“It was difficult to get anyone to take me seriously because I’m not a 60-year-old white male and in my industry that is very much the norm,” says Gaurab Chakrabarti, the cofounder and CEO of specialty-chemicals company Solugen. “While trying to have some authority, it’s always in the back of your mind, like, ‘Well, this person has been in the industry longer than I’ve been alive.’”
But Chakrabarti, who cofounded the company with his friend Sean Hunt during his final year of medical school, persevered, getting $120,000 in funding from top accelerator Y Combinator in 2016. The duo snagged a spot on the 2017 Forbes Under 30 list at 27 years old each for their groundbreaking discovery: a sustainable process to create food-grade peroxide from plants. Today, Houston-based Solugen, with $80 million from top venture capital firms like Founders Fund, is one of 25 companies to make the cut for Forbes’ latest Next Billion-Dollar Startups list.
Chakrabarti and Hunt are not alone. On this year’s Next Billion-Dollar Startups list alone, there are six other Under 30 alumni: Jeff Cruttenden, cofounder of robo-investing app Acorns; Jeremy Johnson and Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, cofounders of remote engineering service Andela; Sajith Wickramasekara, cofounder of biotech R&D software startup Benchling; Jack Abraham, cofounder of home building service Homebound; and Conrad Irwin, cofounder of email manager Superhuman.
An analysis of the 150 companies that have made the Next Billion-Dollar Startups list since its inception six years ago shows that more than one fifth had cofounders who were previously selected for the Forbes Under 30 list, our annual list chronicling the youngest and most promising founders. Of those, at least 13—including analytics startup Amplitude, whose founders Spenser Skates and Curtis Liu were on Under 30 in 2017—have gone on to achieve a valuation of $1 billion or more. (Selection for the two lists is done separately, and being on Under 30 is not a factor when Forbes and Truebridge Capital review Next Billion-Dollar Startups nominees.)
forbes.com/sites/“I think young founders don’t know how fast industries are supposed to move, and that allows them to set expectations that would be considered unreasonable in the broader industry,” says Seth Bannon, founding partner of Fifty Years, which invested in Solugen.
That certainly was the case for Jeremy Johnson, a serial entrepreneur at age 35. The New Jersey native nabbed a spot on the second-ever Forbes Under 30 list in 2012 as the cofounder of 2U, an education technology company that helps universities create online degree programs, in 2012. He left the company (now worth $2.3 billion) soon after it went public in 2014 to cofound Andela. His new company works to solve the tech-worker shortage in the United States by identifying and training software developers in Africa and then embedding them into the remote engineering teams of companies like Microsoft, Facebook and Google.
“I was still young and it felt like it was the time to leave; I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea for Andela,” says Johnson. He quickly attracted attention from the likes of Al Gore and Mark Zuckerberg, raising $181 million in total. “Now we have become the primary pipeline connecting the technology ecosystems across Africa with the U.S.,” he says.
But the majority of Under 30 alumni joining this year’s list are first-time founders still navigating what it means to lead a fast-growing company. Conrad Irwin, born in Leicester, U.K., cofounded Superhuman the day after his green card was approved when he was age 25. His previous experience: Intern turned engineer at cofounder Rahul Vohra’s previous startup, plug-in Rapportive, before it was acquired by LinkedIn.
“As an intern you’re just given tasks. . . . So being a leader was a little bit dicey,” says Irwin, now 30. Ultimately, though, he figures that success springs from the ability to learn. “Age is less relevant than the attitude toward continually improving.”