In between attending middle school and dance practice, 13-year-old CEO Alina Morse also finds time to manage six employees and prep for meetings with retailers across the globe.
Morse founded her sugar-free candy company when she was nine years old, after her dad told her she couldn’t eat candy because it was bad for her teeth. Unsatisfied with that rule, Morse — who was in elementary school at the time — wanted to find a way to make candy that’s good for your teeth.
After watching YouTube videos on how to make candy and experimenting with recipes in her kitchen, Morse now runs Zolli Candy, and has the number-one-selling sugar-free lollipop on Amazon. Morse became the youngest person ever to land the cover of Entrepreneur, met with Michelle Obama in the White House (twice!), and now sells her product in major retailers like Whole Foods, Walmart, and Kroger.
Morse says she knew she wanted to be a CEO since she was a toddler. She started coming up with inventions when she was just three years old, keeping her businesses concepts in an “idea binder.” The young entrepreneur settled on teeth-cleaning candy after discovering tooth decay is one of the most common chronic conditions among children.
“There had been no prior research [into teeth-cleaning candy] that had been done.” Morse said in an interview with MONEY. “We felt that this is a new thing, we’re filling a niche in the market.” Morse learned that the inside of your mouth becomes acidic after eating sugar, leading to cavities and tooth decay. For her Zollipops hard candy and Zaffi Taffy chewy candy, she turned to natural sweeteners Xylitol and Erythritol to reduce acidity, balance the pH in your mouth and, as the company says, “clean your teeth as you eat.”
After she finally nailed down her candy prototype, Morse convinced her dad, Tom, to help her start a business. At that point, Morse had saved $3,750 from birthday and holiday gifts, and her dad matched the amount as an initial investment. Then the father and daughter went to different manufacturing plants in Michigan to produce and package the candy at a larger scale. In her first year, she sold 70,000 Zollipops and was soon selling in her first major retailer: Whole Foods. Morse saw sales double year after year for four years, eventually earning $6 million in sales in 2018. She now employs six full-time workers, and works with contractors around the country.
“We are the number one selling sugar-free lollipop, but we want to be number one overall because we have a great mission, a great story, and just a great product that not only tastes great but has health benefits,” says Morse.
During her short career as a teenage chief executive, Morse found her age to be beneficial, allowing her insight into her audience. In meetings with the heads of candy titans like Tootsie Roll and Peeps, she looked around and saw mostly older men at the table — not exactly the target candy-eating demographic.
“Everyone in the candy world is really amazing, but there’s no kids in the candy business,” Morse says. “Once I came to that realization that there aren’t a lot of women CEOs, a lot of kid CEOs, then I was like, ‘Well, let’s see who can make a difference.’”
Morse admits to sometimes not being taken seriously by other people due to her age, but she doesn’t let their perceptions get to her. Morse says she’s not successful because she was born smarter or raised differently than any of her friends — she just felt passionate about business and helping others.
Morse donates 10 percent of Zollipop profits to fund oral health classes in public schools through her nonprofit, One Million Smiles, which works to reduce America’s tooth decay epidemic. She also lectures to encourage other kids in her community to find their passion and start their own businesses.
The teenager CEO is living proof, she says, that anyone can start a company, whether they’re nine or 90: “It doesn’t matter how old you are, where you’re from, what you’re doing,” she says. “All that matters is that you want to do it and that you are passionate about it, and that you are going to do everything in your power to help make the world a better place.”