An Interview With the Founders of Forbes’ “Can’t-Miss Conferences for Entrepreneurs” : Dylan Gambardella & Justin Lafazan

Meet Justin Lafazan and Dylan Gambardella, both of whom are only 21 years old. Together, they create the driving force behind what Forbes calls one of 2017's “Cant-Miss Conferences for Entrepreneurs”: Next Gen Summit. As a global community and conference for young millennial entrepreneurs worldwide, Next Gen allows these young, ambitious students to network, collaborate, and receive access to resources for personal and professional growth. Debuting in 2015, this conference has garnered over 700 attendees from around the globe and has raised over $1 million. If that doesn’t impress you, the lineup will: speakers include founders, executives, professional athletes, and entrepreneurs featured in TIME, Forbes & Inc Magazine. The conference even has executives from the world’s hottest companies like Google, Facebook, Uber, and more available to provide mentorship for participants.

“I spent my gap year from my senior year of high school really figuring things out. That was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.” — Justin Lafazan

The Seed of Entrepreneurship

Dylan and Justin progressed from two high schoolers in New York to co-founders of two companies together. They first began working together when they created Students4Students, a college advisory agency to help students with the college admissions process. At a young age, co-founder Justin Lafazan had his heart set on attending the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. However, he knew how difficult it is to get into colleges today, so he spent much of his time researching the ins and outs of college admissions: “I ended up getting into contact with some really knowledgeable folks in the space who shared with me a lot of different insights, which were instrumental in my own application. By going through that whole application process, I was also starting to help friends with their essays, Common App, etc and I was really good at it: I got my friends into some amazing colleges, giving really good advice.” After finding this experience rewarding, Justin and Dylan decided to turn that into a company. Together they found Students4Students College Advisory “with the goal of hacking the college admissions process and allowing students who were really deserving to get into the best schools they could.” Thus, the seed of their entrepreneurial journey was planted. This was only the beginning.

“A lot of young people fall into this closed box. They think that the opportunities they have in life are the ones presented to them at a young age and that’s it. It’s an opportunity crisis and our schools are really failing kids in that sense.” — Dylan Gambardella

Their Take on Education (Listen up!)

Although the two have had an entrepreneurial spirit within them as young kids, long before they started their company, it’s their unique and overlooked perspective on the education system which pushed them to create their own company and think outside of the box.

When asked about the most pressing issue that students face, co-founder Dylan Gambardella provided a great response in light of today’s education system: “I’d say a lot of young people fall into this closed box if you will. They think that the opportunities they have in life are the ones presented to them at a young age and that’s it: Go to college, get a job, get some money, raise a family, retire, and move to Florida. I think a lot of people would benefit from either hearing or learning or speaking to others who follow their passions very broadly speaking who said, “You know what, I’m not going to follow the status quo. I’m gonna work on what I think I have to be doing.” If that’s entrepreneurship, amazing! But it doesn’t have to be. It’s not just about starting your own company. It’s an opportunity crisis and our schools are really failing kids in that sense, by getting them on this track so to speak and pushing the idea that there’s no way off except for straight and if you’re not going forward, you’re going backward. I’d love to see schools, even at the middle school or high school level not even teaching entrepreneurship, but putting the idea out there: some kind of self-development course where individuals can seek to identify what they’re great at, what they want to spend their time doing, and how that can fit into an occupation, activities, volunteering, and things like that.”

Rewind to Justin’s experience in high school, and you’ll see his gap year resonates quite well with Dylan’s words of wisdom. Here’s what Justin had to say about his experience: “By junior year of high school, I had a midlife crisis at age 17. I was really curious, frustrated, interested; I was not feeling challenged in a lot of ways. So in the summer of my junior year, I spent so much time listening to TED Talks, reading books, talking to mentors to try to figure out what my career interests were and I realized I’m so all over the place that I needed time to figure it out. So I took a gap year before I applied to college. I told my parents I wanted to take a gap year; it took some convincing, but they were down after a little bit so I spent my gap year from my senior year of high school really figuring things out. That was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life, taking a gap year and I’m super happy with that decision.”

What makes these co-founders tick?

Dylan: I worry that sometimes I’m not doing enough to make the world a better place. When I say that, I believe my purpose, my mission is to help people and better others’ lives and I believe that NextGen does a lot of that. However, we can always do more and my worry is sometimes am I doing the most? Am I making the most of my day? And because of that, I try to be the best version of myself so I can, therefore, give back the most and help that many more people in the world and through my work.

Justin: I’m really interested in the way humans connect with each other. In 1985 the average person had three close confidants or best friends you could say. When that study was repeated in 2004 the average person only had two with 25% of those people in 2004 saying they had no one. What that means is that there are a lot of people out there who don’t really have support, they don’t really have people around them cheering them on in the corner, rooting for them to succeed. And that upsets me, that frustrates me and I think that’s where Next Gen comes in, in providing connection, support, and community to young people who are doing really different things.

How do you juggle all different aspects of your life, socially, academically, etc?

On top of running their company, Dylan and Justin are college students at Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively.

Dylan: Now that is the million dollar question. I don’t think anybody’s perfect at it. In high school, I did a million things. When I got to college, I assumed I could still do a million things, but then Next Gen came into my life and school was more demanding. I still try to play sports and keep active and keep up with my family and friends. At different times my life, certain areas have taken a hit so there have been months or periods when maybe I wasn’t as social as I would like to be or maybe my schoolwork suffered. But, as I’ve grown older and matured, I’ve been able to identify what is most important to me and thus what deserves the majority of my time. So yes, I might be involved in fewer projects and I may not be as diverse as an individual in what I’m doing or what I’m working on. However, I know that this is what I have to do to be able to work to my full ability and my full strength. If that’s Next Gen, I’m doing it at 100%. If I’m studying for an exam, I’m doing it at 100%. I’m always present, especially when I’m with family and friends. I never want to make them feel like they’re less important or less worthy of my time than my projects like NextGen. It’s never easy. Anybody who tells you it is is probably not doing them all at the level that I want to be. It’s a constant balancing act.

How did two high schoolers from New York come up with the idea of Next Gen Summit?

Justin: Dylan and I were running Students4Students. We were enjoying it for sure. We were doing well, but the thing that we like the most about it was going to meet other young people who were also doing really cool things. We ended up going to the Forbes’ Under 30 Summit, the inaugural one in 2014 in Philadelphia and we got to meet so many great young achievers. We realized that there weren’t conferences, communities, organizations that were bringing young people together and supporting them the way that we really envisioned it. So, we set out and said, “Hey, if it doesn’t exist out there and we have that need let’s go build it.” So we built Next Gen with the concept of:

“How can we bring together the coolest young people doing amazing things and doing projects they care about and support them with resources?”

What was it like getting Next Gen Summit off the ground and running?

Justin: Now, NextGen is a global community of young entrepreneurs. I think what’s exciting about NextGen now is we’re building a lot of community infrastructure to bolster our ability to engage with more young people reach more young people, curate more young people, and support them with financial capital with manufacturing relationships with press and speaking at podcast opportunities and various other types of outlets. When it got started off the ground and running, it looks nothing like it did today. Our first conference in Austin, Texas in 2015 was small with some really great speakers, Dylan and I moderated every panel, and we had a lot of buddies come down but it was beautiful.

What They’ve Learned In the Process

Dylan: The power of community is a pleasantly funny thing. Through NextGen, the first people we met introduced us to a new block of individuals, and that block has subsequently introduced us to another block of individuals. It’s so funny when you trace back the people in your network how powerful communities are and how a good one, with some structure and some purpose, can really fuel itself. That’s a really strong and powerful idea. It’s also a challenge because you gotta make sure you put the time in at the beginning for that seed to prosper and to grow. That’s something we’re continually learning and diving into more so each and every day. It’s a big part of our plans for the future.

Dylan’s advice for young people hoping to become involved in entrepreneurship

1. Get out there. Go find people who are doing what you want to be doing and talk to them. Ask them how they got their start, what enabled them?

2. If you believe in somebody, go work for them. Go volunteer your time. Do it the right way, and you’ll learn so much and then you’ll be ready. If you haven’t ever worked with a company, how can you expect to do it well? This is Justin’s and my second start-up and we are still learning every day. We are now managing a team and it’s a challenge. We fail a lot, but as long as each failure teaches us a bit about how we progress or move forward, then it’s okay.

3. Go find & identity people who you look up to and get them in your corner. Make them a mentor. Ask them for coffee, for lunch, whatever it is. It could be a teacher, a friend, a parent, whoever it is, go get them and learn from them.

Fun Facts

  • They’re both big fans of singing (in the car, in the shower) — it’s when Dylan get his great ideas!
  • Dylan’s Favorite Song: Anything from Justin Timberlake
  • Justin’s Favorite Song: Sweet Serendipity by Lee DeWyze