If we’ve learned anything over these past few months, it’s that leadership matters.
At a moment when this country needs—no, absolutely craves—leaders who have the vision to take decisive action and to inspire others to reach beyond their limits, the 25 people on this year’s Young Futurists list provide the blueprint for what real leadership looks like.
While they may be young—ages 10 to 24, representing the fields of arts and culture; enterprise and corporate innovation; green innovation; science and tech; and social justice and activism—these 25 trailblazers already possess the drive, the vision, the desire to affect change when confronted with a challenge.
At 11 years old, Kamaria Warren is one of the youngest members of this year’s class, but even at age 7, she was extremely aware that representation matters. When Kamaria saw that she could only find birthday decorations featuring white princesses, she didn’t just accept the status quo as her only option. Like any visionary leader, she solved the problem by creating Brown Girls’ Stationery so that girls who look like her can see and celebrate themselves in all their melanated glory.
Speaking of representation, the other 11-year-old on our list, Charlotte Nebres, made history as the first black ballerina to play Marie in the New York City Ballet’s annual production of The Nutcracker. But even her response to her record-breaking achievement speaks to an awareness of the world that most people, let alone someone so young, fail to grasp. “Wow,” she reportedly said. “That seems a little late.” Indeed.
LaShyra Nolen, who describes herself in her Twitter bio as “a jubilant young woman on a mission to fight injustice through healing and education,” made her own bit of history by becoming the first black woman to be named student body president at Harvard Medical School. But the Compton, Calif., native arrived on the Ivy League campus fully formed as a leader, having served as student council president at Loyola Marymount University, where she led voter registration drives and founded a diabetes prevention program for domestic violence survivors with a grant from the Clinton Global Initiative.
“In everything I did, it was always related to this commitment to equity and social justice, she told The Lily. “Even in my role at LMU, I was trying to find a way to make sure that we built a pipeline for other students who looked like me, or who felt underrepresented in student government to find their way to that kind of position.”
Spoken like a true leader.
These are just a few of the people who represent the 2020 class of The Root’s Young Futurists. They are the leaders we so desperately need right now. Congratulations!
MEET THE 2020 YOUNG FUTURISTS
Tay Anderson | Zyahna Bryant | Rachel Clark | Tyla-Simone Clayton | Tamia Coleman-Hawkins | Jerome Foster II | Wanjiku Gatheru | Coco Gauff | Isra Hirsu | Jharrel Jerome | Tyshawn Jones | Nupol Kiazolu | Charlie and Hannah Lucas | Charlotte Nebres | LaShyra Nolen | Lil Nas X | Nimo Omar | Iddris Sandu | Mikaila Ulmer | Zaya Wade | Kamaria Warren | Tatiana Washington | Sydney Wilson | Phillip Youmans
Because athletes are natural competitors—against themselves, other people or both—it’s not unusual to aspire to be the best in a sport of choice. When then-11-year-old Coco Gauff declared, “I want to be the greatest of all time and win many Grand Slams,” she had a burgeoning talent and the fortitude to make it happen.
At the 2018 French Open, she ascended as the No. 1 junior in the world after winning the junior Grand Slam singles title and backed that up with a junior Grand Slam doubles title at the 2018 U.S. Open. Now, 16 and the youngest ranking player in the Women’s Tennis Association’s top 100, she may be fulfilling her own prophecy.
Coco, whose real name is Cori, won the French Open junior girls’ championship in 2018 but she was a Wimbledon wildcard. That’s important to know because she was at home in Florida when she got the call to be in London in five days to compete. She got on a flight and eliminated three opponents before she even fully adjusted to the playing surface. A journalist asked her who was on her wish list to face in her first Grand Slam main draw match. She said Venus or Serena, of course.
“If I play either one of them, that would be a dream come true,” she added. A day later, she was drawn against the mighty Venus Williams.
It was the Cinderella story nobody but God knew was in the making and, at the same time, an epic irony because had there been no Venus and Serena Williams, with their beautiful brown presence in an otherwise white playing field, there very well may not be a Coco—a victory story that started when she chose to pursue tennis at age 7. With a multi-year New Balance sponsorship contract already, she is the future of black women in the sport, no question about it.
“The sky’s the limit,” Venus said about Coco’s potential. When your idol affirms you after you beat them, it is so.
It’s been a history-making year for Jharrel Jerome following his portrayal of Korey Wise in Ava DuVernay’s four-part Netflix drama, When They See Us. He won—actually, he earned—an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie as the only cast member to portray his character’s complete transition from teenager to adulthood. He didn’t just do it, he did it masterfully.
His phenomenal performance beat out senior heavyweights in the category including Mahershala Ali and Benicio del Toro and made him the first Afro-Latino and the first Dominican to take home the award. In his acceptance speech, he dedicated his honor to the Exonerated Five, who were just boys when they lived the actual horrors of accusation, arrest and wrongful incarceration for a crime they didn’t commit.
With his mom as his first scene partner, it was kind of in the stars for Jerome to become a star himself. “I was pushed to do what I loved, whatever it was going to be. And it’s crazy because growing up, it wasn’t always going to be acting,” he told Vibe. He discovered his passion for the art at LaGuardia High School, alma mater of great black creatives from Billy Dee Williams to Nicki Minaj, and now he’s building his own legacy.
For breathing life into stories that deserve to be told, Jerome has been praised by Oprah and complimented as a “scene-stealer.” Fans voted his monumental Moonlight kiss with co-star Ashton Sanders into MTV Movie & TV Awards history. “We put so much heart into that scene and into that film. I’ve heard from people all over the world saying, ‘thank you.’ That’s the best part about it. That’s why I do it,” he told TMZ. Clearly, the 21-year-old is showing up to play big big.
“I’ve always been very confident with everything I do. Nobody can tell me I can’t do something. I just tell them to watch,” Tyshawn Jones told Thrasher Magazine.
Tyshawn “TJ” Jones has given fans and onlookers alike plenty to look at. Heralded as the magazine’s 2018 Skater of the Year—just the second black pro to get the title in Thrasher’s 30-year history—he’s built a career out of skateboarding superiority. He committed to the sport when he was 10 after his mom told him and his brother to go outside to play and gave them each some cash. They bought skateboards at Target and the rest is legendary.
Jones fell and regularly cried while he was trying to learn new tricks, but he never gave up. He got good. Very, very good. So when he earned the title, he celebrated with tears of joy because he knew all the tears of frustration it took to get there, especially as a black kid from the BX.
Always in his signature durag, he is the king of New York, the city’s first bonafide skating superstar—a legacy built on jumping over trash cans, one, two, now four at a time and executing other dangerous feats and tricks that the skating world hadn’t seen before. He’s got sponsorship deals with Supreme and Adidas, who also released an update to his eponymous, basketball-meets-skating shoes last year. He owns Hardies Hardware, a line of nuts, bolts and apparel, and he opened a Caribbean-American restaurant in the Bronx called Taste So Good (Make You Wanna Slap Yo Mama) where his mama, Termisha Henry, is in fact the chef and manager.
“I’m trying to be the richest skater that’s ever lived,” Jones told GQ, who photographed him for a story skating down the street in a $9,800 leather Prada jacket, like the royalty he is.
Nineteen weeks is a long time to hold the No.1 spot anywhere in the entertainment industry and it’s especially phenomenal in the music business. So last year, when Lil Nas X (born Montero Lamar Hill) took up residence on the Billboard 100 with his ubiquitous “Old Town Road,” he not only had the most popular song of 2019, he enjoyed some record-breaking when it became the longest leading No. 1 single in Hot 100 history.
This, friends and family is the core concept of the American dream—an unknown young man, who is not from a famous family or musical dynasty, bought a beat online for $30, turned it into a “trap country” hit and went from crashing on his sister’s floor to one of Time 100 Next’s rising stars.
“It honestly means anything for anybody. And this is, like, a cliché thing to say but it really is, like, it can happen for you. There’s gonna be a song one day that passes this. It could be a song that’s released tomorrow. It could be a song that came out five months ago,” he told Gayle King in an interview. “But it’s just like, anything and everything is possible.”
In June 2019, Lil Nas X used his platform to drop a milestone announcement on his fans and the rest of the listening world when he publicly came out as gay on the last day of Pride Month. “Some of y’all already know, some of y’all don’t care, some of y’all not gone fwm no more. but before this month ends i want y’all to listen closely to c7osure. 🌈🤩✨,” he tweeted, referencing song lyrics that revealed his sexuality.
Supporters poured love out for him and, in spite of a few blockheaded, homophobic comments, Lil Nas X has been the expression of kindness and empathy he wants to see in the world. In addition to winning two Grammys and an American Music Award, he’s a walking recitation of historic firsts, including the first person of color and the first openly gay performer to win a Country Music Award and be listed on Forbes’ annual list of highest-paid country acts.
Category: Arts and Culture
Hometown: Madison, N.J.
Charlotte Nebres was 6 years old when Misty Copeland became the first black female principal in the then 75-year history of the American Ballet Theater. Five years after that milestone, the 11-year-old has followed in her dance hero’s footsteps to make history of her own as the first black ballerina cast as Marie in the New York City Ballet’s annual production of The Nutcracker.
Charlotte’s reaction, her mother told the New York Times, was basically underwhelmed—not because it wasn’t an honor but because there are still so many black firsts to be achieved. “Wow,” she reportedly said. “That seems a little late.”
The production dates back to 1954, so Charlotte’s selection as lead breaks a long tradition of hand-selected whiteness, not just at the School of American Ballet (S.A.B.), where students are introduced into the American Ballet Theater, but in the world of ballet in general. This isn’t a public relations move; her ballet master, Dena Abergel, told CNN. Charlotte is well-deserving because she has all of the “it” factors to play the lead.
“When I’m looking for someone who can do Marie, I’m looking for someone primarily who has an ability to act on stage and to convey a story,” said Abergel. “It has to be someone who can command the stage and who has enough confidence and spontaneity to handle whatever comes her way.”
Because the school has intentionally recruited and accepted an increasing number of diverse students, The Nutcracker and other productions are bound to become more diverse, too. (See how that works?) Charlotte, whose mom is Trinidadian and dad is Filipino, now wants to inspire other children of color through her milestone achievement.
“It’s pretty amazing to be not only representing S.A.B., but also representing all of our cultures,” Charlotte told the New York Times. “There might be a little boy or girl in the audience seeing that and saying, ‘Hey, I can do that too.’”
There are a lot of applicable nuggets of wisdom to take away from the story of Phillip Youmans’ first feature film, Burning Cane, but perhaps the one with the most universal appeal is shoot your shot because you just might score. He brought director Benh Zeitlin on board as executive producer by DMing him on Instagram. He connected with starring actor Wendell Pierce through a coffee shop customer. And he made an award-winning film on a nonexistent budget before he finished his first year of college.
Youmans was still a high school student taking courses at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) when he wrote the 80-page script, which already made him exceptional. He’s been writing shorts since he was 11 and filming since he was 13, and initially, Burning Cane was going to be a short, too. But an instructor at NOCCA encouraged him to craft it into a feature-length script, so he and his best friend and producer, Mose Mayer, dived right in.
“We both came to the conclusion that, heck yeah, we were about to do this,” he said in an interview about the moment they decided to make the film. “Because if we do it and finish it, if it works out, it could be something legendary, we felt. We had that sort of mindset.”
The dividends for his creative hustle and investment paid out big—he became the youngest director to have an entry accepted into the Tribeca Film Festival and a few days later, the then-19-year-old won even bigger when the film he wrote, shot, directed and edited himself won three prizes, including the covetable Founders Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature. Youmans, a freshman at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, became the youngest and first black filmmaker to take home the festival’s top prize.
Ava DuVernay noticed and her indie distributor ARRAY released Burning Cane in select theaters and on Netflix in 2019. Now Youmans is working on a script about the Black Panther Party in 1970s New Orleans—kind of like black power meets black power.
Black folks pledge serious allegiance to their favorite sauces and condiments. So 16-year-old Tyla-Simone Crayton has done a tremendous thing in achieving five-star reviews from taste-testers across Facebook, YouTube and Amazon for her world-famous Sienna Sauce.
Its creation story starts in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, N.Y., where she’s originally from and where she loved the sauce at a favorite local wing joint. When it closed shop, Tyla-Simone tried to recreate the flavors herself and ended up making an even better version. She was just 8 years old. In 2017, after her family relocated to the Houston, Texas area, she started bottling her sauce to sell.
“It was a wing sauce but I ended up creating something that can be used on anything and everything,” Tyla-Simone told The Root. She wants Sienna Sauce to have a place inside everyone’s fridge. “The base of the Tangy sauce comes from Brooklyn but when I came to Houston, I created Lemon Pepper and Spicy. Texans love their spicy.”
After her mom had a stroke, Tyla-Simone tweaked the recipe to eliminate high-fructose corn syrup. “It took three tries to perfect the sauce so it still had the same flavor but was healthier,” she said. Last fall, the multi-hyphenate honor student signed a deal with a co-packer to bottle her product and, in addition to filling online orders, she sells Sienna Sauce in more than 60 retail stores and 90 distributors nationwide, earning her a reported $8,000 a month.
She competed against 15 other brands to take home the title of “Best Sauce” at the 2018 and 2019 Sauce-A-Holic Fest, and won the REVOLT Pitch Competition and its $10,000 prize and the Side Hustle Showdown on Good Morning America’s “Strahan, Sara & Keke,” which came with a $25,000 prize.
“I’m confident in my product and my brand. Many people will pitch but if you don’t seem passionate or see the future of the company it’s hard to make investors see it. You have to show others your vision,” said Tyla-Simone, an active volunteer and youth business advocate. “I’ve watched my mom as an entrepreneur since I was little. She taught me that entrepreneurship is an option.”
She’s a 13-year-old boss with a boss hashtag: #TheOprahofCookies. Tamia Coleman-Hawkins operates her thriving business, Mia’s Treats Delight, from her kitchen at home in the St. Louis area, baking up decadent brownies and cupcakes for a growing clientele. Adding her custom-made cookies has been a game changer, she says. Chocolate chip and mint. Cranberry and macadamia nut. Double chocolate sea salt caramel. Cookies ‘n’ creme. So far, she’s whipped up 10 unique flavors and she’s open to creating more per her customers’ tastes, along with the classics like chocolate chip.
She inherited her baking mastery from her grandmother at the age of 4 and was encouraged by her mom, Tamishio Hawkins, to launch a business when she became an adult. But Tamia didn’t want to wait that long. After an economics class in the third grade, where she learned the fundamentals of managing money and navigating entrepreneurship, she came home and announced that she wanted to start her own business. Like, right then and there.
They went to the store to buy the ingredients for chocolate cupcakes that evening and the young CEO sold them that same night in her first official sale. She was 8 years old.
“Usually it’s just, ‘These are the careers that you can do.’ And all of them are just jobs that are controlled by other people. That’s never entrepreneurship,” Tamia told St. Louis Public Radio. “So I say, ‘You’re a kid. You can do it. Don’t wait if you don’t want to.’”
Five years in business qualifies her as a seasoned vet, so she shares what she’s learned as a motivational speaker and philanthropist. Last year, she was invited to serve on the kids’ board of directors for Kidbox, an online retailer that donates new clothes to children in need for every box customers purchase and keep. Next up on her list of goals: move into a commercial kitchen and eventually open a brick-and-mortar storefront for Mia’s Treats Delight.
“I was so lucky to know my great grandmother, who made sure she passed down her wisdom and traditions like her lemonade recipe,” said 15-year-old Mikaila Ulmer. That family connection with her great grandma Helen is the blessing that keeps on blessing—it’s the core of Me & the Bees, the thriving honey and flaxseed lemonade business the young entrepreneur started when she was just 4.
This ain’t your cute little mom-and-pop operation (though there’s certainly nothing wrong with those). Let’s talk numbers: She inked an $11 million distribution deal with Whole Foods and, while she was at SXSW, where she was honored as a black innovator, she announced that she had signed a multimillion dollar expanded distribution deal through United Natural Foods. She counts Wegmans, Fresh Market and W Hotels among her healthy list of retailers across the country. Mikaila is a certifiable business teen.
In 2016, she took her savvy and well-crafted sales pitch to Shark Tank and wowed judge Daymond John into becoming an investor. He sowed $60,000 into Me & the Bees (then called BeeSweet), joining the 10 NFL players who’ve also invested in her enterprise and ramping up the buzz around Mikaila’s now 10-year-old socially good business. “I wanted the sharks to know that my company just wasn’t the average lemonade stand. It’s a lemonade stand that’s trying to make a measurable impact on saving the bees,” she said in a post-appearance interview. In the following year, her sales skyrocketed by 231 percent.
Mikaila is passionate about honeybees—saving them, protecting them and honoring what they do for our ecosystem. As part of her philanthropy and giving back, she donates a portion of her profits to beekeeping and food sustainability organizations in her home state of Texas. Along with her parents, who are co-CEOs, she’s added other inventory like totes, lip balm and plantable pencils which, when implanted into the ground, sprout into bee-friendly herbs and flowers.
It started during a 2016 store run in search of birthday party decorations. Most decorations had princesses of the white variety and that frustrated Kamaria Warren, the 7-year-old birthday girl. So like many other great inventors and entrepreneurs inspired by necessity, she and her mom, Shaunice Sasser, created Brown Girls Stationery to give young melanated women pretty, functional products that match their fly.
As CEO of her company, Kamaria, now 11, creates new designs by watching trends on social media and paying attention to how other black girls style themselves. “I really try to make sure that we have characters that my friends could be proud of,” she told The Root. Her line of products includes backpacks and stationery (T-shirts, home goods and party supplies are in the works) featuring illustrated black girls in a spectrum of skin tones—some with vitiligo and albinism, to represent the complete range of our brown beauty.
The busy fifth grader—she’s also a dancer and active in musical theater—hopes to eventually sell Brown Girls Stationery products in retail chains and open her own store. To balance it all, she reserves two days a week for business operations to ship orders to customers all over the country, contracting a staff of 15 temps to help with large orders, like when Clayton County Public Schools in Georgia ordered 3,000 notebooks for their Summer STEM camp last year. She markets to a growing list of nearly 8,000 Facebook and Instagram followers and 4,000 email subscribers, and expanded her business in 2018 to include a Mini CEO Academy to help aspiring kidpreneurs launch their dreams, too.
“It feels great to see other brown girls carrying my notebooks,” said Kamaria, whose parents are both entrepreneurs. “I love to see how other girls rock the backpacks when they go to school. I want to be a model for other brown girls to know that they can do anything they put their minds to.”
Category: Green innovation
Hometown: Bristol County, Mass.
School: Howard University
Social Media: Instagram
“It seems simple and obvious, but I think the thing that’s most surprising to the young, inner-city students I teach is that environmental decline affects them,” Rachel Clark told The Root. “They have this misconception that because they’re often not exposed to nature, animals or the ocean like suburban or rural citizens are, climate decline doesn’t affect them.”
In 2019, the Howard University sophomore founded her Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, Waves of Change, to lead young black student volunteers in service projects that allow them to see, touch and discover the urgency of environmental sustainability. It’s a black issue, she says, because from droughts that escalate the cost of fresh produce to poor air quality in the cities where we’re densely populated, our communities are almost always the hardest hit by pollution and climate change.
The daughter of a Haitian mother and Irish father, she was 6 when her parents divorced. Spending time outdoors became a refuge from the chaos at home. “My earliest memories are filled with fighting and yelling, but my best memories are of my time in nature. I was always exploring, playing outside and reading books,” said Clark, who competed on her high school robotics team with initial plans to become an engineer. Now a supply-chain management major, she wants to impact the transportation, creation and sourcing of goods that contribute to environmental decline.
“I never falter when I see the surprised look of white volunteers when my group of 60-plus black students arrive to serve. I never cared when people told me that there wasn’t a demand for an environmental organization that solely focused on the black community,” she said of Waves of Change’s growth and impact. “It’s important to change the conversation and fight for what matters, even when others don’t initially see the importance or the purpose of your cause.”
Every Friday for more than a year, Jerome Foster II stands in front of the White House with a sign that reads “School Strike for Climate.” If that was all he did, it would still be more than most people in power have done on behalf of the environment all year. That frustrates Jerome. It also motivates him to do the work they aren’t.
“When we hear that scientists from around the world have come together to state that we have a decade to drastically reduce our fossil fuel emissions but we see no substantive action from our elected officials, it can be the worst feeling of all knowing that your future was sold,” the 17-year-old climate activist said in an interview with The Root. Jerome says he fell in love with the outdoors as a kid exploring the creeks and wooded areas beyond his Washington, D.C.-area backyard.
As a senior in high school, he’s on fire. In September, Jerome, a former intern for legendary Georgia Rep. John Lewis, led the White House Climate March in D.C. and the 10,000 people who attended. He’s also CEO of TAU VR, a company he built to take on virtual reality projects for international environmental organizations. “Throughout all of my work,” said Jerome, “I learned that the most impactful thing a person in America can do is vote.”
So in 2019, he founded OneMillionOfUs, a national youth voting organization laser-focused on registering and mobilizing that many young people to use their power at the polls in the 2020 election to elevate environmental sustainability and other critical issues like gun violence, immigration reform, and gender and racial equality. It’s an intersectional movement on purpose, he says.
“What seems to surprise young people the most is understanding that climate change is no longer happening slowly. It’s here and it’s escalating rapidly,” Jerome explained.
He’s already been accepted into Harvard, Stanford and MIT, though he hasn’t decided where he’ll go yet, but when he graduates high school in June, he’ll be committed to the future of his generation.
“Just when I think I’ve run out of tears, they just. keep. coming. I am a 2020 Rhodes Scholar. The 1st in UConn’s history and (by the looks of archives) the first black person to receive the Rhodes, Truman and Udall. This is unreal. Mom and Dad—I did it!!”
In November 2019, Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru tweeted the tremendous news about her place in black history, academic history, school history and women’s herstory.
The daughter of Kenyan parents, the graduating senior is one of 32 people nationwide—selected from 963 applicants—elected to do postgraduate study at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, the oldest and inarguably the most recognized international scholarship. She plans to pursue dual master’s degrees in nature, society, and environmental governance and evidence-based social intervention and policy evaluation. What that means is she’s going to research why people of color aren’t getting jobs in the environmental field.
Just as impressive, she earned the Truman Scholarship, the U.S.’s premier graduate fellowship for public service leadership, and the Udall Scholarship for students who’ve demonstrated leadership in and commitment to environmental or tribal issues. Not surprisingly, these scholarships all super competitive, super prestigious and super elite, so Gatheru’s tripartite achievement is a jaw-dropping testament to her intelligence and ability to do literally whatever she mind-visions to do.
“I would have been passionate about these issues regardless, but my ability to act on them were completely tied to the resources I was provided. Imagine what the world could look like if every student—every person—had the opportunity to explore life beyond survival. I want to help make this happen,” she said.
An environmental studies major with minors in global studies and urban and community studies, Gatheru plans to run for Congress and aspires to add to her list of historic accomplishments by becoming the first black congresswoman from Connecticut’s 2nd Congressional District.
Isra Hirsi walks in her mother’s light, not in her shadow. The daughter of U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) doesn’t always introduce herself as such. It’s not in her Twitter or IG bios. She doesn’t need to make the association. She’s making a name for herself.
As co-founder and executive director of U.S. Youth Climate Strike, the American arm of a global collective of organizers and activists working to implement an earth-friendly agenda for environmental protections and improved governmental policies (like the New Green Deal), she was one of the masterminds of the global school walkout in March 2019. You might have seen it on the news—some 1.4 million students in 120 countries skipped school to attract attention and demand action on climate change. It was hard to miss, as is Isra—the self-described “angry black girl”—as its indomitable voice and leader with a particular focus on engaging and activating people of color.
“The climate crisis is the fight of my generation, and it needs to be addressed urgently,” she said. Her perspective is pure city kid—she doesn’t hike, she doesn’t camp, but she does understand how the deteriorating climate impacts black and brown urban communities the most. And she wants young people who look like her to see themselves in the fight to save themselves.
“This movement is not one person, or one group. This movement is all of us and we need to make sure we value those who are disproportionately affected by this crisis. And allow those who are affected to lead,” she wrote in an op-ed on The Grist.
In September 2019, Isra, who was honored with the Brower Youth Award, helped organize and stage an even bigger event than the one in March 2019, this one galvanizing four million people around the world into some form of action from walkouts to sit-ins to strikes. It was possibly the largest climate protest yet. As leader of a network of more than 100 organizers and 15 partners, she’s got even more, even bigger action in the works for the sake of all of us.
When Hannah Lucas was 15, she started experiencing fainting spells that came on seemingly without warning or reason. For a young woman who’d been otherwise healthy, it was terrifying to lose control of her body. As she passed out more frequently, she was scared to go anywhere, afraid she’d faint when no one was around and hurt herself or unknowingly be victimized.
The uncertainty made her depressed and anxious, and she started using self-injury to process her overwhelm. By the end of her freshman year of high school, she’d missed 196 classes. One day, she told her mom she wished there was an app she could use to put her family and friends on immediate notice if she was in physical or emotional trouble.
The app, notOK, exists because her then 13-year-old brother Charlie overheard that conversation. As divine intervention planned it, he’d taken a coding class in summer camp and, determined to help his sister, he wireframed the app’s basic function and design. Hannah—who was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a condition that affects a person’s blood circulation when they go from lying down to standing up—took a summer entrepreneurship class at Georgia Tech and, after she pitched it, her professors connected her to developers who helped bring notOK to full fruition, particularly to help people in mental health crisis or emotional distress.
Together, the siblings founded Bug and Bee, LLC, their first company, where Charlie, now 15 and a high school freshman, designed their initial logo and website and manages all things tech. “We’re currently working on a few big updates, starting with a 2.0 launch in April that will include local warmline integration so the user will be connected with help if their trusted contacts don’t respond within two to three minutes of the notOK button initially being pressed. We also plan to expand globally by the end of this summer,” he said.
“The most challenging part of working out the business end was figuring out a way to maneuver through the mental health field as teenagers,” Hannah, now 18 and a senior, told The Root. “We pitched to anyone who would listen to us in the beginning. Each time made my story feel less like a nightmare and brought me one step closer to self-confidence and acceptance. Living with a POTS diagnosis proved that I have the power to define and shape my future, life-altering illness or not.”
Iddris Sandu is self-taught. On summer breaks, you could find him at the Torrance Public Library near Compton, hovering over books about coding and design. In 2011, when he was checking out, a fellow patron—who just so happened to be a Google designer—noticed Sandu’s reading material and offered him an internship. At 13, he was coding for Google. Just a little example of divine alignment and being in the exact right place at the exact right time.
Years later, the tech talent met Nipsey Hussle at a Starbucks (there’s that time and place thing again). Nip could tell, just by eye-hustling his laptop screen from a distance, that Sandu was working on something revolutionary. “He tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me sir, I don’t want to take time from whatever you’re doing but it looks really interesting,” Sandu recalled in an interview on The Angie Martinez Show.
The chance meeting resulted in a working relationship that saw him curating and designing a “smart store” in South Los Angeles’ Crenshaw district for Nipsey’s Marathon brand. Sandu, who’s Ghanaian-American, developed an iOS app that gave customers access to augmented reality experiences and exclusive music and video content when they scanned clothing items or interacted with objects in the store. The project was a success—Jay-Z and Diddy stopped by—and earned Sandu kudos from Beyoncé and Kanye West. It was a bridge between culture and technology, which he hopes to help young black folks will do more.
As he travels his own path, learning artificial intelligence at Prada and building an interactive Black History Month mural for Facebook in augmented reality, Sandu’s greatest mission is to teach African kids to grab hold of innovation. “We’re all on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, all these tech giants, and we’re letting them control the narrative of how our stories can be told,” he told CNN. “If we want to really tell our stories the way they need to be told, we should focus on pushing forward platforms that we create so we can tell our best narratives.”
Spoken like a leader.
Category: Science and Tech
Hometown: Stonecrest, Ga.
School: The Wilson Academy
There’s smart and then there’s Sydney Wilson. She started learning algebra in the first grade. When she was just 10, she was taking high school classes. By the time she was 12, she was studying world history and AP biology. Now this fall, she’ll be the youngest person to attend Spelman College, the top-ranked HBCU in the country. She’s 14.
Actually, she was accepted last year—in addition to several other colleges and universities—when she was just 13, but she wasn’t ready yet. Even now, she admitted to Tyisha Hernandes, an Atlanta reporter who connected with Sydney while covering her story, that she was worried about the social aspect and fitting in. But black women did what black women do and welcomed Sydney into the Spelman community to help her flourish on campus and she finished the first semester of her freshman year on the dean’s list with all A’s and one B. Go girl.
Right now, her major is biology, but Sydney said she just wants to absorb and learn as much as she can about all that she can. “I think I’m just waiting for the right moment where I find something that’s super interesting to me. I’m still very interested in pediatric surgery so that’s what I want to do as of now, but I’m completely open to changing my mind,” Sydney told Hernandes in a followup interview.
Her extended village of supporters and cheerleaders are pouring their well wishes all over her. She met with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who delivered the commencement address at Spelman’s graduation last year, and Dekalb County, Ga., has designated May 28 “Sydney Wilson Day.” Now let’s all sit back and watch the other amazing, impressive feats she’s going to achieve.
Category: Science and Tech
Hometown: Los Angeles
School: Harvard Medical School
Social Media: Twitter
When LaShyra “Lash” Nolen was in the third grade, she won the science fair at her school. In the afterglow of her victory, the budding scientist told her grandmother that she wanted to become a brain surgeon-slash-astronaut. And in authentic, Nana-like fashion, her grandmother was instantly part of the mission.
“My grandma would tell me that whatever I wanted to do, we were gonna make it happen,” Nolen told Teen Vogue. “After telling her I wanted to become a surgeon, she would tell me to protect my hands.”
With that kind of support behind her and the possibility-making guidance of the single mother who raised her in Compton, Calif., Nolen—who recently turned 25 as Young Futurists was set to publish—enrolled at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where she served as student body president and led voter registration drives, funneled more students of color into leadership roles and founded a diabetes prevention program for domestic violence survivors with a grant from the Clinton Global Initiative. Nolen, who’s open about failures like retaking the SATs three times and the resilience to overcome them, graduated with honors in 2017 and traveled to La Coruña, Spain as a Fulbright Scholar to research obesity and diabetes.
As a pre-med undergrad, she hadn’t even thought much about Harvard Medical School. All told, she applied to 16 institutions and interviewed at 12, but there’s no dodging fate. Her work has always intersected medical science with the needs of the community, and as a first-year student at HMS, she’s making history as the first black woman to serve as student body president. Her visibility and access to resources is just going to level-up her community advocacy, commitment to social justice and black brilliance.
“Over the past couple of years, I have been doing a lot of unlearning and investigative research on systemic racism and the hidden contributions of my people to our society. This has given me a great deal of strength,” she told Teen Vogue. “When I walk into a room, no matter where I am, I know the strength of my people and how much they are the reason why these spaces even exist.”
Tay Anderson wasn’t trying to make any kind of history when he decided to run for a seat on the Denver school board—he was trying to make a difference. As administrators on a student-less board were discussing the possible relocation of his high school because of lagging enrollment and low test scores, Tay stood up in opposition.
No one was considering the needs and concerns of the young people who would have to make the transition, so he asked, “How do we get a student on the school board to represent our voices?”
School board member Allegra “Happy” Haynes told him, “You need to be 18 years old and run like the rest of us.” So four years later, he did, as a graduate of the school system who earned 50 percent of the vote in a race against older, more experienced candidates. The irony—the race was for Haynes’ seat after she’d been named deputy mayor. Anderson won the seat, making him one of the youngest elected officials in the history of Colorado.
He’s got his work cut out for him. More than 200 schools in Denver are still under threat of closing or relocating, and Anderson is deeply committed to supporting students who will be affected, if that in fact happens. There are other issues, too. Charter schools in the city enroll more students of color, but their teachers are overwhelmingly white and inexperienced, most having less than five years on the job. Then there’s the matter of properly managing the district’s $1.5 billion budget and lessening—and hoping, eventually closing—the disturbing test-score gap between Black and white students.
“I’m the only board member that understands what it means to be both a student and an educator,” the victorious Anderson, a high school restorative justice coordinator, told The Root.
Officials in Charlottesville, Va., didn’t just wake up one morning in 2016 with humanity on their minds and decide to voluntarily take down statues of Confederate leaders. They were challenged to do the right thing by then-15-year-old Zyahna Bryant, creator of a viral petition demanding the removal of a Robert E. Lee monument that loomed in a local park like a permanent insult.
“I believe that we should celebrate the things that have been done in this great city to uplift and bring people together, rather than trying to divide them. It is time for this statue to go,” she wrote.
More than 700 people signed it in agreement and for the next two years, Charlottesville was embroiled in a war between the deconstruction of good ol’ boy racism and obvious justice. In the uprising, Bryant—who’d founded the Charlottesville High School Black Student Union when she was 14—solidified herself as an activist, community organizer and leader.
In 2019, she was named one of 21 citizens appointed to advise Gov. Ralph Northam on voter registration, civil rights, healthcare and employment as part of the newly formed Virginia African American Advisory Board. At 19, she’s its youngest member. Bryant, who published her first book last year and was the winner of the 2018 Princeton Prize in Race Relations (pdf), also serves on the President’s Council for UVA-Community Partnership to unify the University of Virginia and Charlottesville communities. She’s the youngest person in that collective too, but her youth is part of her power.
“As a young, black woman, people are waiting for me to show up unprepared and unknowledgeable. For me, remaining grounded and reminding myself of why I do this work is key,” Bryant told The Root. “I don’t have all of the answers, but I’m privileged to have a village around me that has many of those answers that I find myself searching for.”
The 2016 election was a national day of mourning, but Nupol Kiazolu is quick to point out that it was also a pivotal American turning point: “Young people have mobilized to fight back against oppressive systems. It’s truly inspiring. Gen Z has a fighting spirit that can’t be suppressed,” she told The Root. As president of Black Lives Matter Greater N.Y., she should know.
It’s an election year and Kiazolu is rallying young folks to flex their voice in local politics to catalyze change in their communities. She uses Vote 2000, an organization she started in 2018, to engage Gen Z because she saw that people her age either didn’t understand or weren’t interested in the power of the ballot. “Voting is just one step. We need to keep the pressure on elected officials and remind them who put them in there and who can remove them if they don’t abide by what they swore to do,” said the proud Hamptonian and first-gen college student.
The oldest of six siblings raised by her single mother from Brownsville, Brooklyn, the poorest neighborhood in the borough, Kiazolu has survived the fatal shooting of her father when she was 8, sexual abuse by a cousin and homelessness with her family in a domestic violence shelter. Those experiences—and all of their pain and urgency—have informed and driven her activism.
Last year, the self-described “girly-girl” won the Miss Liberia USA Pageant on July 26, Liberian Independence Day. “I felt like an underdog because I had no prior pageant experience and I couldn’t afford a coach, but I stayed true to myself and left it all on the stage,” she said. “For me, it’s more than a title. I’m working to bridge the gap between Africans and African-Americans, and I’m shining a light on the excellence that comes out of Liberia.”
Category: Social justice and Activism
Hometown: Rochester, Minn.
School: Minnesota State College
Social Media: Twitter
Three days in an Ethiopian prison changed Nimo Omar’s life when she was just 15. On her way back to the United States, she was detained by immigration for an alleged $3,000 in unpaid fees. Officers separated her from her brother and held her for three days in a jail cell, where she slept on a cement floor with six other women also in limbo at the border of Ethiopia and Sudan.
Their shared stories about their experiences—spending nights in the desert without food, being abused by immigration officers—made Omar recognize her privilege as an American. But back home in the States, as a black girl with immigrant parents and the only student who wore the hijab in her high school, she was acutely aware of her absence of privilege.
“I traveled overseas and saw what was really happening in terms of poverty, corruption, and all that stuff—I was like, ‘Oh, geez, this world is not what we assumed.’ So I think at a young age I was able to articulate that there’s more than just being sheltered and living life,” she told Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. “When I got back to the United States, I was able to see that the issues happening back in East Africa were similar to what was happening here.”
Omar’s activism calls her where she’s most needed. In 2017, she co-founded the Awood Center to help East Africans in Minneapolis-St. Paul—where the largest population of Somali immigrants in the country are concentrated—to mobilize, improve their lives and flex their political influence.
That same year, she began helping low-wage Amazon workers demand and protest for better benefits and working conditions, reasonable workloads and the right to pray during Ramadan. She had always been a crusader, but a cover story of her work in the November 2019 issue of Wired magazine made her a superhero, not just to black girls or Muslim girls or immigrant girls but to anyone who loves and craves justice.
Category: Arts and Culture
“I feel like there was always something that I was meant to do, but I was never able to find it. I eventually just stopped looking for it and I think I found it,” said Zaya Wade in her first interview since revealing in February that she identifies as transgender. In being truthful with her family, the world and herself, she’s become a leader, an activist and, especially to other LGBTQ young people, a superhero.
It takes courage to be who you really are and last year, before changing her pronouns and announcing her new name from the previous “Zion,” she allowed the public—the kind and encouraging public along with the archaic and hypercritical public—to be part of her ongoing experience to discover and know herself. At the Miami Pride Festival. In a crop top and acrylic nails. In a photo with baby sister Kaavia and stepmother Gabrielle Union that dad and NBA legend Dwyane Wade captioned “my girls.”
So when she introduced herself to the world as Zaya Wade—cheered on by her No. 1, ultra-supportive allies: her parents and siblings—she freed herself and other LGBTQ people. For folks afraid of others’ judgments, she has sage advice: “Don’t even think about that. Just be true to yourself because what’s the point of being on this Earth if you’re going to try to be someone you’re not? It’s like you’re not even living as yourself, which is like the dumbest concept to me,” she said. Point, blank, period.
“It’s worth it,” she said, adding. “You can look in the mirror and say ‘hi’ to yourself and say ‘nice to meet you’ instead of, ‘I don’t really don’t know who I am.’”
“After a mass shooting, politicians often tweet ‘thoughts and prayers.’ I believe in the power of prayer, but it’s not a wishing well. Action also needs to happen,” said Tatiana Washington, executive director and advocacy associate of 50 Miles More, a youth-run supergroup that organizes 50-mile marches around the country. She uses her voice to make complicity uncomfortable for elected officials who hide behind legislation and Twitter quotables instead of actually doing something quantifiable about America’s inveterate gun violence.
In 2017, her aunt, Sherida Davis, was fatally shot by her husband, a Milwaukee police officer, before he died by suicide. Tatiana was heartbroken—she still is—but in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., massacre the next year, she honored Sherida’s legacy by joining 40 other students in a four-day, 50-mile “March for Our Lives.” Together they called for Congress to enact measurable changes to gun laws. Across the country, an estimated 1.3 to 2.1 million protestors gathered in 763 locations for the same outcry.
“Gun violence that happens in cities like Milwaukee is overlooked because it’s become so normalized. It shouldn’t be normal for a child to be awakened in the middle of the night by gunshots,” Washington said in an interview with The Root.
A freshman at Trinity Washington University, where she’s majoring in history, Washington—who’s also an executive council member of Team ENOUGH, a collective of student leaders mobilizing young people to elect a Congress that will pass violence-reducing laws—credits being raised by strong black women by being one herself.
“We also need to discuss the fact that gun violence wasn’t a huge discussion on a national scale until white people started to speak out against it,” she said. “Yet most white people in the movement don’t want to discuss poverty and economic inequities. Policy around economic justice will save lives just like universal background checks.”