Freshman Anthony Rizos designed a national railroad Web site when he was 10, and when he was 13, the chief information officer of Amtrak offered him a job.
“I was happy to be on board,” says Rizos, now 18, who has traveled more than 40,000 miles by rail. At nine, his Mom took him on his first train ride up the West Coast to Seattle, a trip when he got trains in his heart and travel in his bones.
At 10, Rizos decided to launch his own railroad Web site that was devoted to Amtrak train service, and which included anecdotes about train travel, pictures, and a discussion board. A resource for first-time travelers, 3,000 people a week visited the site.
Soon the 10-year-old attracted the attention of the Associated Press, USA Today, CNBC, radio stations across the country, and the site was written about in a Sierra Club book on transportation.
“I was so happy to be helping people plan their trips,” Rizos says, adding that life was great until he got a certified letter from one of Amtrak’s lawyers with a cease and desist order.
“Did they know I was 11? I don’t think so,” he says.
The letter threatened legal action if he did not dismantle the site, because, it said, he was infringing on the Federal trademark.
Rizos took down the site but not without a fight.
He spent the next few weeks conducting online research. “They accused me of willful trademark infringement and violating various trademark laws. But online I learned about fair use, that I could use a trademark for noncommercial purposes, if I wasn’t being derogatory.”
Rizos penned a letter to the lawyer explaining not only that he was 11, but that he also knew he had rights, and he put his site back up.
Later, he got an e-mail message from Amtrak’s chief information officer in Washington, D.C., offering him a job in the company’s information technology department, where he has now worked remotely for four-and-a-half years, writing software code for Amtrak’s corporate intranet. So far he has worked on more than 40 projects, several of them multi-million dollar efforts.
“Initially, neither of my parents had any interest in my love for trains,” he says. “They basically thought, what a cute little hobby.”
Rizos was born in the Arizona desert to a baby doctor and a nurse who divorced when he was seven. An only child, his Mom moved to California, and he lived in Arizona with his Dad, who hired a live-in nanny. For eight years, Rizos missed one-third of every school year, traveling back and forth to visit his parents. Mostly, he traveled alone.
“Growing up, I became familiar with travel and loved it. Because I lived in an isolated town, I loved to see new things.”
Now, Rizos has traveled most of Amtrak’s long distance routes. He has ridden the Trans Australian train, the Trans Canada train, and he has ridden the train through several cities in western Europe.
Sitting in his car seat when he was 18 months old, he learned to read street signs. At 4, he fell in love with computers. At 5, he skipped kindergarten and jumped into a third grade class for gifted children. He graduated from high school at 16.
At MIT, he plans to study civil engineering because he says, it deals with rail and transportation research. One day, he hopes to plan and structure train routes.
His experience, he says, has taught him a major life lesson. “I learned that if you’re younger than everyone, people can resent you. I ran into a lot of resistance when I first went to Amtrak, not from my boss but from my colleagues.
“I was 13, and people in their 40s and 50s freaked out. It was kind of offensive to them to work with someone so young, who was doing the same work, or even better. I learned to be very diplomatic. And I figured out that the best way to succeed is to prove yourself.”