At first glance, Alina Morse looks much like any other girl her age. However, by the time she was 13 years old, the teenager was the CEO of a multi-million-dollar company. And her success came from the invention of a super-sweet treat that could save kids’ teeth, rather than destroying them.
In recent years, the term “teenpreneurs” has gained traction in popular culture. The word is simply a combination of the words “teen” and “entrepreneur,” and refers to adolescents who have set up their own business ventures. And in some cases, these youngsters are earning a lot more than your average pocket money.
One such teenpreneur is Noa Mintz. She started her first business, helming kids’ art classes over summer, in 2008, when her age was still in single digits. And by the time the New York native was 16, Mintz was running her own childcare business called Nannies by Noa, which hooks families up with suitable caregivers.
Meanwhile, when Mintz started high school in 2014, she decided to take a backseat in her business to focus on her education. As a result, she hired an experienced CEO to run Nannies by Noa day-to-day, along with two other staff members. In 2016 Mintz told Fortune of her pride in her position as top dog of the company. She said, “The best part by far is the fact that I am a job creator and have been able to get so many people employed.”
Another adolescent making waves in the business world is Mikaila Ulmer. Amazingly, when she was just 11 years old, the Texas-native secured an $11 million deal with Whole Foods to sell her Me & the Bees lemonade. Ulmer started making the drink aged just four, using her great grandmother’s recipe as inspiration.
The success of Me & the Bees isn’t only making Ulmer rich, it’s also helping the planet. That’s because some of its profits go to organizations that are helping to support declining honey bee populations. In the next 20 years, Ulmer told Fortune, she hopes to “have saved the bees and found a new problem to solve.”
Mihir Garimella is another teen using his business acumen for good. The young entrepreneur, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is responsible for the FlyBot drone. Having been inspired by the low-detail but super-fast eyesight of fruit flies, Garimella’s device can avoid obstacles and tackle small spaces. That way, it can reach places which humans and drones have trouble accessing.
Garimella hopes that the FlyBot, which is not yet on the market, will able to carry out search and rescue missions, helping locate trapped people in dangerous situations. He also hopes his device will be used to find the source of chemical leaks or fires, making them easier to tackle. Furthermore, Garimella is “trying to keep these drones under the $1,000 price range,” he told CNN Business in 2018.
But let’s return to Alina Morse, who in 2015 launched her business ZolliCandy. In a move that many youngsters can likely relate to, her inspiration to set up her business came from a desire to around one of her parents’ rules. But rather than rebelling, Morse turned her idea into a multi-million-dollar enterprise.
It all began when Morse visited a bank back in 2012 with her dad, Tom. On the outing, a kind teller offered the girl a lollipop. However, by that age, Morse was all too aware of the negative impact such candies could have on her teeth. And her parents had made their opinions on the matter known.
Like many moms and dads concerned for their child’s welfare, Morse’s parents had drilled the fact that sugary treats are bad for her teeth into her. But the child was sick of missing out on the candies that so many of us have grown up consuming, regardless of the effect on our dental health.
Morse then decided she’d have to do something if she was ever going to enjoy sweet treats without worrying about her teeth. And she explained her thinking in an interview with Today Food in February 2019. She said, “I was tired of my parents saying ‘no.’ I thought, ‘Why can’t I make a healthy candy that’s good for my teeth so that my parents can’t say no to it?’”
With that in mind, Morse asked her dad, Tom, if she could start her own candy company. Tom told Forbes in 2016, “She was very tenacious. She must have asked at least 100 times before I suggested she do some research and talk to dentists about what a healthier lollipop would contain.”
And now that Morse had her dad’s permission, she spent the next two years figuring out how to bring her dream into fruition. She researched online and concocted numerous trial batches in her home kitchen using a range of gadgets. Then eventually, she landed on the perfect recipe that was both tasty and tooth-friendly.
During her research, Morse approached dentists and hygienists to learn more about teeth-cleaning ingredients. And it was then that Morse identified hard candy as the best way to incorporate such additives. That’s because it takes a good amount of sucking to eat a lollipop, so it stays in your mouth for a long time.
Consequently, Morse’s lollipops are sugar-free, using natural sweeteners such as erythritol and xylitol. And these sugars, according to a study by the International Journal of Dentistry, can reduce oral bacteria and plaque. What’s more, they are vegan, gluten-free and contained no GMOs.
Morse then used $3,750 of her savings – a figure that her dad matched – to get her business off the ground. Now all she needed to do was find a location where she could make her product commercially. Finally, father and daughter found the ideal place. And they soon secured their first business meeting with a retailer.
This was clearly a big moment for Morse, and significantly the retailer in question wasn’t any ordinary store – it was Whole Foods. The famous supermarket chain has close to 500 stores in the United States and the United Kingdom, and is America’s only USDA-Certified Organic grocer.
However, the task ahead of her did little to stop Morse. And the youngster remained passionate about her products – which she renamed Zollipops. Morse’s little sister Lola had inspired the name, as she used it when she struggled to pronounce the name of the candy.
Morse revealed what went down in her meeting with Whole Foods in an August 2018 interview with Entrepreneur. She said, “They loved our product. They loved the idea, and they loved our mission.” And the rest was history, because Whole Foods agreed to stock Morse’s Zollipops.
Meanwhile, soon after landing her first major stockist, Morse started selling her products on Amazon. And by 2018 the goods she sold through the e-commerce site accounted for nearly a quarter of Zollipop’s annual sales. And soon, Morse had expanded her product line to include taffy and hard candy.
Morse later persuaded America’s largest supermarket chain Kroger to stock Zollipops. She told Entrepreneur, “We were on the bottom shelf, but it was still really exciting because Kroger is the biggest grocer. And recently, we were brought up to the second-to-last shelf.”
And as Zollipop’s success grew, so did Morse’s credibility as a young entrepreneur. Indeed, in 2015 aged just nine, she got invited onto The Steve Harvey Show, as part of the program’s Extraordinary Kids segment. Introducing Morse, Harvey said, “I full well know this, that turning a product into a successful business is a major accomplishment for an entrepreneur.”
“But for my next guest, it’s extraordinary because, well, she’s only nine years old,” Harvey continued. This revelation was met with a whooping noise from the audience. Then Harvey announced, “Please welcome the creator of Zollipops. Please welcome Alina.”
During her appearance on The Steve Harvey Show, Morse eloquently explained the benefits of her product, as well as the science behind her Zollipops. And she clearly already showed her impressive business credentials, despite her youthful looks and tender age.
Morse then outlined the unique selling point behind her product. She said, “After a meal your mouth is very acidic and your tooth enamel is very soft. If you brush your teeth after a meal you could brush off your tooth enamel. So what Zollipops do is they actually strengthen your tooth enamel and they raise the PH in your mouth and they help your teeth remineralize faster.”
Morse was clearly passionate about the candy she’d created, but she was also positive about what the future may bring. She told The Steve Harvey Show audience, “I hope that every kid in America has a clean mouth, a healthy smile, and they have a Zollipop in their hand.”
And it seems that Morse was right to envision the growth of her company. Indeed, by February 2019 Zollipops were the second most popular lollipop among Amazon customers. Furthermore, in the previous year, her company’s retail sales reached somewhere between $5 million and $6 million.
And by that point, the company’s headquarters – in Morse’s Michigan hometown of Wolverine Lake – employed a full-time staff of seven and also depended on a number of contractors. On the payroll was Morse’s mom, who worked as her schedule organizer, and her dad, who acted as her manager.
Meanwhile, with her parents’ help, Morse was able to maintain some semblance of a normal teenage life. By 2019 the youngster was at middle school, meaning it was important for her to make time for her business, education and hobbies, while still finding the time to eat and sleep. She told Today Food, “It’s definitely a balancing act. I’ve learned to stick to a schedule… or a rough outline of a schedule.”
Back at home, Morse’s father ferries her to school each morning. And during the car journey, the pair discuss business matters such as trade shows, potential retailers and marketing ideas. Then she spends the day at school where, according to Today Food, her teachers believe her company provides Morse with a “great learning experience.”
Maeanwhile, after the school day comes to a close, Morse attends dance practice. She’ll then complete her homework before meeting with her Zollipop employees to discuss her multi-million-dollar company. Morse continued, “And then I get up and do it all over again! It’s just the way I’m wired.”
In the summer, when school is on vacation, Morse is able to spend more time in her office. And unlike most other CEOs, she has decorated her working space with her dancing trophies, joyful pictures of sunshines and family trees constructed out of colorful paper. In short, the ornaments are similar to those many girls of her age would value.
Indeed, it’s Morse’s childlike wonder that gives her the edge against her competitors, her parents explained to Entrepreneur. Her mom, Sue, called her daughter “uninhibited.” Meanwhile, her dad Tom added, “Kids ask really good questions… They don’t have the same kind of baggage adults do, so they don’t see limitations.”
So despite the fact she runs a successful candy company, Morse claims she is just like any other kid her age. However, she believes she found her passion for dental health early on in life. And she isn’t driving solely by profit. She wants to use her unique talents to help others find their smiles.
And to help her do that, Morse donates 10 percent of Zollipops’ profits to One Million Smiles. The young entrepreneur launched the initiative after learning that tooth decay is one of the most prevalent conditions among children in the United States. And, if left untreated, decay can go on to cause painful infections that could lead to problems with communication and eating.
And in order to tackle the childhood tooth decay epidemic, the One Million Smiles initiative funds school education projects to teach children about the importance of good oral health. According to the Zollipops website, the project’s mission is “to reduce America’s tooth decay epidemic and protect the most powerful source of energy, joy and happiness in the world: children’s smiles!”
Another way that Morse hopes to have an impact on the world is by positioning herself as “an advocate for young women in business,” according to Today Food. In 2018 she became the youngest cover star of Entrepreneur magazine. And she’s even had an encounter with Michelle Obama.
So with her determination and clear talent, it appears that the sky could be the limit for Morse. She told Today Food, “I feel like I was born to do this. I just feel right at home. I’m really, really blessed,” she added. “It was originally just an idea that I didn’t think could happen.”
However, despite her success, Morse has no plans to duck out of education early. She told Fox Business in 2018, “I definitely want to go to college. [I want to] get a good education, because although I’m learning a lot right now, owning a company, I don’t know everything. So I want to make sure I know everything.”