In the summer of 2015, at a Cornell University camp for high school students, a teenager from California named Melinda Guo met a boy from New Jersey named Ziad Ahmed. They shared an interest in business, marketing, and philanthropy. “You’re probably going to be the only person I keep in touch with after this,” Ahmed told Guo.
That fall, the two FaceTimed and texted about school and extracurriculars. Guo liked to attend marketing competitions designed for high schoolers, and Ahmed was devoted to a diversity nonprofit he’d started, which had gotten him invited to the White House’s annual iftar dinner—held after sundown during Ramadan—the previous June. Guo and Ahmed hoped to work on something together, and that October, Ahmed called Guo with a pitch. He wanted to create a consulting firm focused on people like themselves: members of Generation Z. Those born after 1996 make up almost a quarter of the U.S. population and wield $44 billion in buying power. And adults regularly embarrass themselves trying to speak their language. “We were coming across advertisements from big companies that were tone-deaf,” Guo says. “There was always too overt of an effort—it turns us off. So why not consult on how teens think, since we’re teens ourselves?”
Nick Jain, a classmate of Ahmed’s who’d also attended the Cornell program, joined their effort. The three crafted a mission statement, developed a marketing strategy, and played with names and logos. “We had all these terrible ideas,” Guo says. “ConsulTeen and stuff—like, God, so cringeworthy.” They started a text thread to keep track of their ideas. “One day I was like, ‘Wait, what about Jüv,’ ” Guo says. It brought to mind juvenile or rejuvenate. Plus, the umlaut looked cool.
Guo, Ahmed, and Jain, all of whom are now 17 and seniors in high school, incorporated Jüv Consulting in early 2016. That summer, they got their first clients, joining a marketing advisory board for the California Adolescent Health Collaborative and helping the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) with multimedia production and branding. They also signed up Very Good Light, an online men’s grooming publication. “If Very Good Light was going to be about Generation Z, I needed to closely work alongside them,” says the site’s founder, David Yi. Jüv advised him on a launch campaign, including branding and social media strategies that would resonate with teenagers. “They’re so beyond wise for their age,” Yi says. According to Ahmed, each of Jüv’s handful of clients pays $1,000 to $5,000 for its services, depending on the scope of the project. WISE is on a four-month retainer, which includes biweekly Skype calls and monthly presentations for digital marketing campaigns.
To anyone who thought about it, Jüv presented a conundrum: Does the kind of teen who starts a consulting firm really know what a normal teen wants? Ahmed acknowledges it’s an issue. “It would be inauthentic and inaccurate to say that us three can unilaterally speak for our demographic,” he says. But as with the old joke about two hikers who confront a grizzly—I don’t have to outrun the bear; I only have to outrun you—Jüv only has to provide better insights into the teen mind than its rivals, all of whom are old. “One thing that sort of bothered me,” Guo says, “was that there were adults out there calling themselves teen experts. I found that so weird. You don’t need teen experts when you can just talk directly to teens.”
In July, to broaden its perspective, Jüv created the Vine, a pool of about 300 teens from various socioeconomic backgrounds around the world—a global focus group for hire. They were recruited via social media from more than 20 countries, including China, India, Italy, Malaysia, Singapore, Swaziland, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Tunisia. Clients can float ideas about products or branding and get direct feedback from the teens, who are unpaid and chime in for fun. “The Vine is probably the most valuable aspect of who we are,” Jain says. “We can do more in-depth projects with clients, and then we can back it up on a worldwide scale. Big companies are looking for that connectivity.” In August, Jüv met in New York with Starcom Worldwide, a media agency, hoping to sign it—specifically, a team that works with Samsung—as a client.
Assuming there are such things as neatly segmented generations, it’s a little fuzzy what distinguishes Generation Z from millennials. The former are said to be an unprecedentedly diverse, internet-obsessed, social-media-optimized bunch—which also describes the latter. Many of Jüv’s digital tips, such as effective search engine optimization and clever captioning on social media, seem like universal truths on how to market online. Then again, Generation Z is still forming, still growing into itself. The Jüvies say that merits a place at the corporate table. “Your company will profit more by working with us directly,” Ahmed says, “and we will profit more by being able to have a say in our own narrative.” Some of that profit could come in the form of Jüv looking great on a college application. Guo says the three are considering Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Penn, Columbia, Georgetown, Brown, and UCLA, among other schools.