When I first read about Jason Li, the teen entrepreneur who founded tech company iReTron, I was shocked by his huge heart and the social mission behind his company. I had to feature his story in the Little Launchers book series.
“Jason Saves the Environment with Entrepreneurship” is the story of teen entrepreneur Jason Li, who at the age of 14 founded iReTron, a social enterprise that buys, refurbishes, resells, and donates used electronics.
Jason’s interest in starting iReTron was sparked when he learned about electronic waste, or “e-waste” in his ninth grade World Geography class. He was astonished to learn that electronics — such as computers, phones, and televisions — end up in large garbage dumps in countries including Ghana, India, and China, where he was born. In “e-waste villages,” old electronics are separated for scrap metals and the unusable plastics and waste are burned, wreaking havoc on the local environment and for the people, animals, and vegetation nearby. Jason wanted to fix the problems e-waste introduced.
The young entrepreneur also had a second motive for starting his business. At around 10 years old, Jason began to realize the hard work and sacrifice his parents, Weidong Li and Hui Shen, put into raising him and his younger sister, Jennifer. They immigrated to the United States when Jason was only four years old and Jennifer was not yet born. He told me during an interview that even the smallest tasks could be daunting in those times. He remembers studying a big red dictionary with his mother, because the two of them didn’t speak English when they arrived. He and I had a good laugh in that interview when he recalled a time he spent 30 minutes looking up a Pokémon character name, Bulbasaur, in the dictionary. He says he was so angry he couldn’t find it. But that’s determination right there!
Jason’s persistence shows through in his entrepreneurial story, too. In fourth grade, he set a goal to try to make $3.00 per day, so he could pay for his own school lunch, to show his parents he was grateful for all they had done. He drew and sold comic books, then started a t-shirt business. Neither took off.
One fateful day, Jason broke his iPod Touch, a handheld computing device his parents had given him just weeks prior. As any kid would, he went into panic mode to try to fix it before his parents found out. He learned he could repair the device by ordering a replacement screen online. The fix was a success. Coupling his newfound repair knowledge with his passion for the environment, Jason realized he could help others recycle and resell their old or broken devices.
Jason’s business started small, at Saratoga High School, where he fixed classmates’ electronics. He expanded by posting ads online, and his friends helped him promote the business at the local mall and nearby events. Soon, adults were buying Jason’s services, too, but he wanted to go big. As a freshman in high school, Jason paid a family friend in pizza to help him build a website that would automate the buying and selling process. They launched the site, iReTron.com, in November 2011, when Jason was a sophomore. From there, business took off.
Financially, iReTron started with a $2,000 loan from Jason’s dad. The company then began to win business competitions, pulling in $43,000 in prize money. Finally, in 2014, at 16 years old, Jason took the stage on ABC’s Shark Tank, leaving with an investment of $100,000 from Barbara Corcoran and Mark Cuban. That year, iReTron earned $2 million in revenue.
Today, the company continues to operate out of Jason’s hometown of Los Gatos, California. He hired three employees to manage shipments and repairs while he studies at the University of Chicago, where he is majoring in Economics and Computer Science and teaches fellow students about entrepreneurship through a startup accelerator he helped launch.
Jason has accomplished a lot in his first two decades of life. In 2015, Jason spoke at TEDxUChicago about everyday entrepreneurship. He led iReTron to victory at the Students for the Advancement of Global Entrepreneurship (SAGE) National Competition and “Next Teen Tycoon” competition in 2012. He has even given entrepreneurship another shot while in college, founding a second company called UProspie, focused on making higher education more accessible to students from all backgrounds. Jason expects to graduate from the University of Chicago in 2017 at 20 years old.
While writing the Little Launchers book series, illustrator Li Zeng, videographer Dan Ndombe, and I visited Jason and his family. The story and pictures featured in his book were all inspired by in-person and online interviews with the family.
To learn more about Jason and the iReTron story, preorder “Jason Saves the Environment with Entrepreneurship” on Kickstarter starting March 28th and visit iReTron.com to see the company in action.