Bill Gates is a regular teen idol here.
Summering high schoolers invoke passages from his books. They aspire to skadzillion-dollar empires of their own, and what better place for youthful fantasy than summer camp?
But first, there are hard lessons to learn on the rigors of the digital economy. "High-tech has a very specific demand curve," the instructor tells 13 boys and four girls, ages 14 to 18. They are gathered at Willamette University for a summer entrepreneur camp for teenagers, called In2Biz. The group sits rapt in full-absorption mode, hyper-driven and engaged, assuredly not the lost youth so bemoaned in the America of the late '90s.
Indeed, there is no time for teen angst when high-tech bounties await. Young people are the savviest of computer users, and post-adolescents are reaping preposterous -- and well publicized -- fortunes on the Internet. So it stands to reason that entrepreneurial ventures would be sprouting like acne among teens.
"You need to learn some basic skills before you can change the world," said 15-year-old Jono Spiro as he headed into a lecture on foreign import regulations. He started his own computer services firm back home in Beverly Hills, Calif., and already has 10 people working for him -- impressive for someone still wearing braces.
Youthful high-tech entrepreneurs are well represented here. Trey Hollingsworth, 15, of Clinton, Tenn., speaks of his Internet start-up as a standard and seamless appendage to his high school extracurriculars. (He won't say what his business is, fearing someone will steal the idea.)
Hollingsworth works on his business from 1 to 3 each morning, after a daily marathon of classes, work on his high school yearbook, soccer and cross-country practice and four hours of studying. He sleeps three hours a night on average and his parents sometimes worry about his health.
"We were brought up in the technology age, and entrepreneurship is a big part of that," said Aaron Yager, an 18-year-old camper from Fresno, Calif., who reads Investors Business Daily each day. Like some of his fellow campers, Yager is footing his $1,700 tuition bill, in part with proceeds from his own fledgling high-tech firm. He runs a computer training and services company called Impact Technologies Inc. that he expects will generate $30,000 in revenue this year.
No matter how big your dreams, you still need a sober underpinning in business to get started. This is why he's spending two precious summer weeks here, attending a procession of seminars ("What a Good Business Plan Can Do for You"), watching videos ("Striking it Rich") and movies ("Other People's Money"), even taking lessons in the entrepreneurial schmooze-sport, golf.
"Youth is a time for wild ideas, and the Internet is making a lot of these wild ideas seem possible," said Will Bone, a guest lecturer at the camp who runs a forestry supply business in Camp Sherman, Ore.
Not every camper is bent on tech tycoondom: Harutyun Amirya, 17, sees a wide-open market for quality potato chips in his native Armenia; Kevin Noller, 17, of Shrewsbury, Mass., fancies a fleet of snow-cone trucks ("We're gonna sell grilled-cheese sandwiches, too"); Katie Danon, 17, of Rogers Park, Ill., has a stout business selling Dave Matthews Band merchandise around Chicago.
Still, about 80 percent of the campers are using the Internet in their companies, said Bret Rios, co-director of the camp, which ends this weekend.
The program takes a holistic approach to business, with classes on corporate ethics, exercises on "skill-realization" and lectures called "coping with life as an entrepreneur."
"We're trying to teach a well-rounded entrepreneurial life," said Rios, a former executive at Viacom Inc. who now devotes most of his time to the camp. "We're teaching spiritual, mental and financial development."
Campers are earnest and polite, evoking a gee-whiz quality to their work. "I've always had big ideas, and I think I'm finally learning how to carry them through," said Teg Graham, a licorice-eating 14-year-old who wants to start his own global satellite radio network. For now, he'll settle for a small candy shop in his parents' garage in Victoria, B.C.
Great wealth is an obvious and common goal here, but campers seem largely uninfected by greed. Spiro said he plans to give his prospective fortune away to charity, or maybe to some cool NASA project.
Which is not to say he lacks ambition. "I want to be as influential in the software industry as Microsoft," he said. Spiro loves technology -- he'll spend the rest of the summer learning the Visual Basic programming language -- but eventually wants to let someone else lead his revolution. To that end, the camp has proven a fertile networking field.
On the bus from the Portland airport, Spiro met Yager. Yager promptly enlisted Spiro to be his lead software developer. In time, Yager hopes to integrate his computer training business with the life wisdom he has accrued from motivational gurus such as Zig Ziglar and Tony Robbins. He has devoured their lessons since he was 10 years old.
"I'm more a visionary than a details guy," Yager said. "My goal is to motivate people with a technology mind-set. I want to provide all the tools people need for this new economy."
Yager has other, more exacting goals: He is to be worth $2.6 million by March 16, 2004, his 24th birthday; later, he wants to have a billion dollars and his own island.
Until then, Yager is scouring the camp for recruits. Besides Spiro, Yager has his eye on Hollingsworth, whom he says has "great promise." That boy, of course, has his own high-tech business to worry about, in addition to his upcoming PSATs.
For now, it's unclear what the future holds for In2Biz. The venture is not unlike an Internet start-up -- brand new and highly unprofitable. Rios and his business partner, Nancy Hoover, spent vast sums of their own money launching the camp, including $65,000 on advertising. They fell well short of the 150 students needed to break even; Rios said it's unclear exactly what form the program will take in the future, but he expects to continue it in some way.
Nonetheless, he says that he is buoyed by the high caliber of the camp attendees this year. "Who knows, maybe the next Bill Gates is partnering with the next [Microsoft co-founder] Paul Allen here," Rios said. This leaves him awash in a heady notion that transcends the bottom line.
"To me, that's priceless," he said.
CAPTION: For Teg Graham, 14, entrepreneur camp is time to get down to business.
CAPTION: Katie Danon, 17, who sells Dave Matthews Band merchandise, works on a business plan at the entrepreneur camp.