Meet 6 Gen Z Activists That Are Setting An Extraordinary Example

At first glance, Gen Z may appear to be like every generation of youth before them: unflinchingly determined, stubborn, idealistic, and clinging to a touch of naiveté. But look closer, and you’ll see that they’re writing books, starting businesses, and presenting TED Talks as early as the age of 12; it's clear that calling them ambitious is an understatement. “You cannot ignore us, and you can’t stop us,” says Nadya Okamotoa, founder of PERIOD, the nonprofit that provides period packs and supplies to those in need. Nadya is just one of the Gen Z activists who can’t stop — and won’t stop — educating, advocating, and demanding action for the causes that keep her up at night. “We embody impatience, passion, curiosity, and a little bit of anger,” says Nadya. “If we’re able to hone in on that and bring in intergenerational support, we could be doing so much more.” Thankfully, there are companies out there that are fighting the same fight. Which is why we partnered with Alba Botanica, one of said brands that's dedicated to making a difference.
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Together, we spoke to six amazing young women who are changing the game within five key pillars: environment, women's empowerment, education, sustainability, and animal cruelty. It's time we all recognize that small changes — like Alba Botanica's Do Good, Do Beautiful initiative, which supports all of the aforementioned key pillars in various ways, from its reef-friendly sunscreens to being Leaping Bunny certified — by big brands can make a major impact on our, and our children's, future. Ahead, meet some of the incredibly inspiring young women spearheading the next revolution.
Kavya Kopparapu, Founder & CEO, Girls Computing League
Growing up, Kavya Kopparapu was fascinated by biology and medicine and assumed she’d be the first in her family to go into the field. “But as I got older, all the problems required the ability to analyze data, and I couldn’t solve certain problems without the right technology,” she says. In middle school, she attended a workshop at the National Center for Women & Information Technology where she learned about research in computer science and realized she could blend the two fields.
“I went home and told mom and dad what I’d learned. Then, I spent the summer learning java script and skipped into AP Computer Science my freshman year of high school,” Kavya says. She attended a science magnet school that specialized in technology. “There were only five girls in a class of 30, which was crazy to me, because we had so much support,” she said. “I thought, If this is a situation in an advanced school, what would this be like in an area where people didn’t have the resources?
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Enter: Girls Computing League. Kavya was an avid lacrosse player, but a torn ACL had pulled her out of the game. “I used the three, four hours a day I’d previously spent playing lacrosse to start Girls Computing League. I called it a League because I wanted it to feel like the kind of community you can build in sports. She started with an award of $3,000 spread out over the year, and last year they raised $75,000 in funding through donations on the website and from company sponsors. Now, GCL offers workshops, hosts an annual Artificial Intelligence Summit, and continues to foster the interests of young women in technology and computer and data sciences.
What did your parents say when you told them you wanted to start a nonprofit?
"They were super supportive. But they didn’t have the financial means to help, so I started cold emailing women in tech who I really admired. I couldn’t believe it, but they all responded. My mom jokes that I have 10 moms who each support me in different ways."
What kind of pushback or adversity did you face in the beginning? And today?
"The biggest issue was proving that I had the passion, skills, and community to make an organization like this work. Now we’ve proven we can handle large-scale events and deliver on workshops. As for personal adversity, I lived the woman-in-tech adversity story. But it’s been a big growth moment and made me more confident in my skills."
How do you spend your free time?
"I’ve gotten into outdoors activities like running and hiking. My friends and I go on food tours, where we go to different restaurants and taste top-rated dishes. And for me, working on GCL is fun, too. My job is to work with cool people on cool projects! So I do that in my free time."
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Nadya Okamoto, Founder & Executive Director, PERIOD
Watch out, tampon tax — Nadya Okamoto is coming for you. “I used to think that period poverty was a matter of resources, of people thinking it’s not a priority. Then I read about the tampon tax, which, in 2014, existed in 40 states in the U.S. That was the wake-up call where I thought, Maybe this is just an issue of people thinking that menstrual hygiene is a privilege?
From there, she found the motivation to create change in unexpected places. When she was 16, Nadya’s family lost their home and lived with friends for about a year. “During that time, my commute was two hours long on public transportation. There were lots of homeless shelters by the bus stop where I transferred, so I became acquainted with some of the women I’d see everyday. They had much worse living situations than me, and when I heard the stories of how they were using cardboard and other materials as pads, and then saw it in person, that had a big impact on me.”
Though her mom is very social-justice oriented (it was part of her family's dinner table practice to discuss what was happening in the world), Nadya says she never identified as an activist. “I’m just really passionate about what I’m fighting for,” she says. So after staying up until 4 a.m. on some nights, researching grants for young people with a purpose, and applying to several, she got a $2,500 startup grant and got to work: PERIOD was born.
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Is there a specific area of the work about which you feel most passionate?
"The tampon tax. We’ve distributed enough period products to address over 450,000 periods, and we’ve started over 260 campus chapters at universities and high schools in the U.S. and abroad. We work with hundreds of organizations around the world to get period products to homeless women and people in need. And yet, I know that if PERIOD disappeared today, we wouldn’t make any tangible, long-term difference if we don’t make policy changes."
What do you think is so unique about your generation that empowers you into action?
"There’s so much about Gen Z that makes us unstoppable and unapologetic. What makes us unique is the frustration with problems that still exist. We’ve got the attitude that if other people aren’t going to take care of it, then we’ll just do it ourselves. Rather than just taking a seat at the table, we want to redefine what that table is."
What kind of progress in women’s rights do you hope to see in 10 years?
"Aside from a ban on the tampon tax, of course, I want to see a female president; I want food stamp or assistance programs to cover menstrual care; and I want to see the end of practices that cut women and girls off from discovering their full potential on their period."
Genesis Butler, Animal Rights Activist, Genesis For Animals
When Genesis Butler was 3 years old, she wanted to know where her chicken nuggets came from. At first, her mom answered as many would: the grocery store. After persistent prodding, her mom revealed the original source, and Genesis went vegetarian. Over the years, she would continue to inquire about where her food came from, especially her milk. “When I found out that milk came from mama cows, I didn’t want to drink it anymore because I didn’t want mama cows to give up their milk for me when it’s supposed to go to their babies,” Genesis said. After that, Genesis, as well as her entire family, went vegan.
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That was just the beginning of Genesis’s vision. “I’ve always wanted my own sanctuary,” Genesis says. “My mom said, ‘Well, you can’t have one,’ so instead I thought I could give money to other sanctuaries.” Genesis explains that when the factory farms shut down, the animals need somewhere to go. “The sanctuaries don’t always have a lot of money, and the animals need food, or they might need medicine, so I wanted to do something about that. I want to make a change in the world.”
Genesis started with an award of $10,000 from Ching Hai, which she donated to Genesis For Animals and other animal sanctuaries. Today, her nonprofit distributes money to sanctuaries all over the world, and at 12 years old, Genesis has no plans to stop any time soon.
What kind of support have you received?
"When I first went vegan, it wasn’t as mainstream as it is now. Carrots and hummus were my life! In the beginning, it was hard for kids to understand that I didn’t eat ice cream. But now, a lot of my friends are really supportive; they’ll go with me to protests or come to vegan restaurants with me. I’ve also gotten a lot of support from people in the vegan and animal rights community."
What do you think is so unique about your generation that empowers you into action?
"I think kids want to do more because this is going to be our planet. If we don’t do anything, we won’t have a thriving, beautiful planet. Social media helps, too. I get so much support there, and we are able to raise awareness in an organic way."
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What sort of changes in the care and regulations for animals would you like to see in the next 10 years?
"I want the factory farm industry to shut down. I want people to stop being cruel to animals; they’re here with us, not for us. I want more kids and adults to be activists. There are a lot of vegans out there but not as many activists. Maybe people are scared or shy? I’m not super outgoing; I’m an introvert, but when I think about the animals and the impact we can have, that’s what motivates me. I ask myself, What’s more important: my video game or watching TV, or getting out and doing some activism?
Maya Penn, Founder & CEO, Maya’s Ideas & Maya’s Ideas 4 The Planet
“Everything you do has some sort of impact on the planet,” says Maya Penn, who was 8 (!) years old when she first started making silk headbands out of materials she found around the house. People took note and began asking where they could purchase her creations, and Maya’s Ideas was born.
From the beginning, Maya knew she wanted to focus on the sustainability. Living an eco-responsible lifestyle was already second nature. Early on, Maya’s parents were enforcing sustainability and activism in her day-to-day upbringing — from growing their own garden to taking canned goods to the shelters in her hometown of Atlanta. “I’ve always wanted to be an activist for people — and the planet,” she says.
This year will be her 11th year in business, and now Maya’s Ideas is a global brand. She’s also an animator and, in 2016, was commissioned to develop a short film for the opening of the digital report for Congress in support of building an American Museum of Women’s History in D.C. She’s given three Ted Talks. She’s written a book called You Got This!: Unleash Your Awesomeness, Find Your Path, and Change Your World. She helps fashion brands develop eco-conscious practices. Is there anything Maya Penn can’t do?
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Logistically and financially, how did you get started?
"I didn’t start out with seed money, loans, or grants. What I did have was the creativity to make stuff work. Being able to sell online helped me start my business. With the money I made from my sales, I’d purchase other materials. Then, when I was around 10 years old, Forbes wrote an article about youth entrepreneurship, and they wanted to feature me; Maya’s Ideas snowballed from there."
What are some ways fashion brands can incorporate sustainability into their daily process?
"They can use vintage, recycled, or organic materials, cotton, bamboo, or hemp. Even dying with nontoxic or vegetable dyes. In my own designs, I’m always thinking, How can I make this as sustainable as possible while still keeping the right aesthetic? I love the challenge. When people think of eco-friendly clothing, they might think they have to wear a potato sack if they want to care for the planet, but that’s so far from the truth. You can be fashionable and eco-conscious at the same time."
What do you think is so unique about your generation that empowers you into action?
"We’re all able to have platforms; being conscious about what’s happening in our world is just normal for us. We’re growing up and living through severe climate change and seeing its effects. It’s so empowering to know that I’m part of this great shift to create a better future for the generations after me. We hear a lot about the bad that’s happening in the world, but there is a lot of good in the world, too, and a lot of young people with skills and talent working on solutions to the world’s problems."
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Jamie Margolin, Founder, The Zero Hour Movement & Cofounder, Youth Climate March
Elsa Mengistu, Director of Partnerships, The Zero Hour Movement
The Zero Hour was born from what can only be called a perfect storm. After the 2016 election, Jamie Margolin had dreams of doing something big for the environment. Then Hurricane Maria devastated a community close to her heart, and simultaneously, her hometown of Seattle was being enveloped by smog from wildfires in Canada.
So, she decided to start a youth-led movement that works with new young activists and organizers — as well as adult allies — to take action regarding climate change. They organized The Youth Climate March in 2018, which spun off into sister marches. Their ambassadors are spread across America and Canada — and that's where Elsa Mengistu comes in. “I’ve always been an activist,” she says, explaining that when she is passionate about something, she’ll talk to anyone who will listen. Elsa does “anything and everything,” in her role, including coordinating logistics for work trips, securing speakers, conducting outreach to other organizations, maintaining relationships, building coalitions, and connecting youth activists.
Though Jamie says they are always scraping by — sponsors and donors want them to prove themselves before they’re funded, which is difficult to do without funding — and that the work can feel like an uphill battle at times, she adds, “We may be scrappy, but we’re not powerless. Seeing the impact we can have with so few resources is empowering. We still find a way.” Here’s how they do it.
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Jamie, has the Zero Hour vision evolved over time?
JM: "It has and it hasn’t. The culture continues to shift, but the politicians are still not taking action. So in addition to lobbying politicians, we also see it as our job to shift the general culture, where everyone feels as urgently about this crisis as we do and understands that it’s life threatening and intersects with every social-justice issue out there."
What kind of pushback or adversity did you face in the beginning? Are you still facing?
JM: "The financial aspect is always an issue, but beyond that, we’ve struggled with people not taking us seriously or incorrectly interpreting our message. Another issue is that some generations want to pin all the activism on young people. But we’re busy, sleep-deprived teenagers. We want people to see that, in order to make a change, everyone — not just young people — needs to take action."
Elsa, what makes you feel most empowered?
EM: "Being an activist, there are rarely any tangible successes. Every few years you can point to specific legislation or active change, and that feels good, but for me it’s really connecting with people, which is the foundation of everything we do. It’s empowering for me to do what I do in a way that uplifts all people — those who do and don’t look like me."
Where would you like to see the world in 10 years?
EM: "I’d like to see a full transition to renewable energy, to see the communities who have been harmed by climate change replenished, to see indigenous rights restored, and to see all people given access to clean water."
To learn more about Alba Botanica's Do Good, Do Beautiful initiative click here.
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