian was part of the reason for his success, he shrugged it off. "When I was young I was exposed to things like yoga and meditation, things that had their origin in India and that is one thing that I think is really big," he says thoughtfully. "But I don't really know. I mean, at my school there are only like two or three American kids in my class-the others are all Chinese and Indian."

As Samar prepares for his next big challenge-hiring high schoolers to design the next set of Elementeo cards-he's not too worried about the hectic pace of start-up life. Samar says he's not interested in the money. "I'm not into buying millions of video games! Really, I'm not," he insists.

Of all types of prodigies, these business kids seem to have found the most lucrative talent for early success. But it will be interesting to see how the finances pan out. Will Samar have a mid-life crisis at age 18, buy a sports car and get involved with a younger woman? Will he have to divorce his parents like child actor Macaulay Culkin if they try and get their hands on his money? Or will this generation of young entrepreneurs really use their talent for good and change the world? Only time, and the stock market, will tell. 

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