He hasn't yet graduated from high school, but Sean Burris is already airborne with his first business venture: Classic Jet Tours.
Fueled by his passion for vintage jet airliners from the 1950s and '60s, the 18-year-old has organized two charter flights with paying passengers. The first takeoff was aboard a 1967 British BAC 111 out of Dallas in May 2011.
Like stamp or coin collectors, "I'm helping people collect experiences an opportunity to fly on something that's disappearing," said Burris, a lanky senior with a calm demeanor that belies his age. Starting Classic Jet Tours, he says, was simply a way to share his passion for getting aboard classic airliners before they're grounded, scrapped or retired forever.
"I was researching every airplane type and finding where they were located, which ones were still available for charters," said Burris, who got his first taste for planes playing flight simulator video games in kindergarten. "I knew I couldn't afford to charter one myself, but I could fly if I got enough passengers to go with me."
For his entrepreneurial efforts, the Bear River High School senior was recently awarded a $1,000 college scholarship from the California arm of the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents small-business owners. The NFIB's Young Entrepreneur Awards are given out annually to graduating seniors nationwide who've started their own businesses.
"Year after year, these young people demonstrate that 'No' is not an option, that 'You can't do that' is not an option," said John Kabateck, executive director of the California NFIB. "It's not in their vocabulary. That's pretty cool."
Plenty of books and websites encourage youthful entrepreneurship.
Kidpreneurs, as they've been dubbed, share some common characteristics: critical thinking, perseverance, enthusiasm, good people skills, and an ability to take responsibility for their actions and decisions, according to Adam Toren, co-author of "KidPreneurs: Young Entrepreneurs With Big Ideas."
"Understanding the basics of starting your own business can, aside from making money, help kids learn about the value of building something they can be proud of," said Toren in an email.
"The other thing people often forget about entrepreneurship is that it's not really all that expensive," he said, noting that a crafty kid, for instance, can set up a storefront on Etsy.com. "The resources are out there and more savvy kids are building their companies every day."
Roughly 25 percent of young people would like to start their own future business, according to a 2007 Kauffman Foundation survey of U.S. youths ages 8 to 21.
Among those who expressed a desire to start their own businesses, the top reasons were to: use their skills and abilities, be their own boss, see their ideas realized and earn lots of money.
In Sacramento, business volunteers with the local Junior Achievement conduct hands-on programs teaching entrepreneurial skills to nearly 10,000 K-12 students each year, hosting them in classrooms, after-school centers, foster care agencies and teen homeless shelters. "When a young person has success developing these skills, even on a modest scale, it inspires them for their future. It's essential life skills," said Susan Vicchio, president of Junior Achievement of Sacramento.
Burris, who's taken flying lessons but is not a licensed pilot, didn't grow up at airports. His parents, Lucie, a stay-at-home mom, and Thomas, a retired general contractor in Lincoln, aren't pilots or even especially interested in flying, their son said. But the teen does carry some aviation DNA: a maternal grandfather worked in Canada for Pratt & Whitney, the aircraft engine manufacturer, and a paternal grandfather for Douglas Aircraft Co. in Southern California.
Like any tech-savvy entrepreneur, Burris launched his business with a website (www.ClassicJetTours.com) and a Facebook page. On his first chartered trip in 2011, he had 17 customers who paid $880 each for a two-hour flight out of Dallas Love Field airport, including a flyover of Palo Duro Canyon. It lost money.
For his second charter trip, on a 1968 Douglas DC-8 from Sacramento's McClellan Field in May 2012, Burris charged $1,600, enough to cover the pilot, fuel and the minimum required six hours of flight time. That trip included a stop at a former Douglas aircraft manufacturing site in Long Beach. Boosted by word-of-mouth recommendations and mentions in Airliner World and Airways magazines, Burris had 31 fellow enthusiasts sign up, enough to cover his previous losses and even pocket a tiny profit, about $1,000.
The majority of Classic Jet Tours' customers are not Americans, but overseas enthusiasts who fly in from Britain, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland. Some worked for the company that developed the particular airliner. Or they remembered it as the first plane they'd ever flown on. Or, like Burris, they're simply airliner aficionados who want to go aloft on these aging giants before they disappear forever.
Several of them, contacted by The Bee, didn't initially realize their flight tour guide was just a kid.
"We had no idea he was so young," said Axel Schauenburg, who flew on the BAC-111 flight, in an email from Switzerland. "The experience was exceptional, very professionally done from start to finish," he said, with touches such as in-flight food service and a commemorative certificate.
"Sean made a name for himself. He is now seen as a firm member of the community making flights possible," said Schauenburg. "He has made many aviation enthusiasts very happy."
Not bad for a kid who's also managed a heavy load of AP classes and a 4.0-plus GPA. Not surprisingly, he's been accepted into an honors program at Northeastern University in Boston this fall, majoring in what else entrepreneurship.
Seeing this emerging generation of young business CEOs is hugely inspirational, said NFIB's Kabateck. "Especially in this challenging economy, it's motivating and moving to small business owners. It reminds them why they got into business themselves and to keep that entrepreneurial spirit alive."
Since 2003, the California NFIB has awarded 167 scholarships to teens like Burris, who've pioneered their own businesses, everything from custom miniature skateboards to Fund a Field, a Bay Area teen's organization that builds soccer fields for kids in troubled parts of Africa.
This year's five California winners each of whom received a $1,000 college scholarship included Dainty Dandy, which raises money for cancer research by designing and selling fashionable women's headbands, and AllGreenTech, started by a 16-year-old Sunnyvale teen who develops energy-saving devices like rain sensors for lawn sprinklers.
Burris, who heads off to college in September, is far from contemplating an early retirement from Classic Jet Tours.
Instead, the soon-to-be freshman is going big: His next planned flight is on a Boeing 727-100, a plush 1968 airliner formerly owned by Donald Trump that's now sitting on an airstrip in Malaysia.
RESOURCES FOR YOUNG ENTREPRENEURS
PROGRAMS AND WEBSITES
All Terrain Brain Geared to kids 8-12, it offers games, challenges and videos that encourage perseverance, motivation and critical-thinking skills; allterrainbrain.org.
Global Student Entrepreneur Awards Competitive awards for high school and older students who run their own businesses; www.gsea.org.
Junior Achievement Teaches entrepreneurship, work skills and financial literacy for K-12 students; www.ja.org.
Lemonade Day From writing a business plan to repaying investors, it's a step-by-step guide to the classic startup: the lemonade stand; www.lemonadeday.org.
Mind Your Own Business How-to tips on starting a business, sponsored by Junior Achievement and the U.S. Small Business Administration; www.mindyourownbiz.org.
NFIB Young Entrepreneur Foundation Classroom programs and scholarships for graduating high school seniors, sponsored by the National Foundation for Independent Business; www.nfib.com.
Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship Offers classroom programs, field trips and "biz camps" for youths in low-income communities; www.nfte.com.
Youth Venture Supports young people starting community-minded projects and businesses; www.youthventure.org.
"Kidpreneurs Young Entrepreneurs with Big Ideas" by Adam and Matthew Toren (Kidpreneurs ).
"Teen Business Blasts Off!" by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Amy Rosen.
Call The Bee's Claudia Buck, (916) 321-1968. Read her Personal Finance blog, www.sacbee.com/personalfinanceblog.
Editor's note: This story was changed June 10 to correct the spelling of Adam Toren's name.