Unexpected Success for the RandomKid: Solving Real World Problems

Unexpected Success for the RandomKid: Solving Real World Problems

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Talia Leman was honored as an Ashoka ChangemakeHER, Changemakers's inaugural celebration of the world's most influentual and inspiring women. Find her fellow honorees' voices here.

by Talia Leman, youth entrepreneur and founder of RandomKid

My grandparents are convinced that I have been an entrepreneur since I was four years old. That’s when I opened a shoe store in their home. I took all 37 pairs of my grandmother’s shoes, placed one of each pair on the coffee table, and hid the other shoe where no one could find it. If my grandmother wanted to leave the house for any reason, a sale was imminent.

It wasn’t long before I had ideas about how to expand my business—that’s when I started selling my grandparents back their own groceries. Being four didn’t deem me cute enough to prevent what happened next: they shut me down—but not before I discovered my inner business child.

Six years later, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast—I had a plan. I made the decision that with Halloween around the corner, I was going to take advantage of that captive audience and trick or treat for coins instead of candy, and give my money to hurricane relief organizations. I called my business TLC—an acronym for “Trick or Treat for the Levee Catastrophe.”

Except when it wasn’t. Sometimes it stood for “Trick of Treat for Loose Change,” and sometimes it stood for “Trick or Treat for Little Coins.” I took a flexible approach to branding.

I also determined that I would be the CEO of this effort—a title I took to mean Chief Executive Optimist. Dutiful to my title, I set an early goal of raising $1 million dollars.

By all accounts, things were coming along—I had a nice BIG trick or treat bag, and I chose a neighborhood where the houses were really close together. Then my six-year-old brother got wind of what I was up to. He came up to me—clearly very upset—and said, “I am opposed to what you are doing. I’d rather trick-or-treat for pirate relief.” As in Captain Hook and Jack Sparrow. Those were his exact words.

I didn’t know what to do with that. It was very unexpected. But I decided to make room for it anyway—so I offered him a title too. He became my official C.O.N.—Chief Operating Nemesis. We even put him on our website in his favorite Darth Vader costume. He was thrilled.

And then something happened that turned my life around forever. The Today Show was visiting our little website, saw his photo and invited us on their program—C.E.O vs. C.O.N. 

One day later I was fielding reports from kids all over the USA tracking donations on a map with pushpins. One week later, a local grocery chain agreed to print 8.5 million Trick-or-Treat bags to be given out with my message on them in 226 stores in 13 states. Our governor held a press conference and UNICEF invited me to do media spots on CNN and NPR. It didn’t look like my future was going to be in the shoe business.

When it came time to draw our efforts to a close, I knew we had raised a lot—but it was not $1 million. It wasn’t even half a million. No, it was, in fact, $10 million dollars. Kids across the USA ranked in their giving power with the top five U.S. corporate donors to Katrina—right up there with Walmart, Exxon, and Amoco.

Having realized this, I knew someone had to harness that youth power for other disasters the world faces. That’s why I started RandomKid, a unique nonprofit that leverages the power of youth to solve real problems in the world.

Today, RandomKid has unified the efforts of 12 million kids from 20 countries, bringing aid to four continents. 

Despite all that success, do you know the most common question people ask me? It’s why did I decide to call it RandomKid?

I tell them, quite simply, it’s because I am a random kid. I tell them it’s because if I see myself as anything more than a random kid, then how will those I seek to empower see the potential that they have? I tell them it’s because when we believe in the power we each have, we have the greatest power of all.

What I don’t tell them is this: that Randomkid’s success did not happen because of my “retail” experience, my ambitious goals, or my lofty title. RandomKid’s success happened because of—did you catch it? My little brother. A little brother who faces the challenges of a Pervasive Developmental Disorder every day of his life. RandomKid’s success happened because I made room for him.

It was the one step I took that seemed to have nothing to do with my success, and it became the very thing that made me successful.

If I could leave you with just one idea, it would be this: success sometimes happens best when we make room for the plan we didn’t have—by taking a step sideways to a place where unexpected things might happen. And do you know why that is? Because the great surprises of life, by definition, can ONLY appear in those unexpected places. By making room for the unexpected, we make room for miracles.


Talia Leman, age 16, unifies and leverages the efforts of millions of global youth to solve problems in the world through her organization, RandomKid.