For Keith Peiris, the world's youngest CEO, being in the limelight at the age of 12 means not only pressure and loneliness, but also golden opportunities and abundant experience possible only for an early bird
By Crystal Zou, Shanghai Star. 2001-02-22
KEITH Peiris, 12, is the world's youngest CEO, but he modestly says that there is "absolutely nothing" different about him compared to other children his age.
Keith launched a website for his own company at the age of 10. While other children received awards for their achievements, Peiris granted scholarships to pupils in the same school in the name of Cyberteks Design, his own company.
Peiris was a media darling long before he visited Shanghai a week ago.
When he stepped out of the IT seminar he was attending at the Grand Hyatt Shanghai, he walked into the media spotlight.
It was easy to identify Peiris from other participants. He is about 1.5 metre tall with big brown eyes and curly jet-black hair.
"His big eyes speak out his intelligence. They glitter with the charm of wisdom," said Christine St. Pierre, a journalist from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
When he was asked for an exclusive interview, Peiris looked at his watch and said, "Twenty minutes, at most 30 minutes, OK?"
Peiris had the air of a real businessman who cherished every minute of his time. Despite the professionalism he displayed on the job, subtle details showed that he is still a 12-year old boy - the watch on his wrist sported a cartoon figure, just like those worn by many of his age group.
"Which scenic spot in Beijing impressed me most? I think it is the Great Wall. It is really great. Now I know why it is one of the eight wonders in the world," he said, beaming.
The excitement in his eyes made him appear like an ordinary child who had just returned from an exotic trip.
"The schedule of two days in Shanghai is crowded, so there is no time for sightseeing," he said without any trace of regret.
However, when the topic switched to his business in Shanghai, he sounded more like an adult than a 12-year-old boy. He possessed the suavity and intelligence of a full-fledged businessman.
"Compared with Beijing, Shanghai is much busier, I mean the life pace. Shanghai is the economic centre of China as it is a very large city with almost the population of Canada. It's great that so many people concentrated in one area and it's much easier to meet more business people here than in other areas," Peiris said with amazing confidence.
He admitted he came here merely for business, saying "We hope to establish sales branch here and come here more often, and will concentrate more in the area than other cities."
According to Peiris, Cyberteks Design caters more to North America, but since he came here, he would try to find a way to cater more to the Shanghai market.
"Of course, the Shanghai market is inferior (compared to that of North America), but all markets have their weaknesses. Actually, China is growing and in the next 10 to 20 years, it will be among the top countries. After the WTO accession, Shanghai will have more biz opportunities," said the youthful tycoon.
He regarded dollar fluctuation and cost as the biggest difficulties for him to enter the market.
"It is tough to compete with the local companies in Shanghai because of the cost, especially the cost of hardware."
"Initially, my age will be the largest issue, but eventually it will fade away. Once I get more and more clients, we will build creditability and people will take me more seriously," he said.
He was quick at response and was very articulate. He professed to know Shanghai pretty well before the trip through TV programmes broadcast on CNN.
He was straightforward about the problems caused by his age.
"I didn't take offence when I was treated like a child, of course, you cannot take offence cause it is some of others' opinion. However, I would feel frustrated."
He mentioned one incident in which he felt prejudice due to his age but refused to disclose the name of the company.
Peiris claimed that Cyberteks Design's deal with the company went well but, when they found out about Peiris' age, they stopped all contacts and disappeared.
"At the beginning, this would happen four to five times out of 10. But now one time out of 10 is rare. I will not let this happen, and I would say 0.5 out 10 times," he smiled.
He stressed that the perception that kids cannot start businesses should change.
"If you start earlier, regardless of whether you are successful or not, after you grow up, you have a lot of experiences."
In spite of his age, Keith has faced the pros of publicity such as money and fame, and also cons such as stress, loneliness and the jealousy of others. He is already undergoing the pains of adult life.
When he was asked to name his best friend, Peiris said "I have none, as I want to make good friends with as many persons as possible." He had no playmates because he always wanted to win the game.
"Jealousy is everywhere, and I am supposed to simply grow with it. I just ignore it and go on," he said firmly.
He showed a level of tolerance and perseverance that even adults find difficult to cultivate.
He was polite with the multitude of journalists, even if he was dazzled by the flashlights.
"It is their (the reporters') job. I can understand," Peiris said.
He got up at five o'clock that day, but he still took the time to chat with the media and even posed with many young women who wished to have their picture taken with him.
When a whizz-kid is discovered, the first question many people have in their minds is "what brings forth such kids?"
"Kids like Keith must have had very positive feedback from their parents with regard to the things that they do. Positive feedback comes in the form of encouragement, treating as equals by adults," said an education PhD of Harvard now working for the Canadian Government.
Keith Peiris proved this theory right. "The most admired persons in my life, of course, are my parents. They sacrificed a lot for me. When I was a baby, my mother quit her job so that she could help me out. She read me 10 to 15 books every day. When I was about five, my father gave me my own computer and started teaching me initial things for computer. I have not seen many parents do that for their children.