In Silicon Valley, they call it "failing upward," building on your setbacks for future success. It's the perfect mantra for Cherry Hill's irrepressible Sky Rota, whose career as an author, video blogger, and in-demand business consultant took off after he was kicked out of the fourth grade at an exclusive prep school.
That was 3½ years ago.
This week, the now-13-year-old celebrates both starting the eighth grade at the Main Line's Woodlynde School for children with learning differences and the rollout of his self-published book, a youth-marketing guide called The Gen Z Answer Key for Business.
Sky Rota, whose struggles with dyslexia and attention dysfunction are central to his story, dictated the new tome to his ever-involved mom, Angela. It's hard to imagine how he found the time among maintaining his Gen Z website; filming videos of exotic cars, a hobby since he was 8; and advising clients such as an online handbag seller on e-commerce and an app developer trying to reach teen customers.
"I want to be a billionaire," Sky said recently as a 3-D printer — making fidget spinners and rings that he sells to his classmates at $15 a pop — hummed from his first-floor office, equipped with two computers, a large TV screen, and dozens of model cars.
Just last year, Sky made local headlines for his legal fight against Haddonfield Friends School, which expelled him in January 2014 after an escalating battle over demands for specialized instruction aimed at addressing the then-10-year-old's dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The Quaker institution won a landmark federal-court ruling that classified it as a religious school, thus exempt from state and federal disability laws.
But for Sky and his family, their high-profile loss in the courtroom is part of a much bigger narrative about how a child who has struggled with conventional reading and writing can also — aided by 21st- century technology — find outlets for his energy and ideas. Sitting at his kitchen table recently, he showed off a binder full of inventions that he draws on paper rather than describing with words.
Sky and his mom agree his time at Haddonfield Friends — where the family claimed (school officials disputed) he was belittled by staff, and refused extra time to take tests and other accommodations — was a struggle that only grew worse, for a time, after his expulsion. A host of other schools then turned him down.
"Try getting into a school after you've been expelled," said his mom, who finally found the Woodlynde School in Strafford near the end of fourth grade. "I cried my heart out," Angela Rota, who owns a software company with her husband, said of that discovery. "It was like landing on a planet of people who suffered like we did."
Elizabeth Maglio, assistant head of school for K-8th grade, called Sky "a great student. He is bright, he is motivated, he's happy to be here, he's a leader amongst his class."
Soon after arriving at Woodlynde, Sky began dictating a book about overcoming his struggles entitled, Look Mom, I'm the Dumest One in My Clas! One Boy's Dyslexic Journey. The book was self-published this year and, according to Sky's mom, has been purchased by one Cabrini College professor so students can understand the complexities of teaching a child who learns differently.
Publishing a book wasn't completely out of character for an ambitious kid who at age 8 launched his own blog — Skyscars.com — where he posts video reviews of exotic luxury cars like Bentleys or Lamborghinis. Indeed, Sky's become such a fixture at the F.C. Kerbeck auto dealership in Palmyra since he started visiting there at age 5 that he's struck up a friendship with its owner, Frank Kerbeck, who's taken Sky for a spin in his Rolls Royce.
"He knew everything about everything," said Steve Capra, a product specialist for Kerbeck, recalling the first time he met Sky. "If you were off on one horsepower, [he'd say], 'No, it's 525, not 524'." Just recently Capra hired Sky to create a web page for which he said he paid him $1,000.
At Woodlynde, Sky and his mom agree that he's thrived in an environment where teachers allow him to avoid spelling tests while he uses computerized programs that have brought him up to an age-appropriate reading level. He gets good grades, has made friends, plays basketball and baseball, but those traditional trappings of a successful adolescent weren't enough for Sky's skyward ambition.
He reinvented himself as a consultant for Generation Z — the rising teen cohort of post-millennials. "I never started off one day saying I wanted to be a Gen Z consultant," Sky said. "It chose me. People asked for help with websites — what's missing, what can I enhance to get it to the best level it can be?"
A Philadelphia company, National Watch & Diamond, paid Sky $15,000 to overhaul its outmoded website, according to Angela Rota.
"He is really great to work with — much better than many of the adult consultants that we have used in the past," the firm's manager, Robyn Barron, wrote in an email. "He has ideas on what the online business should look like and he never tried to push more technology on us and he got that change was hard for us and he walked us through all the steps."
Word spread, and now Sky has worked for a dozen clients, including one from Sydney, Australia, who asked for help in reviewing a new app. He returns to school the same day he launches his new book, which pitches Generation Z as not unlike Sky himself, addicted to tech and coping with a short attention span.