Modern Life

Meet 16 Gen Z leaders who are making an impact

Together they are tackling the biggest challenges of our time, and finding new ways of creating real change.

By Garage Staff — June 22, 2021

Jay’Aina “Jay Jay” Patton, age 16, is one of many teens and young adults in Generation Z who have decided they are not going to wait for older generations. They are going to be, as the familiar saying goes, “the change you want to see in the world.” 

Jay Jay has already inspired legions of Black techies and other young people to learn to code through the Unlock Academy, a digital coding school founded by her father, further spreading the potential for a different future. 

“We make people feel like coding can be something for them,” Patton explains about the academy’s approach. “The most rewarding thing about it is the many things you can build and explore with it. You can change the world with this skill.” Jay Jay is the star of Generation Impact: The Coder, the first film in a new documentary series from the Garage by HP that shines a spotlight on creative members of Generation Z who are helping their communities — and the world — through their ingenuity and technology skills. 

“I want to help people through different obstacles,” Patton says. “I want to make a difference and inspire people to make changes.”

She is a shining example of the newest cohort coming into the workforce, one that is entering adulthood and shaking up traditional definitions of communication, consumerism, activism, and what it means to build a career of meaningful work. Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012, is using their innate technological savvy to reckon with injustices and reshape the institutions of generations before them—with a style that’s wholly their own.

The oldest Gen Zers are graduating from college or starting their working life, while the youngest are approaching an age when they will have some impact on household spending choices, and very soon will be making their own purchases. The pandemic is proving to be a defining moment in their lives, as new data show the effects of economic uncertainty playing out in a generation that’s more likely to be frugal, practical, and risk averse

In trying to identify what makes Gen Z different from earlier generations, sociologists and researchers point to a number of factors. Technology, of course, plays a pivotal role. While the introduction of the laptop and the mobile phone had an enormous impact on earlier generations, Gen Z is more likely to reimagine today’s digital devices and what they can do, rather than be shaped by them. 

WATCH | Generation Impact: The Coder - Episode 1

Like their counterparts worldwide, members of Gen Z in the United States often reject labels and are a more pluralistic cohort than any before them. They’re more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations, and roughly half of them view binary gender labels as outdated. In a survey by Ernst & Young, only one in five members of Gen Z say they are interested in politics, yet at the same time, some 60% are very worried about climate change. They see themselves as increasingly being called to action, both environmentally and socially. Daryl Butler, HP’s global head of marketing for Gaming Systems & Services, has a unique perspective on Gen Z, having both worked alongside them and also stood by them in social justice organizing. “I think young people have basically said, ‘Enough of that,’ ” Butler explains. “ ‘We’re not going to rely on the system to fix the problems. We’re going to fix them ourselves. We’re going to mobilize, and we’re going to be more active at the voting booth.’ ”

Their activism and engagement extend beyond the political sphere, with majorities of Gen Z consumers indicating they want to support companies that are inclusive and that help consumers engage with social issues.

“They’re also holding brands more accountable,” Butler continues, “and using their wallets as tools to effect change. I think that’s one of the things that’s really materially different.”

We recognize 15 inspiring Gen Zers in addition to Patton who are working to make the world a better place. Their methods are wide-ranging—some tap into grassroots organizing, while others raise awareness with elegant tech-based solutions. Together, they represent a cross section of the biggest challenges they’ve inherited: climate change, plastics pollution, lack of health care for Indigenous people, violence against women, and social injustice. During a period in history where it is easy to be pessimistic about the planet’s future, they are much-needed sources of hope.

Gen Z activists making a difference in the world.

Courtesy of HP

Left to right: Ellyanne Wanjiku Chlystun, Zanagee Artis, Stella Keating, Michelle Muchilwa, and Jeremy Muchilwa.

Climate policy

Zanagee Artis, 21

Director Of Advocacy, Zero Hour

Providence, Rhode Island

MISSION: Zanagee Artis is one of a group of student activists helping to reshape climate policy. “Youth organizers like me have ignited a global movement for climate justice because we know that the next decade is about ensuring a livable future on Earth. We are educating, rallying, storytelling, and lobbying for survival because we are out of time to address the climate crisis.”

IMPACT: Artis has worked at the intersection of environmental justice and climate policy through Zero Hour, which he cofounded in 2017. He organized the Zero Hour Youth Climate March in Washington, DC, in 2018, and helped coordinate the marches globally. He is coauthor of A Kids Book about Climate Change.

Instagram: @nageeartis, @thisiszerohour


RELATED: Innovation Magazine: Generation Rising


Plastic pollution

Jeremy Muchilwa, 13, and Michelle Muchilwa, 16

Brother-sister Founders, Bring Back Lake Victoria, part of Ocean Heroes Network

Kisumu, Kenya

MISSION: Increasingly, pollution and microplastics are choking Lake Victoria, one of Africa’s great bodies of water, and shutting down this economic engine for Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Michelle Muchilwa and her brother, Jeremy, are committed to reversing the damage. “In 50 years, I’ll be 66 and Jeremy will be 63,” Michelle says. “I don’t want my grandchildren to grow up staring at a dead lake. We are going to be the catalysts for the radical change that needs to happen for Lake Victoria to survive.”

GOAL: The siblings are creating an app to collect data on plastic pollution threatening the lake. Their project started with a citizen science initiative focused on Lake Victoria’s long struggle with declining fish stocks, attributable to overfishing, the introduction of invasive plant species, and the ongoing effects of climate change.

Instagram: @bring_back_lake_victoria

“Women experience climate change with disproportionate severity because our basic rights continue to be denied in varying forms around the world.”

— Wanjiku "Wawa" Gatheru, 22

LGBTQ+ rights

Stella Keating, 16

Transgender Advocate, The Gendercool Project

Tacoma, Washington

MISSION: As an advocate for trans and non-binary equality in her community and on Capitol Hill, Stella Keating is a GenderCool Champion. “I believe that I am helping to create a more accepting future for my generation and the next generation to come. Gen Z is the most diverse generation that has ever been, which is exciting because we all know that diversity makes us stronger and better.”

IMPACT: Keating is the first transgender teen to testify in front of the US Senate. In spring 2020, she launched a six-episode podcast series called Gimme the Mic, focused on elevating youth voices and perspectives.

Twitter: @gendercool

Instagram: @GenderCool



Ellyanne Wanjiku Chlystun, 10

Founder, Children With Nature

Nairobi, Kenya

MISSION: Learning about environmental activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maatha in her kindergarten class motivated Ellyanne Wanjiku Chlystun of Kenya to protect the planet. “We are literally facing a catastrophe as human beings are slowly destroying nature. The rivers and seas are filled with plastic, deserts are increasing, and animals are just disappearing. I hope people will be inspired to get into conservation.”

IMPACT: Children With Nature partners with 80 public schools that have students who lack access to proper nutrition, setting up tree nurseries that produce fruit for food-insecure students and generate income through the sale of seedlings. Chlystun’s organization has also led to the planting of 1.3 million trees in Kenya. Her new target is to have one million trees planted in the semi-arid Sahel region, which stretches from Senegal to Djibouti, by the end of 2021 to mitigate desertification and contribute to the African Union’s Great Green Wall.

Instagram: @EllyanneCG

Twitter: @EllyanneCGithae

Gen Z activists making a difference in the world.

Courtesy of HP

Left to right: Tiana Day, Fabiola Blanco, Kevin Cordero, Kavya Kopparapu, Emelin Flores, and Fionn Ferreira.

LGBTQ+ inclusion

Emelin Flores, 24

Founder, Rutgers University Chapter of Out In Tech

Jersey City, New Jersey

MISSION: Emelin Flores is a privacy engineer at Google where she focuses on reducing privacy threats. Outside of her job, Flores helps nonprofits improve their security and LGBTQ+ students looking to break into tech. “I can only help change the world for the better one step at a time, and I believe providing people with resources to succeed is my contribution to the bigger picture: a diverse and complete society.”

IMPACT: Flores’s work with local nonprofits has allowed them to improve the security and privacy posture of their tech ecosystems, and since graduating from Rutgers, she has connected more than 20 members of the global Out In Tech Slack community to tech internships.

Twitter: @fsemmha



Fionn Ferreira, 20


Groningen, The Netherlands

MISSION: Fionn Ferreira aims to provide access to clean, microplastic-free water and help prevent the accumulation of microplastics in the environment. “I am hopeful that my work will improve the health and well-being of others while inspiring young inventors and scientists to make a difference.”

IMPACT: Ferreira has invented an environmentally friendly way to remove microplastics from water using vegetable oil and magnetic powder. He is building a prototype for widespread application of this process.

Instagram: @fionn.ferreira

“Not only are people growing in their acceptance and celebration of trans and non-binary youth, but they are also standing alongside us.”

— Stella Keating, 16

Social justice

Tiana Day, 18

Founder, Youth Advocates For Change

San Ramon, California

MISSION: Tiana Day’s youth-led nonprofit organization is focused on amplifying youth voices and inspiring local action on social justice issues. “Many youth are passionate about various social justice topics but lack the resources to use their voices to speak up and call for action.”

IMPACT: In June 2020, Day, who had never been an activist before, was instrumental in leading a Black Lives Matter march with roughly 50,000 attendees across the Golden Gate Bridge. Their message: “Lead with Love.”

Instagram: @youthadvocatesforchange


Digital equity

Kavya Kopparapu, 20

Biotech Innovator And Founder, GirlsComputingLeague

Cambridge, Massachusetts

MISSION: Kavya Kopparapu is a computer scientist, inventor, and founder of GirlsComputingLeague, a nonprofit aimed at closing the gender gap in computer science. “There’s new innovation in the world every day, and having a diverse, passionate, and informed next generation of technologists ready to solve society’s problems is incredibly necessary.” 

IMPACT: GirlsComputingLeague has chapters in 15 states, and the GCL Scholars Program invests in student leaders from underrepresented backgrounds, giving them stipends to teach short workshops in low-income communities on emerging technologies. Kopparapu holds a patent for a precision medicine platform that uses deep learning to diagnose and determine specific treatments for patients suffering from glioblastoma, one of the deadliest forms of brain cancer.

Instagram: @kavya.kopparapu

Twitter: @KavyaKopparapu


Women’s safety

Fabiola Blanco, 19, and Kevin Cordero, 19

Designers, Roshe App

San Jose, Costa Rica

MISSION: In Costa Rica, six of every 10 women have experienced sexual harassment in public places. Kevin Cordero and Fabiola Blanco have designed an app to help women get home safely. “Our goal is to provide security,” Blanco says. “For each person who can feel safer, we will already be making the world a safer place — a place where we will no longer feel fear every time we leave home.”

GOAL: Once it is launched, the Roshe app will include a panic button linked to emergency contacts, as well as a map of safe places, safe routes, and chances to check in along the way.

Instagram: @roshe_app

Gen Z activists making a difference in the world.

Courtesy of HP

Left to right: Jacqueline Azah, Wanjiku "Wawa" Gatheru, Jessica Rosario, and Austin Serio.

Social justice

Jacqueline Azah, 20

Cofounder, J&H New Beginnings

Atlanta, Georgia

MISSION: In addition to founding J&H New Beginnings, which provides care packages for struggling families, college students, and those experiencing homelessness, Jacqueline Azah organizes food donation drives and leads litter cleanup efforts. “Whether it’s my care packages or poetry, to create is to imagine a reality beyond our shortcomings, and that is the compass to freedom.”

IMPACT: In other civic activities, Azah helped organize the #YouthMarch4BlackFreedom movement and raised money for the George Floyd Memorial Fund and the Anti-Police Terror Project’s bail fund.

Instagram: @jhnewbeginnings


Climate justice

Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru, 22

Founder, Black Girl Environmentalist

Oxford, United Kingdom

MISSION: Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru is an environmental justice advocate who is passionate about building a more inclusive environmental movement. “Women — and particularly Black women — have a unique role to play as indispensable actors in creating just and effective climate solutions.”

IMPACT: She spearheaded the Reclaiming Our Time campaign — one of the largest Black youth–led environmental initiatives in years — with partners including the Sierra Club, Mark Ruffalo, and Anne Hathaway.

Instagram: @wawa_gatheru


Food insecurity

Jessica Rosario, 22

CUNY Student Navigator, Swipe Out Hunger

New York, New York

MISSION: Swipe Out Hunger is a nationwide nonprofit that addresses hunger and food insecurity among college students, and has programs at more than 135 colleges. “The peer-to-peer model utilized by Swipe Out Hunger allows us to connect with students to share resources, provide one-on-one support to access those resources, and normalize asking for help at a time when everyone needs it the most,” Jessica Rosario explains.

IMPACT: Swipe Out Hunger has provided 300,000 meals to students in need during the pandemic, and the program has been rolled out on an additional 22 campuses.

Instagram: @jessicarosario44@swipeouthunger


Mental healthcare

Austin Serio, 23

MIT Solve Indigenous Communities Fellow & Cofounder, ShockTalk

Simsbury, Connecticut 

MISSION: Austin Serio is focused on mental health concerns and unresolved trauma facing Indigenous peoples, among other healthcare issues. “Our team seeks to decolonize access by inverting the harmful approach of contemporary for-profit healthcare. Through the delivery of culturally appropriate healthcare services, ShockTalk will redistribute revenue directly to Indigenous communities.”

IMPACT: ShockTalk is allocating 10% equity directly to its sister nonprofit organization, the Urban Indigenous Collective, which helps urban Natives in the tristate area of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey secure access to mental health support services so they can live healthy lives.

Instagram:, @urbanindigenouscollective