Brimming with ideas, Nathan Simpson isn’t going to let a little thing like youth stand in his way.
The high school senior, 17, recently was awarded a federal contract for videography services, possibly making him the youngest Department of Defense contractor on record.
Not only that, Simpson is helping other students his age make their dreams a reality. He serves on the leadership board of GripTape, a nonprofit that provides 15- to 19-year-olds with $500 microgrants to pursue whatever they’re passionate about.
“We’ve had some students, they wanted to start their own photography company,” he says. “We had another girl, she started a fashion line and had a fashion show. It’s really anything the student wants to do.”
GripTape helps ensure students from disadvantaged schools or households have a “rich learning environment.” It’s backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Michael Bloomberg and the Carnegie Institute.
Simpson, who will enter James Madison University this fall, began his professional career doing freelance web design for his high school. He was only 15 years old. A year later, he was hired by his hometown of Appomatox, Va., to rebuild its tourism website and eventually all of its web properties.
In SkillsUSA, his four-student team from Appomatox High School has won the national Entrepreneurship competition for two years in a row.
Simpson first competed in 2016. After his team took home the gold that June, one of the judges, Pat Scannell of Makersmith, “went above and beyond after the competition,” the student says. “He followed up with us, sent out an email, and he told me, ‘Let me make some introductions to some guys for you, because this business that you presented has legs.’ ”
That led to the team hoofing it up to Washington, D.C., the following December. “We weren’t soliciting for an investment,” Simpson says. “We were just pitching for advice at that point.”
The students made their presentation “to a man — I’m not going to say the name, but he’s worth nearly half a billion dollars, and he co-founded a very well-known Internet company,” Simpson remembers. “He asked, ‘How much money do you need to start this company?’ We said, ‘12 thousand dollars,’ and he laughed. He said, ‘That is not worth my time. Come back and ask for 50.’ ”
The team never got the startup funds, “but the opportunity that we had was insane,” the student adds, “to be able to pitch to that level of people, you know. And that guy was worth more than some of the people on ‘Shark Tank.’ So, just getting that experience was amazing.”
In 2017, Simpson laid the groundwork for another gold-medal Entrepreneurship team. But with new duties as a SkillsUSA state officer, however, he wasn’t eligible to compete alongside his group at nationals.
He was reelected this school year but is still working with his team in hope of bringing home a third gold. The team will pitch a new business to help public water utilities connect with customers through automated text and digital voice messages.
‘So many different avenues’
The same group has won a $3,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Education to advance education in “gamified learning,” Simpson says, “using video games to help students gain confidence in different areas.”
His passion is in education. Working with another advocacy nonprofit, Pioneer Lab, the student says he’s helping others “take charge of what they want to learn.”
Simpson remembers being in 10th grade when his computer systems technology instructor, Jason Clark, “came up to me and said, ‘Nathan, you owe me 17 bucks.’ And I said, ‘Why do I owe you 17 bucks?’ He said, ‘I just signed you up for the best thing that’s ever going to happen to you.’ ”
That was SkillsUSA. “I would not be the person I am today without it,” Simpson says. While he’s competed in other events for young entrepreneurs, “the access to successful people has allowed me to shift my mindset. It’s just the ability to connect with people.
“I’ve always been blessed with opportunities, and I’ve always worked hard to make the most of them, but this opportunity was different, because there’s so many different avenues. You can grow from it as a high school student, as a college student. You can grow from it as an industry professional. It’s a multitude of ways.”