How Generation Z's social media savvy entrepreneurs are giving millennials a run for their money

Luka Sabbat
Photo: Noah Dillon

Social media is helping to create a new class of young influential entrepreneurs that spend $44 billion a year on themselves, according to a recent study by Millennial Marketing.

A growing number of Generation Z — a 61 million strong age group born after 1996 — are being propelled to stardom via the Internet, and securing their financial future in the process. Audacious and social media-savvy, the age cohort behind millennials – the group marketers are currently enamored of – wield the sort of influence that in some cases can earn them seven figures and above.

Take 6-year old social media star Ryan, who according to Forbes reaped $11 million last year reviewing toys, and in the process became Forbes sixth-highest paid YouTuber. He boasts of over 13 million followers and has more than 21.1 billion views.

Ryan's success is emblematic of a digital-savvy generation that's been able to turn social media into a goldmine. For Luka Sabbat, a 20-year old actor and entrepreneur, it's "less about leveraging social media, but being able to leverage and finesse life as a whole," he told CNBC in a recent email.

Sabbat ditched acting school and after landing a coveted internship, built a network that helped him ease into fashion. Sabbat now stars in ABC's "Grown-ish," has modeled for brands such as Dolce & Gabbana, and boasts more than a million followers on Instagram.

"Everything I do is to be able to change the next generation's culture," Sabbat wrote. "I'm trying to push the envelope."

'Much more accelerated impact'

Indeed, emerging young entrepreneurs are raking in the dollars and social media followers. In the process, they're also fairly savvy about personal finance: A recent report by the Center for Generational Kinetics (CKG) showed 21 percent of Gen Zers already have a savings account.

Emerging Gen Z is behaving "like they're going to fall over and trip if there's nothing to hold on to, so they're holding onto themselves," said Emily Viola, VP and head of intelligence strategy of marketing consulting firm sparks & honey.

Trying to compete in a global workforce, and battling the fear of automation, "they're creating their own revenue streams," she added.

Analyst: These are the hottest brands for Gen Z and millennials
Analyst: These are the hottest brands for Gen Z and millennials

There's a lot of money at stake. Millennial Marketing data showed that Gen Z contributes $143 billion in consumer spending and is set to comprise 40 percent of all shoppers by 2020.

One of the more noteworthy developments of this generation's entrepreneurship is how they've deftly parlayed their personal experiences and interests into careers. Parkland shooting survivors like David and Lauren Hogg, for instance, have turned the tragedy into a book deal and spawned an activist movement with a passionate following.

Such tragic events are "not necessarily a branding opportunity," said Matt Britton, an influencer marketing expert who's now the head of Suzy, a consumer intelligence company.

"There has always been activists, they're just using social media. Now these people can have a much more accelerated impact," Britton added. Watching older millennials struggle, Gen-Z distrusts a safety net.

"They all want to be their own bosses," he added.

The current wave of brand building speaks to Gen-Z's affinity for social media, and leveraging its impact.

It helped Teni Adeola, designer and founder of Slashed by Tia, go from making dresses for her dolls as a 6-year old to making her own clothes at 19. Now, her 16th-century-inspired garments are worn by popular artists such as SZA, Lorde, and Kali Uchis.

"I met some models who had a huge following. They were like 'I like [your clothes], I'll model it, and post it on Instagram,'" Adeola told CNBC. "As they posted it, I kept getting followers and more influential showgirls were like 'Oh my God, I want to wear this.'"

Building her brand hasn't come without difficulties. Adeola manages her showroom, social media, runs her e-commerce brand, and has had a fashion show in Paris — all while being a college student at The New School.

"I've learned the hard way to be a really rational person," she said. "I try to be organized and mature; I try to be as responsible as possible."

For some, like Tiffany Zhong, building her brand meant skipping college. As a teen, the 21-year old CEO of marketing firm Zebra Intelligence began using Twitter to build a venture capitalist network, sharing Gen-Z consumer knowledge with investors, in efforts to get into the industry.

Soon enough, Zhong became the Valley's go-to "Gen-Z whisperer" and a venture capitalist working with $300 million assets under management. Now, Zhong's client roster includes Postmates and theSkimm.

People think "that [Gen-Z is] lazy, but they're actually making things happen," she told CNBC in a recent interview.

And with growing worries over the costs of higher education, Zhong predicted that Gen Z's entrepreneurial bent could help usher in industry specific trade schools that eliminate the traditional, expensive college experience.

In fact, a recent survey showed 23 percent of Gen Z thinks personal debt should be avoided at all costs. While young entrepreneurs do care about education, they'll pursue it "as long as it'll propel them to a goal," sparks and honey's Viola told CNBC.

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