During troubling times of warfare, climate catastrophe, and global uncertainty, we can find hope by looking to our youth. These 13 remarkable teens, who come from diverse backgrounds, share a common passion for igniting positive change in the world. They are challenging the status quo by innovating solutions to poverty and income disparity, gender inequity, youth mental illness, and more. As we delve into their stories, we find that age proves no barrier to making a significant impact.
1. Simmi Sen
Simmi Sen, a high school senior from Vancouver, WA, founded the clothing brand Tints Streetwear in order to help women in Bangladesh and India to receive vocational and educational training – and thereby escape the cycle of poverty.
Each Tints garment is embroidered in Bangladesh and then handmade in Sen’s hometown of Kolkata. In addition to being socially conscious, the clothing is organic, eco-friendly, and biodegradable. Tints, which won seed funding and mentorship from Taco Bell and Disney Dreamers, is currently carried in eight high-end boutiques across Portland, LA, NYC, Seattle, and San Francisco.
“Embroidery is an intricate art form that has traditional and cultural roots,” Sen said in an exclusive interview with me. “My supply chain manager in Kolkata and I have formed a network of embroiders in the interiors of Bengal who are skilled in different forms of hand embroidery. Initially, we worked with elderly women. As demand for Tints clothing grew, these elderly women evolved into master trainers for younger artisans.”
During the summer of 2018, Sen and her English teacher, Dr. Bev Questad, visited the Distressed Children & Infants International (DCI) nonprofit in Bangladesh in order to teach the orphaned girls there English. Then, when COVID-19 swept the world in 2020, schools closed. Sen volunteered to establish Zoom classrooms for the girls. This experience inspired Sen to found Tints as a self-sustaining approach to assisting the underprivileged.
Recently, Sen also formed the nonprofit Rise to Independence in collaboration with the international NGO Heroes for All (HFA) in order to empower generationally disadvantaged women. Its social mission is 100% employability of graduates, through vocational training as well as access to computers, equipment for training, and basic school supplies. For example, Sen teaches the girls digital art classes, during which they create artwork featured on Tints t-shirts.
“We must take action with self-belief and conviction and nurture it with extreme perseverance,” Sen advises aspiring change makers. “When we are relentless about the impact that we desire to make, our pathway to reach it is uncovered and challenges are overcome. Making an impact has been the most rewarding experience in my life.”
2. Sahil Sood
Sahil Sood is a first-year student at Harvard University, a Presidential scholar, a Coco-Cola scholar (which has a 0.16% acceptance rate), a competitive debater, and the youngest-ever International Vice President of HOSA – Future Health Professionals, the largest healthcare-oriented nonprofit in the world. He is also the founder of HYPE, a youth-led nonprofit organization that supports sustainable community efforts in healthcare, youth programs, poverty, and education.
With over 15 chapters internationally, HYPE has donated $100,000 to 33,000 people in eight countries. Sood’s work with HYPE was featured in the recent American Youth Priorities Report issued by the United Nations, which led to him speaking about youth empowerment in STEM at the United Nations General Assembly in September.
Outside of HYPE, Sood is an avid scientific researcher. He developed a preventative treatment option for COVID-19, which he presented at Harvard, MIT, and Johns Hopkins Conferences, while receiving recognition at several prestigious science competitions. Currently, the teenager boasts four published papers, presentations at seven conferences, and 20 abstracts.
Sood was inspired to engage in community service when he was still in elementary school. He watched a high school senior, Onyeku, raise funds to build a park. But the park slowly decayed after Onyeku left for college. “There were no provisions in place to ensure the longevity of the park,” Sood explains. “Soon, it was reduced to dilapidated ruins.” It was this experience that led him to find a niche in promoting sustainable change via HYPE.
The greatest challenge Sood has faced is not being taken seriously due to his age. “The vast majority of onlookers didn’t believe I had the power to make any tangible change,” he said in an exclusive interview with me. “I was determined to prove them wrong. Each opportunity I was able to obtain, I made full use of. I went beyond what was asked of me, hoping to illustrate that my age was not a hindrance.”
To aspiring entrepreneurs, Sood says, “I am here to tell you that you will likely be denied. You may be denied more than you are accepted, especially if you are young. And at times, it will be overwhelming. But don’t give in. Don’t spend time focusing on those that turned you down. Instead, focus on what you can do to enhance the opportunities that you do have. That will allow you to progress faster than you could have ever imagined.”
3. Olivia Goodreau
Olivia Goodreau was bitten by a tick when she was six years old. Eventually, she was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease, as well as five other tick-borne diseases. But illness didn’t stop her. On the contrary, it fueled her passion for making the world a better place.
At age 12, Goodreau founded the LivLyme Foundation to provide financial assistance to families of children suffering from Lyme disease, fund scientists conducting Lyme and tick-borne disease research, and deliver tick education and awareness.
Now 18 years old, Goodreau is a well-known advocate for Lyme disease research and education. In May 2023, she published a memoir, But She Looks Fine: From Illness to Activism. She has met with such lawmakers, including U.S. senators John Hickenlooper and Susan Collins, regarding Lyme disease awareness and legislation, and consulted with Lyme and tick-borne disease researchers at universities including Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and Tulane. Furthermore, she has developed two tick- and Lyme disease-related apps, the TickTracker app, and most recently, the LongHaul Tracker app.
“Having chronic Lyme disease has given me a purpose: To be a beacon of hope for kids like me,” Goodreau said in an exclusive interview with me. “If I had had someone to guide me through my diagnosis and make me more aware of tick-borne illnesses, I believe I would be healthy today. My hope is that the next child who gets bitten by a tick will not have to endure the pain and injustice that I’ve experienced.”
Throughout her entire education and career as an activist and speaker, Goodreau has experienced Lyme symptoms, which can include feeling like she is on the verge of passing out or throwing up. However, she is passionate about fighting tick-borne illnesses, so she does her best to keep going.
“If you are trying to make a change or thinking about speaking up about an issue, there is no better time than right now!” Goodreau councils aspiring change makers. “It does not matter how old you are or what your financial situation is – making a change is possible for everybody. I started my activist journey when I was only 12 years old! It doesn’t cost anything to spread awareness on social media. You can also speak to friends and reach out to politicians, celebrities, and scientists. You have no reason not to start making a change.”
4. Radhika Goyal
16-year-old Radhika Goyal founded the nonprofit TechPower4All to break gender and socioeconomic barriers in technology. Her organization has empowered over 1500 girls and low-income youth across seven countries by teaching them free computer science workshops. She has been recognized with a Discover’s Innovation Award, a National Center for Women in Technology’s Aspire IT Grant, commendation from California Senator Dave Cortese, and a Gold President’s Volunteer Service Award.
Goyal’s journey began at age 13, when she stepped into the classroom for her first coding workshop. Among the 30 students, she was the only girl. She began to doubt herself: “Do girls like me even belong in tech?” she wondered.
So, she conducted research, which led her discover to that, in fact, girls and low-income youth face severe underrepresentation in technology. She became determined to change that. Through TechPower4All, Goyal champions the rights of marginalized groups and strives to rewrite the narrative of what a “normal” technology innovator looks like.
Aside from Tech4All, Goyal created DisasTECH, an international conference with more than 250 attendees across 22 countries and keynote speakers from Google and other leading tech companies. The conference’s mission is to educate youth about the intersection of technology and natural disasters.
Goyal is also a twice-published researcher and presenter to IEEE’s Global Humanitarian Technology Conference. As the youngest-ever researcher at this international conference, she presented alongside graduate-level researchers.
“Take the leap of faith in yourself,” Goyal advises aspiring entrepreneurs. “Too often, we let scary what ifs hold us back. We forget how much potential each of us truly holds. And even if things don’t follow the path you initially anticipated, the lessons you’ll gain along the journey are priceless.”
5. Alex Chen
At 17, Alex Chen is the founder of Youth for Finance, the largest youth-led financial literacy nonprofit organization in the U.S., with over 75 registered school chapters, 3,000 members, and four finance events hosted with more than 400 attendees. He also runs a personal finance community, which boasts over 1200 members.
Youth for Finance’s programs bring finance, economics, and investing education to schools through a curriculum, e-learning portal, and stock market simulator. The microloan program helps low-income entrepreneurs in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America secure financial resources for their small businesses. The consulting program helps young people switch away from predatory investment accounts with high fees to low fee accounts. Finally, Youth for Finance offers one-on-one mentoring and more.
Chen already has published a book, Smart Money Moves: A Teen’s Guide to Financial Success, which aims to bridge the inequality gap in financial education. Currently, he is working on an economics textbook. He also just hosted a youth finance summit with over 1,200 participants in multiple workshops over a two-day period.
“I firmly believe in equality and the potential for youth to be agents of change,” said Chen in an exclusive interview with me. “Financial literacy is often overlooked in our society, especially among underprivileged youth. This problem extends to adulthood as 57% of adults are financially illiterate, and most don’t even have an emergency fund. We live in a world where money dictates many aspects of our lives, yet many people are left unequipped to manage their finances wisely. By bringing financial education to youth, I’m giving them a skill set that will benefit them throughout their lives.”
When he started Youth for Finance, Chen had no connections, little funding, and little experience in the nonprofit world. “I wore pretty much every hat in the organization,” he says. He had trouble convincing student leaders to set up chapters. What worked was hosting free workshops where he could connect with students directly. As the nonprofit grew, Chen made regular contact with chapter leaders, who suggested he create more resources, build new programs, and improve systems internally, gaining ever increasing member support.
Chen’s advice for aspiring entrepreneurs and change makers is extensive. When setting goals, he says, “Go for 5x what you think is possible. If you plan on getting 40 people to a workshop, aim for 200. Then, work 5x harder.” Learn to prioritize tasks and delegate when necessary. Set tight deadlines in order to force yourself to complete tasks like creating a logo and website quickly. And finally, surround yourself with like-minded, ambitious people who will hold you accountable.
6. Neha Shukla
At 18, Neha Shukla is a New York Times-featured young inventor, chair of the World Economic Forum’s Generation AI Youth Council, and the bestselling author of Innovation for Everyone: Solving Real-World Problems with STEM and A Kids Book About AI, a book intended to foster understanding of AI and ethics at an early age.
Furthermore, Shukla has worked with the White House National Space Council on promoting girls in technology, and was the youngest speaker at the AI Summit alongside the cofounder of OpenAI. Collaborating with organizations like Apple, BiC, and Nestlé, Shukla has reached over 70,000 students in global innovation workshops across 35 countries.
Shukla, who encourages girls to find a personal connection to STEM, wants to pave pathways for those from low-income and low-access areas to embrace a more innovative future through technology. Her first invention came about during the Covid pandemic, when Shukla found herself worrying about her aging grandparents. She developed SixFeetApart, a wearable social-distancing device contained in a hat, which harnesses ultrasonic technology to save lives.
Next, Shukla created the PA Homeless Guide app to combat homelessness through policy change in her home state of Pennsylvania. Finally, she interned with NASA to develop Earth-orbiting satellites to protect environmentally vulnerable regions, and developed an AI algorithm for disability inclusion with NVIDIA’s sponsorship.
“I’m excited to continue developing technology for social good and using my voice to stand up for my community and fight for positive change,” Shukla said in an exclusive interview with me. To aspiring change makers, she offers this advice: “Never be afraid to speak up. Your biggest, boldest, messiest ideas have value and our world needs the voices of young people in reimagining the future.”
7. Elif Kaya
Elif Kaya is a 19-year-old activist who is passionate about mental health and social justice. After struggling with anxiety for years and surviving a suicide attempt at 15, she made mental health her life’s mission by founding One Smile Effect, Turkey’s first youth-led mental health organization. One Smile Effect (OSE) provides accessible resources and tools for emotional wellness to young people globally.
Since Kaya launched OSE in 2020, it has grown into a global team of over 100 volunteers with projects across 60 countries impacting more than 3,500 individuals. Kaya has been invited to speak at TEDx and the Digital4Good Summit. She also founded and runs the I’mPossible Podcast, where she highlights mental health stories to challenge stereotypes and misconceptions. Her efforts have been recognized with awards, including being selected as a 2023 Healthcare Collaborator Finalist, a 2021 Global Teen Leader, and the 2020 Digital4Good Winner. Kaya is the first Turkish teen to receive these recognitions.
“My journey in advocating for mental health and social justice is deeply rooted in my personal experiences,” said Kaya in an exclusive interview with me. “As someone who has struggled with her mental health, I have firsthand experience with mental health stigma and the lack of access to care. I have seen how it affects individuals and communities. My vision revolves around developing and expanding community-based mental health initiatives in underserved regions globally, with Turkey as my starting point.”
Kaya herself does not come from money. She has bootstrapped her organization through pocket change and YouTube tutorials, with “zero financial resources or influential connections.” She has built her own network of change makers, both young and established, from all over the world, who have played a pivotal role in her organization’s growth and impact. “The success of OSE is a testament to the boundless possibilities that the digital age offers for connecting and learning from others in your field, regardless of where you reside, your age, or experience,” she says.
For aspiring change makers, Kaya has this advice. “Your journey to create a better world is a noble one, but it won’t always be easy. You’ll encounter skepticism, pushback, and sometimes even outright opposition. But remember, this resistance is not a sign of failure; it’s a sign that you’re challenging the existing order, and that’s where real change begins. Embrace the challenges as opportunities for growth.”
8. Jimin Lee
At age 13, Jimin Lee began her journey as a change maker by founding SELFidence in South Korea. The youth-led non-profit supports self-confidence and mental well-being in young people. Lee started by posting short infographics on social media to raise awareness of topics including toxic productivity, the harms of social media, and seasonal affective disorder.
Since then, SELFidence has grown to a global team of hundreds of core members and volunteers across 12 countries. Through social media campaigns, the nonprofit has shared more than 150+ educational resources and research, reaching more than 100,000 youth. SELFidence also has hosted leadership conferences and confidence journeys.
Last year, Lee contributed her first research paper, which was about TikTok and mental health misinformation. The paper won a gold medal for an outstanding academic paper, was published on the Harvard International Review website, and has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Student Research.
“Entering online high school and getting too immersed in social media during the early days of the pandemic, I realized the importance of believing in yourself,” Lee said in an exclusive interview with me. “The education system and digital space tend to highlight the numbers (be it class rank, test scores, followers, or likes), rather than the person. As a result, many students struggle to realize that they are worthy. You belong in this world. This is what inspired me to found SELFidence.”
9. Chuying Huo
Although Chuying Huo is still only a senior in high school in Canada, she already has been involved with research in the fields of public health and eating disorder prevention at the Harvard Center of Geographic Analysis. Her skill lies in using data to identify health inequities. Huo also advocates for banning the sale of weight loss supplements to minors.
As with others featured in this article, Huo’s activism journey began during the Covid pandemic, when she witnessed negative impacts on teen mental health. One of her best friends confided that she’d been struggling with an eating disorder but didn’t know how to access help. Even after she summoned the courage to tell her parents, she was put on a months-long waitlist for treatment centers. As an eating disorder survivor herself, Huo found her friend’s struggle heartbreaking. She began wondering what she could do.
A mentor connected Huo with Harvard University’s Center for Geographic Analysis. Now, Huo works with a team of statisticians and epidemiologists to map disparities in access to eating disorder treatment. She also has become involved in activism, collaborating with non-profits, governments, and activists to lobby for eating disorder prevention and treatment policy.
Whenever she feels anxiety or imposter syndrome, Huo summons courage by thinking of her favorite book heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, who said, “My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.” Huo tries to keep that quote in mind. “Undoubtedly, there will be people who try to undermine you or put you down,” she explained in an exclusive interview with me. “Don’t bother with trying to prove your worth to those people. Focus on finding a community that embraces your ideas and uplifts you.”
10. Jasmine Shum
Jasmine Shum began selling slime on the playground to her Manchester, U.K. classmates when she was just 12. When teachers banned the activity, she took her business to Instagram, where she flourished as a business woman and social influencer, accumulating over 34K followers and earning thousands of dollars.
During Covid lockdown in 2020, Shum began promoting herself as a fashionista. Soon, major brands including Boots and H&M were clamoring to work with her, and she was able to launch her own fashion line, Niam. She has since enjoyed a marketing apprenticeship with Amazon in London, and has spoken at About Amazon UK offering advice to other aspiring young entrepreneurs.
Now 18 years old and with over 60K followers on TikTok, Shum is turning to social good. “Even though I’m extremely driven, I’ve experienced firsthand people being reluctant to take me seriously due to my age,” Shum said in an exclusive interview with me. “My life’s purpose involves uplifting other young people, making career opportunities more accessible and continuously advocating for mental health.”
Shum is especially passionate about encouraging young people to explore “unconventional extracurriculars and interests outside of their education.” She wants to help them develop their interpersonal skills, build followings on social media, gain experience at apprenticeships, and network successfully.
At one point, struggles with mental health severely impacted Shum’s motivation and productivity. She had to take time to process and heal from trauma. “I had to recognize and accept that you can’t always control what happens to you in life,” she says. “I certainly didn’t want someone else’s actions to hold any power over me. I realized that life is 10% what happens and 90% how you react to it.” It was this journey that inspired her to become an advocate for emotional wellbeing.
“Nobody else gets to dictate your potential,” Shum advises young people. “Stereotypes and limiting beliefs may seem unbreakable, but in reality, they are merely illusory. Be resilient, be resourceful, challenge stereotypes and surround yourself with others who believe in you. Trust me, your capabilities are boundless.”
11. Evelyn Jin
High school junior Evelyn Jin is the founder of the Lovely Letters Organization, a nonprofit that seeks to educate on literacy and overcome language barriers through a worldwide pen-pal program. By partnering with elementary, middle, and high school students in her school district, Jin has collected and sent close to 1500 letters to orphanages located in Jamaica, Zambia, Tanzania, Thailand, and Kenya. “It is quite a cultural exchange!” she says.
In addition, Jin founded World Linguages, a language tutoring program that has impacted over 100 teenagers from 15 different nations through virtual summer programs, seminars involving endangered languages, and verbal language exchange events.
“In helping children develop their literacy and language skills, we can ensure they get the education they should receive,” Jin said in an exclusive interview with me. “The problems we face in the world are extremely complex. Just one of the world’s problems is low literacy rates. While I have accepted that I won’t be able to fix this problem in one night or fix it alone, I can’t let that discourage me.”
Jin advises other young people to look at the world, find a problem you want to fix, then change it. “Don’t allow yourself to think that someone else will solve the issue. Make up your own solution. Even if you run into multiple obstacles, don’t forget why you started. Focus on an issue and think of a feasible way to tackle it!” she urges.
12. Emily Bhatnagar
For Love & Buttercup has collected tens of thousands of books for sick children and schools in economically disadvantaged communities. Founder Emily Bhatnagar began the nonprofit when her father, who loved to read, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer when she was 16. She soon began suffering from mental health issues, including depression and an eating disorder. Books offered her solace. Even more healing came when she shifted focus away from her own struggles and towards helping others heal.
“As a child of Indian immigrants in the D.C. area, I was very shy as a little girl,” Bhatnagar said in an exclusive interview with me. “I recall feeling things so deeply. I couldn’t understand why I was so sensitive and cried more than the other kids. As I grew older, I developed an appreciation for the very thing I hated most about myself for so long. Having a soft heart is more of a blessing than a curse.”
Her work with For Love & Buttercup gives Bhatnagar hope. “It isn’t magic, but it allows me to be a part of something that feels like magic. Hope is such a beautiful, invisible force and to be the one who inspires it is a feeling I cannot encapsulate with words,” she says.
Although her father is in remission now, Bhatnagar still finds herself deeply touched by any mention of the word “cancer.” Yet this is precisely why she feels so strongly about donating books to kids who are sick. “There is nothing else in the world I would rather be doing,” she says. “To feel is to be human in its fullest and most beautiful extent, and I want to feel every nook and cranny of what it means to be perfectly, imperfectly human in this lifetime. In a strange way, I would rather feel all-consuming sadness a hundred times over than live in a colorless world where I don’t feel anything at all.”
13. Anit Annadi
Anit Annadi grew up with a family member who suffered from alcohol addiction. “The situation was really hard for me,” says the 17-year-old high school junior. “During elementary, middle, and a little bit into high school, I kept all my feelings about the situation pent up and that ended up making me very impatient and angry. I didn’t feel comfortable talking to people about my situation because I felt like no one else could understand what I was going through.”
Eventually, during his sophomore year of high school, Annadi started to open up about what was going on at home. In that process, he realized that there are other teenagers who are going through the same thing. He then understood the need to create a safe space for teenagers and young adults to share their stories and join a community of other young people when Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon might not be accessible or relatable. That safe space came to be known as My Alcohol Story.
Annadi taught himself web development in his sophomore year and coded My Alcohol Story during the summer. Right now, My Alcohol Story has over 1200 users, and more than 350 teenagers have shared their own struggles with alcohol on the application. Every day, teenagers interact with other teenagers who have had similar experiences through the comments section and conversation threads.
Recently, Annadi also began collaborating with Stanford REACH Labs to create a data collection platform to gather information from teachers and students to assess the effectiveness of REACH Lab’s drug education curriculum. This platform is now used by over 1,400 educators and 9,000 students.
Read the full article here