Jolina Hukemann (Student)
Jolina Hukemann is one of the youngest founders we encountered—she entered her first startup competition when she was 13. We talked to her about her experiences learning about entrepreneurship at such a young age, the impact of her gender on her experience, and how complicated it was to find a co-founder in her early teens.
Interviewed August 2020
Starting a Company as a 13-Year-Old
Johannes Lenhard (JL): You started working on your own company in 2018—when you had just turned 13. How did that happen? Where did the idea and the initiative come from?
Jolina Hukemann (JH): I watched the German version of Shark Tank (Höhle der Löwen) on television. I really enjoyed the format. It taught me that if you understand a problem and analyze it enough, anyone is able to solve a problem—that was the biggest learning I got from these shows where founders pitched investors. My idea came from my own experience: I was playing a lot of girls’ soccer at the time and we always had an issue with not having enough referees. Usually, what happened is that a parent or the trainer of the visiting team took over that role; obviously, that was not exactly fair. That really bothered me. I thought back to these shark tank shows and started thinking about a possible solution.
Initially, I started writing things down—like what is the problem, what are possible ways forward. First, I in fact did a referee course to understand the issue better and dive deeper into that part of soccer. I knew I wanted to solve the issue entrepreneurially and one of my first mentors told me about Startup Teens. I signed up to one of their “thinking workshops” (Denkwerkstätte) to pitch my idea for the first time. I was still all over the place at the time, so not everyone understood exactly what I wanted to do, but I learned a lot.
Back home, I started building a prototype with Adobe XD. With that, I went back to the annual competition of Startup Teens—as one of about 1,500 others. I needed some money to really build an app because I don’t have strong computer skills. While the voting put me in an ungrateful fourth place, the jury gave me their wildcard and I was invited to the Axel Springer House in Berlin to pitch again. Overall, I was lucky I won the second prize in the Entertainment and Games category, but unfortunately didn’t receive any capital. However, the network that I started building at these events was enormously helpful, and I met my first co-founder through it. The feedback from other people was also really helpful. Everything was slowed down a little bit with COVID—and the lack of soccer games—but I am still working on it and it still gets me thinking.
JL: How was it as a girl, for instance at the Startup Teen Challenge?
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JH: In fact, the Startup Teen challenge participants were really balanced in terms of gender. I thought in the beginning that it really was a boys’ thing but it turned out to be quite different. When I first watched the pitch videos, I thought, wow, these are always going to just be boys. And I was afraid that I wouldn’t want to talk to anyone, but it was really great. There were lots of girls there—but I was one of the youngest; that did get me quite a bit of attention, but only positive so far. It was all fine; I had a really easy time talking to people and they came to me as well. It was really cool; I was really happy about that.
JL: When it comes to money, how have you managed that so far?
JH: I mean, I started to work on the Startup Teen challenge to win the 10K—but the second champion unfortunately did not get any money at all. But fortunately, there wasn’t too much need, really, for big investment. So far it was really my family and my mentors and myself that worked on this together.
I have since found someone that started working on the app pro bono so far; I would really love to pay that person in the future and that’s why I would love to continue going to contests and possibly get an investor on board, too, so that we can really get going. But before that we need to test the concept, really, and because of COVID, it is quite complicated at the moment [in 2020]. But my network is great already and I am not too worried about getting money in once I need to.
Engaging Young People in Politics
JL: And you already started working on a new endeavor, a kind of Zoom-streamed expert-debating club to bring people your age closer to politics.
JH: It might sound as if I am already starting too many things, but COVID has really slowed things down on the soccer app side of things. Now, on this new idea, I am working together with some friends. We noticed that way too few people our age think about political issues properly. In the last local elections, only 38% of people voted. That number really scared us—this is a big part of our democracy! We really want to make it a crucial part of people’s lives again, politics. They need to understand how important it is. In fact, the question starts even earlier: what even is politics? Even being involved on a school level counts, I believe. So what we are trying to offer is a kind of Zoom-powered debating club. We will invite different experts from different kinds of political organizations and levels. The good thing about this project is that I can extend my networks even further, into politics. I just finished an internship in that sector. We will do this via Zoom first, because of the pandemic, but over time we hope to take this to in-person meetings soon. Another pillar will be a website where we can show videos, blog posts, and photos to promote the topic of local-level politics to youth in my area. We want the readers to really get engaged!
Advice for Girls Interested in Entrepreneurship
JL: What would you say to other girls if they wanted to become an entrepreneur? What should they do?
JH: I would tell them: have courage—just do it! You have to just think about one thing: what is the worst that could happen to you if you dare to do this thing now? What is the worst that could happen if I have an idea and write something down and start talking to people? What is the worst that could happen? Somebody says no and another one says, “I don’t care.” But really, is that bad? No, not at all. You might sleep badly one night—but that’s it. Later, you perhaps have a family with children, you might have a house that you need to pay a mortgage for or other things like that. In that case, you just fall deeper and the risk is higher.
You really should not think that just because you are a girl you can’t do this. Then you should always keep in mind: if that was true, no man should be able to become chancellor in Germany again. It’s just stupid. You really shouldn’t hold back. Every gender has its strength, sure, but when it comes to entrepreneurship it really doesn’t matter. And a mix of everything—gender, nationality—fuels creativity; it makes everything better, really. I don’t differentiate when it comes to that.
Supporting Young Entrepreneurs with Community and Mentorship
JL: What do you think is needed in terms of support in order to get more young people into this world?
JH: The biggest issue I am facing is how to find a co-founder. I was hoping to find one with all the pitching; I was hoping that I would find somebody that would want to do it with me. With a co-founder, things are much easier, it’s quicker, you balance each other off. Things just work better. But so far, I haven’t been able to find somebody long term. I don’t know what a systemic solution to this is, but perhaps we need more spaces where young people that want to work on startups can meet and exchange ideas.
I in fact was working with somebody that I really liked in the beginning, but it didn’t work out after some months; she didn’t really put effort into the project. So, I called my mentor and talked everything through with her, and she helped me to figure out how to end the relationship. That was the toughest thing I went through so far; ending that relationship was really hard. You have to really learn how to manage this. I learned a lot from that, but this kind of mentorship is really important and isn’t available to many people, really. More of that—in whatever institutionalized form—would be helpful if it was more widely accessible.