Lily Stambouli, a junior at Harvard Westlake School in Los Angeles, California, has a big goal for the future: to become CEO of her own company that in some way helps others. Many high school students embrace social entrepreneurship, and it can be interesting to discover the different building materials they are using to pave that pathway in high school and beyond. Lily’s provisions include a school incubator, her own venture ideation and development, alumni mentors, college summer programs and key guiding principles. On this month’s podcast, she shares all the ways she is fueling her innovative thinking and nurturing her passions – even in the field hockey goal.
Be sure to click on the arrow above to listen to our conversation with Lily. An edited transcript appears below.
Wharton Global Youth Program: Hello and welcome to Future of the Business World, the podcast about innovative thinkers who probably still live with Mom and Dad and aren’t quite old enough to vote. That’s right. Our guests are high school students who are training to be amazing change makers and global leaders. And, they are a lot of fun to talk to.
I’m Diana Drake, managing editor of the Wharton Global Youth Program at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Today’s episode is No. 29, which means if you are just tuning in for the first time, you have lots of great innovation-inspired interviews to catch up on. Find Future of the Business World on Spotify, Apple podcasts or on the Wharton Global Youth website along with a written transcript at globalyouth.wharton.upenn.edu.
I’m excited to welcome Lily Stambouli, a high school junior from Los Angeles, California, to the show. Lily likes to help aspiring entrepreneurs learn and do great things, clearly a fine fit for Future of the Business World, and she is especially committed to spreading awareness about neurodiversity, or the range of differences in how people think.
Lily, thanks for joining us on FBW.
Let’s get to know you better, starting with one of my favorite topics, innovation and entrepreneurship. I’m always interested to hear about the way students are able to explore business education in high school. Your high school, Harvard-Westlake School in L.A. has an actual venture program. Can you tell us more about it and how it has inspired your innovative thinking?
Lily Stambouli: Yeah, absolutely. Last year, I wasn’t really a part of the Venture Leaders at my school because I was still getting into high school and learning more about it. So, I participated in their incubator program, which included pitch decks and guidance from T.A.s, teachers and alumni who basically helped me launch my first project and business. And it was really inspiring to be able to work with so many people who had experience. Currently, I’m on the Venture Leader team and it’s so great to be able to work with other people who have that same entrepreneurial spirit and really do want to be entrepreneurs.
With Venture, we host workshops and events like using our extensive alumni network just to spread that spirit all across the campus and really help people if they have passion projects or have ideas on things they want to found to inspire and help them be able to create something.
Wharton Global Youth: Are a lot of students interested in entrepreneurship and being part of the Venture Lab?
Lily: Yeah, there’s a good portion of the campus who have their own businesses and have their own ideas that they want to solve. So, it’s just really inspiring to be in that community with like-minded people.
Wharton Global Youth: While we’re chatting about school life, I hear you’re a fierce field hockey goalie. Can you share a moment from competition that stays with you?
Lily: Oh, absolutely. I used to not be a goalie. I used to play field hockey, and I was just a forward, but I was really bad. It was demotivating to see my peers do so much better than me as a forward. And one day I was in 10th grade. I’d been playing for four years. I get a call from my friend, and she’s like, listen, we need you to be goalie for this game. And I was like, okay, sure! And so, I got to the game. It was versus the hardest school in the league the first time. There’s so much gear. You’ve got a helmet, you’ve got arm pads, leg pads, a jock strap, everything. And so, I put on the gear for the first time, and I was just trying to work everything out and really get in that position. We did end up losing 7-0, but overall, I would say it was a good learning experience for me, and I ended up keeping with it because I had fun, and it was something that I was passionate about. Now I’m definitely better. And we haven’t lost 7-0 since.
Wharton Global Youth: Okay, back to entrepreneurship. You’ve been working on a social media startup called Audistory, which is still a work in progress. Can you tell us about your app and more importantly, how it addresses a very personal interest of yours, learning disabilities?
Lily: So, when I was in 9th grade, we had just gotten back from the COVID year where everyone was all apart, and we were doing a unit in English class where we would listen to these 10-minute snippets of people’s stories. It was like TEDx Ted Talk in the way that people shared stories about their lives and the morals that came from it. And I was thinking to myself, this is such a cool thing. I wish I could do this. I mean, I’m not a professional. I’m not going [to do a] TED talk. But still, I have a lot of stories that I would want to share with people. And so, I just sat on that idea of being able to share my stories with people, but through an app or something that could involve my friends, and I was just having fun. So, I let the idea simmer.
That’s when I joined my school’s incubator and I realized that if I wanted to do this, I needed to find a problem there and try and solve it with this idea. And so, a lot of people in my immediate family have things like autism or ADHD. I’ve always grown up being very conscious of how those types of learning disabilities affect people. And I noticed that it can sometimes be very difficult, especially even for me, to be able to focus on one thing at all times because a lot of people sometimes need that constant stimulation of entertainment. And so, I realized there was nothing out there that addressed a need of constant stimulation, while still being able to multitask and do other things. Sure, you have TikTok, YouTube, Netflix, but then again, you still need to be watching something while hearing it and then you have podcasts, but those can go on for 20 minutes or 30 minutes and it’s not that short-form audio content that I was looking for. So from that discovery, I was able to create Audistory, which is a short-form audio content app in which you can tell stories about your life, your experiences, just even funny stories. I went through a lot of prototyping on Spotify where I was able to get my friends to send me a ton of two-minute audio clips sharing random stories from their lives. It ended up really taking off within my friends and community and a lot of people really liked it. That was really inspiring to see such a personal idea and passion of mine come to life.
Wharton Global Youth: How does your family actually enrich your entrepreneurial thinking around this?
Lily: Yeah, so my dad has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. He started his own company, Immigrating from the Middle East. And also, my mom has always made sure to inspire me and push me to the best that I could possibly be. And so, I think their support and the environment I grew up in gave me the opportunity to have the mindset of wanting to start something and wanting to create something that could help people. And then that little extra push of being surrounded in an environment of people with learning disabilities gave me that exposure very early on.
Wharton Global Youth: Your father and your brother are neurodiverse, correct? Have they helped you with your prototype and helped you to develop Audistory?
Lily: Yeah, definitely. Throughout the whole process I would ask them: is this something that you could see yourself using? And throughout the process, they would tell me a ton of kinks that they saw and [say], I don’t know if this part would be really helpful to me, and then here’s something that would help. And so, I would take their advice in and be able to apply that to whatever I was doing.
Wharton Global Youth: It’s interesting because not all that long ago, autism was a condition that few people had heard about, unless maybe they watched the movie Rain Man. But diagnostic criteria have changed and now more people are under that umbrella of autism. It’s a great time to build awareness about neurodiversity, and that leads me to another project that I heard you talk about, which is LearnD. This is something that you did at Babson College last summer. Can you talk about that experience and what your key takeaways were?
Lily: Absolutely. So, I was in a group with five people, and starting off, we had the task of creating something that would help solve one of the UN (United Nations) global goals. And obviously, I was very passionate about helping students with learning, specifically those who had learning disabilities that put them at a disadvantage. And as I was talking with my group, with people from China and Texas and all around the world, half of my group didn’t even really know what learning disabilities were. Since I live in L.A., everyone is very aware of things like this. But it really hit me to understand that people my age didn’t really know a lot about that. And so, that’s when I realized I wanted to create LearnD with my group. It ended up being a website where students with learning disabilities could chat and connect with each other and share their methods or their favorite fidget toys that they like using, and just connect a wide range of disadvantaged students. In a lot of places, especially if you have a learning disability and go to a school, perhaps [there isn’t] a specific program or a specific opportunity to be able to help you. I think it can be great to connect with people outside of your hometown or even all across the world.
Wharton Global Youth: What do you think you’re taking away most from LearnD and from Audistory and this intersection of entrepreneurship and neurodiversity? What are you taking from the experiences of developing these ideas?
Lily: I think it really made me realize how important entrepreneurship can be to helping solve problems or not even solve, but just helping those problems and improving them for people who maybe don’t have a voice. It was really important to me to be able to help inspire people with learning disabilities and say: Hey, it’s okay that you have this. So many other people do. Here’s how you can connect with those people and connect with anyone you want to connect with.
Wharton Global Youth: You were quite busy last summer, Lily. You also spent time on the Wharton School campus studying Essentials of Entrepreneurship. How, if at all, did that fuel your critical thinking and innovation around neurodiversity? Were you able to find a community and like-minded people to discuss some of these topics with?
Lily: What’s so great about going to one of these [summer] programs, which is personally, my favorite part, is that every single person there is interested in entrepreneurship and is trying to fuel their own passions. Even though I didn’t find somebody who was super keen on helping solve issues that people with learning disabilities have, their help and their advice given towards me was able to build me up and help me fuel this passion that I had. And I realized that I could use entrepreneurship to help people, which was such a huge realization for me.
Wharton Global Youth: You’re involved in all sorts of activities and projects. Lily, we’re living in such an accomplishment-focused world, starting as young students. When is it too much?
Lily: I think that definitely when you lose the sight and ability to stop and take a second and think to yourself, is what I’m doing really making me happy? Or perhaps, am I just doing it for my parents or for college? I think why I’m so passionate about what I do is because I’m having fun doing it and I’m feeling enriched while doing it. And I think what happens with a lot of people nowadays is we get so lost in trying to have that perfect GPA and trying to do everything, that you lose sight of what’s really making you happy and where your passions lie.
Wharton Global Youth: So the purpose of an incubator — which you mentioned that your venture program is an incubator at your high school — is to incubate, right? You grow to a certain point and then you can go out on your own. Just like a little chick in an incubator. And I’m wondering where you stand with Audistory in the process of incubation. Are you going to pursue it further?
Lily: Yes. After the incubator ended at the end of last year, we were able to pitch our idea to a ton of alumni and they gave their advice and gave us resources that we could go through. I really took that to heart and I decided I wanted to continue Audistory. As of right now, I personally can’t code. So, I’m looking for someone who can code the idea because it’s been prototype mapped out. I have a User Interface (UI), a design and everything. So I’m searching for that right now, like a coder who I can trust with building the App. Venture also has this program called Founder Support, which is where, even at any stage in your project past incubation, even if you’re super successful and made thousands of dollars, you can come to Founder Support and have a place to work on your idea, which I think is so, so valuable for people just starting all the way to excelling at their business.
Wharton Global Youth: Where is this all leading for you? Do you hope to pursue business in the future?
Lily: My goal is to one day be the CEO of my own company that I’m able to create regarding something that I’m truly passionate about and will help change the world.
Wharton Global Youth: I want to know what this phrase means to you: “What is the why?” Is the phrase. How can others use this to nurture the entrepreneur within? What’s the why?
Lily: I’ve heard this phrase dozens of times. The entrepreneurship head of Venture utters this every day to us when we’re trying to create stuff. He [says], what’s the why? What’s the why? The why is your purpose, it’s your passion, it’s your driving force, the reason why you’re doing what you’re doing and the reason why you’re able to be so passionate about things. I think finding your why, whether it be acting or creating something or honestly, anything, I think if you are able to find that, you’re able to live a happier life and be more efficient and embrace your creativity and do what you want to be able to do.
Wharton Global Youth: We’ll all be looking for our why. One question I like to ask everyone on Future of the Business World is if you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
Lily: Okay, so for this question, I was really, really thinking about it — diving deep. Global warming, housing. I thought of something [and then felt] like everything has a positive and negative. For example, if you give everyone a million dollars, that’s just going to raise inflation and cause more problems. And I feel like what I would do is cure cancer, because at a very young age, my grandmother died of cancer, unfortunately. And also I’ve known a lot of people who have cancer and things like Sarcoma at a very young age. It’s always been a very prominent aspect of my life. I feel like there’s absolutely no negative to finding a cure for cancer. That’s what I would definitely want to do.
Wharton Global Youth: All right, let’s wrap up with our lightning round. Answer these questions as quickly as you can.
What was the last story you edited for JGirl Magazine?
Lily: I edited a story about a teenager going to Israel for the summer and their experience with that.
Wharton Global Youth: Define leadership in five words or less.
Lily: Taking charge to help others
Wharton Global Youth: The next thing that you’re excited to learn that you don’t already know?
Lily: I’m excited to learn about economics and statistics next year.
Wharton Global Youth: Something about you that would surprise us?
Lily: I have an addiction and obsession with Crocs. The shoes, the jibbitz, everything. I’ve got three pairs, totally full, and they’re my favorite things.
Wharton Global Youth: What colors?
Lily: I’ve got one rainbow one, that was my OG one in 7th Grade, a black one with palm trees on it and a fuzzy one with little South Park character jibbitz in it.
Wharton Global Youth: You’re starting an innovation-themed talk show. Who is your first guest and why?
Lily: My favorite company ever and their founders. The company is Make a Wish.
Wharton Global Youth: Thank you so much for joining us on Future of the Business World.
Lily Stambouli’s high school has a well-established venture program to help nurture young entrepreneurs. Does your high school have something similar? If not, what resources do you have to fuel your innovative thinking? Share your story in the comment section of this transcript.
Lily’s social entrepreneurship interests with Audistory and other ventures focus on finding products and solutions for people who learn differently. Do you have a favorite innovation that appeals specifically to this market? Are you thinking about developing one? Share your ideas in the comment section of this transcript.
Lily says that the activity and achievement excess in high school becomes too much when you can no longer figure out if what you’re doing is making you happy. Do you agree with her? How would you answer this question?