Is Melissa Sconyers, the 15-year-old Web designer featured in Family PC, Girls Life, and Wired magazine, the face of Austin's high-tech future, or just an ordinary kid living an extraordinary life?
For now, the West Lake teenager, who pulls down around $1,000 for each Web design contract she takes on (her company, ativity design, can be found online at http://www.ativity.com), is pretty much in a class of her own; girls (and boys) her age can be "intimidated," she says, by technology. But she admits that what she does -- a combination of PhotoShop editing, graphic design, and HTML coding, which she does without an editor -- isn't all that difficult to learn. "I learned to do HTML when I was 10 or so, and I just started working with that and eventually I decided to do it for money," Sconyers says. "It's like a second language."
Or first, depending on how you look at it. Sconyers says she could press the space bar and "enter" keys on her parents' computer when she was six months old, well before most kids start to talk. After that, she says, she learned practically everything from the screen -- computer, not television. (Not so long ago, Sesame Street and The Electric Company represented the radical vanguard of electronic learning; already, it seems, they have met their match.) "I learned my letters, my colors, and my shapes on the computer," Sconyers says. "I've been around computers all my life." For those among us (this writer included) who didn't know a modem from a monitor until the mid-Nineties, that's a fairly impressive claim. For tech-savvy kids like Sconyers, such a statement doesn't merit much more than a yawn.
And kids like Sconyers are becoming more common, both in the U.S. and around the world. A recent student Web site competition, sponsored by Internet educational venture ThinkQuest, drew more than a thousand entries last year. The site designed by Sconyers' team, a teenagers' guide to entrepreneurship called EBiz4Teens (http://library.thinkquest.org/28188/), won Sconyers a third-place silver ranking and appointment as an international student tutor at the Tech School in Kingston, Jamaica, where she taught Web and graphic design. "I thought of EBiz4Teens as a site where I could compile all my business experience, advice, and stories to inspire teenagers to create their own business," Sconyers says. "And I think the most satisfying thing has been how many teenagers actually did create their own businesses after reading our site."
Like many other milestones in her life, Sconyers' business experience started early, with a T-shirt design company she started when she was 10. ("It was a flop," she recalls.) Once Sconyers learned the ropes of graphic design and HTML, her Web design business started taking off; within a few years, she says, she was working "18- to 20-hour days," taking several weeks off between assignments. And although she can't yet drive a car (she has her learner's permit and will turn 16 in a few weeks) or make purchases online, Sconyers is about to graduate, after being home schooled since seventh grade, when she moved to Austin from L.A.
Like any 15-year-old, Sconyers has strong opinions on many subjects, but she feels most strongly about public schools, which she says fail to teach kids enough about technology and stifle teenagers' independence. "I just really don't like the public school environment. They don't let you express yourself," Sconyers says. A self-taught English and photography whiz whose reading interests range from Harry Potter to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Sconyers says home schooling lets her work her own hours, which typically means staying up as late as 5am.
After college -- she wants to go to UT, but is wary of "spending thousands and thousands of dollars to learn what I already know" -- Sconyers is thinking about going into photography or making digital videos -- or maybe psychology. In other words, she's a typical teenager, albeit one with a rather astonishing résumé. "It's sort of hard, because a lot of other kids my age feel overshadowed by me because I've already done so much in my field," Sconyers says. "People think I'm not a normal person, but I am. My VCR blinks 12:00 just like everyone else's."
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