“Aged 15, I robbed petrol stations. Now, I’m a Forbes 30 Under 30 entrepreneur.”

Jay Richards’ life nearly ended in unmitigated disaster, but his passion for business saved him. Today, his ingenious start-up bridges the growing gap between brands and Generation-Z.

As a business, how do you appeal to Generation-Z – those people born from 1995 onwards? How do you sell yourself to schoolkids and fresh-faced young adults in a language they understand? How do you convince them that your products are the products to buy, or that your office is the place to be? Just when we oldies thought we’d got our heads around Millennials (people born between 1980 and 1994) along come their kids, their younger siblings and their nieces and nephews; Snapchatting their way to work, devouring YouTube like we once watched Top of the Pops, and generally showing why Gen-Z are the new, pivotal generation.

But what are their values? How do they differ from Millennials, Gen-X’ers and Baby Boomers? As technology and society are constantly widening the culture gap between the generations, it’s hard to keep up. But one thing’s for sure: businesses must keep pace. And there’s no time to lose. People born between 1995 and 2009 will, by 2020, be the largest group of consumers globally. In the US alone, Gen-Z already has $200 billion in direct buying power and $1 trillion in indirect spending power (source: Barclays). So, you’d better start building a relationship with them, don’t you think?

Meet the Gen-Z guru

Here’s a man who can help you to do just that. Jay Richards is the founder of London-based DivInc, an organisation that offers “brutally honest Gen-Z insights” to help companies and brands win over this new generation. 

Jay, 29, is a new Forbes 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneur and his company is not only fascinating but growing fast. In 2019, DivInc’s revenue jumped 1,300% year-on-year after attracting clients such as the NFL (American Football League), Facebook and Chelsea FC. We’ll find out exactly how DivInc acts as a conduit between such famous brands and Gen-Z later, but first let’s uncover how and why it came to exist because that’s a crucial part of the story. Let’s start by rewinding to Jay’s teenage years – when prison looked far more likely than a Forbes’ commendation.

Last night a teacher saved my life.

In the summer of 2005, Jay lay bleeding in the gutter of a Milton Keynes street, stabbed in the leg by a friend after an argument. It was the culmination of a tumultuous and potentially fatal few months for the then 15-year-old. Jay had fallen off the rails and his descent was gathering pace. A few months earlier he’d taken part in a petrol-station robbery and had been suspended from school for inciting younger children to steal for him. His life would almost certainly have ended in complete disaster if it weren’t for one person.

Jay’s business-studies teacher was a modest and unassuming yet stern man. “Mr Wright was the scariest teacher I’d ever met,” recalls Jay. “But he wanted me to do well. A lot of my teachers cared about me, but his message was different. It was: ‘Hey, you have some skills and abilities. Let’s point them in the right direction.’ And he showed me how to start my first business. That altered the course of my life.” 

Jay learned how to manage profit-and-loss accounts and got his head around the nuts and bolts of running a business. It was the first time he’d ever got excited about a subject at school and he launched a T-shirt printing business, selling his products across Milton Keynes, London and Birmingham, marketing them through word of mouth and making a £3,000 profit. Inspired, he began to focus every thread of his energy on running his business and learning how to manage it properly. He hasn’t looked back since.

Entrepreneurial drive

Back on track – thanks in large part to Mr Wright (who DivInc’s founder hasn’t been able to track down to this day) – Jay went to university to study business management. Although the course was disappointing – “I learned about globalisation, not business, and it wasn’t useful” – he continued to flex his entrepreneurial muscles, running a successful Birmingham nightclub. Next, he knuckled down and got a job for an insurance firm. “It was soul-destroying stuff,” he says. “But I learned loads, especially about sales.” 

In 2017, Jay struck out on his own. He took everything he’d learned and experienced so far – including during those dark teenage years – and combined it with his innate entrepreneurial drive. The result was DivInc. 

A conduit to Gen-Z

Jay initially launched DivInc as a business incubator for 11- to 18-year-olds from “underestimated” (more on that word later) backgrounds. Keen to help youngsters with entrepreneurial zest, he teamed up with local schools and found business mentors to help them. 

However, Jay soon discovered a second, more profitable purpose for DivInc, and evolved his company into a Gen-Z consultancy and talent agency. He explains: “Launching the incubator made me realise that companies had no idea how to talk to Gen-Z. They needed help to understand them, talk their language and get them onside, so I set up a Gen-Z consultancy. But there was no way I was going to close the business incubator, so I kept that running as a free service for local schools, funded by my consultancy work. The incubator is amazing and we will always run it. I’m super-passionate about it.”

Talented but underestimated

Both sides of DivInc – the incubator and the Gen-Z consultancy – are rooted in Jay’s past. He says: “‘Underestimated’ youngsters are kids like I used to be – people from a low-income or ethnic-minority background, or women. Historically, the media calls these people’ deprived’ or ‘disadvantaged’ – but those are derogatory terms. ‘Underestimated’ is better because it helps us realise that people from this group are often extremely talented but ignored. We’re not saying, ‘Give them a chance because they’re black, female or from a low-income background.’ We’re saying, ‘Give them a chance because they’re hugely talented.’ As a former ‘underestimated’ youngster myself, I know how many hurdles they face.”

DivInc’s incubator arm encourages youngsters to launch “pretty much anything”. The schoolkids who are lucky enough to take part watch a series of online videos, follow the steps, and after eight weeks build a business plan. Next, they send a pitch video to DivInc, and Jay and his team select the best ideas. Finally, the shortlisted youngsters attend a “demo day” where they pitch their ideas to investors, with the winners receiving money to launch their idea. 

Inspired business model

The newer part of the business – DivInc’s Gen-Z consultancy – uses a similar model but is ingeniously tweaked into a client service. Jay explains: “Our consultancy allows brands to build products and marketing campaigns with Gen-Z in the room. We crowdsource talent from our database of more than 200,000 youngsters. First, the client tells us what they want to build. Next, we create a video showing our database what needs building and then we push the vid out. Interested youngsters apply to be involved, showing us how they’d help.”

DivInc sifts through the applications and picks the best. Finally, the chosen Gen-Z consultants come in for a one to three-day “Insights workshop ”, where the client and youngsters sit in the same room, working in partnership to build whatever’s needed. The young advisors receive £150 a day.

Jay believes this is a perfect situation for both Gen-Z and the brands. He explains: “The best way to create your product, branding or marketing is to build it with the user. It’s better than using focus groups where you’re saying, hey, we’ve already built it, what do you think? It’s more collaborative, which is ideal for Gen-Z. That’s why our slogan is ‘brutally honest Gen Z insights’. We’re not just saying ask them what they think. We’re saying build it with them. When you do that, you get true collaboration, and whatever you’re trying to put out will work so much better.”

Four Gen-Z characteristics

DivInc’s founder uses his experience of working with this group of people to offer us four observations about Gen-Z.

1. Co-creators: “Gen-Z are co-creators. These youngsters want to build cool stuff and collaborate with you to design your product, branding or marketing. They don’t just want you to come and say: ‘What do you think?’ They want to get stuck in.

2. Less ego, more big-picture: “Millennials are very much ‘I want to be the CEO and want everybody to know I’m making a difference. Gen-Z don’t care about being the boss; they care about the world. Look at the recent climate-change protestors – the majority are Gen-Z. Therefore, to appeal to Gen-Z, it’s important to have a social-conscience side to your business. A lot of Gen-Z won’t buy from brands that don’t have a social mission. Gen-X and Millennials flirt with that ethos but with Gen-Z it’s through the roof. And the socially conscious side of your business can’t just be a cynical add-on; they will spot it a mile away. It has to be authentic.”

3. Opinionated: “Gen-Z has grown up against a backdrop where everybody has an opinion, and where that opinion gets shared instantly and widely on social media. Everybody’s allowed to say whatever the hell they want. If you co-create with them, you won’t have to worry about them tearing your idea apart. If you don’t co-create with them, they are far more likely to reject it.”

4. Social: “Gen-Z are mobile-first consumers and incredibly social-media focused. Online, your brand needs to be present on pretty much every social platform: Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, and the emerging ones like Network. The best way of doing that is having different people looking after each platform and someone overseeing it all. But you can’t just have one social media manager across all 11 channels. Sharing the same content across them all doesn’t work.”

A star in the making

DivInc’s success is a superb achievement from a talented and driven entrepreneur. Coming from an underestimated background himself, Jay has turned the tough experiences he went through in his youth into a business advantage, cleverly and accurately framing himself as the perfect person to act as a conduit between established companies and Gen-Z. Not only that, he’s now inspiring driven young people to launch businesses via his fantastic incubator. Forbes’ decision to award him a spot in its 30 Under 30 list is well deserved, and Jay’s story is one to inspire not only Gen-Z but Gen-X, Baby Boomers, Millennials and whatever name they come up with for the next group of inquisitive and ambitious youngsters that come our way.