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I’ll start this post with full disclosure: October 31st might very well be my least favourite day of the year. Many fondly know this day as “Halloween”. I know it as the day that I’m lambasted for not being excited about getting dressed in full costume or, better yet, the day when my parents would turn the lights off in our house and beeline for the nearest restaurant.
I don’t have too much recollection about my costume choices growing up, save for one very memorable (for me!) pick: Madonna, circa her “Like a Virgin” days (another disclosure: it was many, many years before I could say that this album title no longer applied to me). I must have been around 12-years-old, and I already felt like a badass. I decided on a costume that reflected 12-year-old me (by the by, 30-year-old me is no different). Madonna represented a no-bullshit, take-no-prisoners, independent persona and, whether I realized it or not (I would like to think that I was bestowed with this kind of wisdom at the ripe old age of 12), she was an icon – and a role model – for the power of women.
Fast forward 18 years, and I found myself hanging with my friend’s five-year-old daughter this past Halloween. Dressed as a crayon, she stood out in a sea of princesses (according to Good Housekeeping, the princess costume is the #1 most popular Halloween costume for kids). I started to think about today’s role models for young girls like my friend’s daughter. What kinds of prominent but relatable (other young women, that is) figures were they being exposed to? Who were they being primed to admire and emulate? The Madonna’s of yesteryear were the Kylie Jenner’s of today, and when 18-year-old Kylie is now one of the most influential teens in the world, you know it’s time to start running for the (Hollywood) hills.
So why are personalities like Kylie problematic? I can quite honestly think of a million and one reasons, but for the sake of time – and everyone’s sanity – I’ll only outline a few:
Now, you might ask why I’m throwing shade at Kylie Jenner, specifically. I’m singling her out strictly because of all the hype that she has received and because of the almost maniacal following that she has. Because if young women are worshipping Kylie – and they are in droves – they are kneeling at the foot of the wrong throne.
The young women of today don’t need more Disney princesses and they don’t need more Kylie Jenners. Young women are the leaders of today, and they will be the leaders of tomorrow and the leaders of the days and years to come. In order to realize such boundless potential, what they need are real-life warriors to inspire and drive them.
Below is a shortlist of women (all of whom are 26 or younger!) who truly deserve our attention and reverence. What they lack in lip injections and fancy wheels, they more than make up for in “holy crap, that’s awesome!” accomplishments.
Some of these young leaders are already household names (for good reason!), while others are lesser known but equally awe-inspiring. I also decry that it’s worrisome it took me a while to discover many of these girls, given the great work that they are doing, and it’s indicative of the fact that we are long overdue for a values shift, both in North America and around the world. Given that the Internet is a global source for information, I was dismayed by how long it took me to dig up the content I needed to create this list. A search for “girl leaders around the world” turned up 14 (14!) results, many from the same source. I don’t know about you, but I’m not okay with this, because I know that there are crazy-amazing young women everywhere you look, in all nooks and crannies of the planet, shaping our world to leave it better than how we came into it. 14 results are an insult, a mockery, and a downright shame.
On that note, I’m asking for your help to turn this result on its head. The hashtag #KylieJennerLipChallenge returned 188,000 results on Google alone. You can only imagine the success it had on Twitter and other social media platforms. If you know a young woman who is up to great things, don’t be shy about it. Scream it from the rooftops. And use the hashtag #girlleadersaroundtheworld to celebrate. Share this post with those you know and love and ask them to do the same. We need to be talking about #girlleadersaroundtheworld. A Google search should return more results than a small order of McDonald’s French fries. And this is all feasible. If we can put people on the moon, if we can get teens to suck on bottles in hopes that their lips will rival those of a jellyfish, we can certainly make this happen.
Why? Because #girlleadersaroundtheworld are out there and they are more than ready for us to know about them. And we can’t be preaching to the converted. This information needs to be readily available and ‘in our face’ so that the young women of today are privy to the aspirations and achievements of their peers and can draw inspiration to help them chart their own leadership journeys.
So, without further ado, I present you with…
Emma Watson (25)
Oh, you know… her name might ring a bell, but you can’t quite put your finger on it? Let me refresh your memory. Emma Watson is a British actress and activist who is now just as known for her women’s rights work as she is for playing one of the lead roles in the Harry Potter series. In July 2014, Watson was appointed as a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, and has addressed audiences on issues from calling men to advocate for gender equality to highlighting the need for women’s political participation. Here is the speech she gave during UN Women’s HeforShe Campaign:
Tavi Gevinson (19)
At the age of 12 (the same age I wore that Madonna costume), Tavi Gevinson came to public attention with her quirky fashion blog, Style Rookie. At 19, she is known for a lot more than just her sense of style and for being one of the world’s most famous bloggers. Gevinson is a politically engaged young woman who has used her celebrity to advocate for women’s rights. She organized a get-well-soon-drive for Malala Yousafzai (also on this list!) and, during the 2012 US presidential campaign, Gevinson appeared in a public service announcement for women’s rights, mouthing the words to Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me”, which can be viewed below:
Malala Yousafzai (18)
Malala Yousafzai became a household name when, in 2012 at the age of 15, she was shot in an attempted assassination by Taliban leaders for her activism efforts around female education. Born and raised in Pakistan, Yousafzai is known for her human rights advocacy for education and for women, where the local Taliban in her province had, at times, banned girls from going to school.
Rather than conceding to their horrific scare tactics, Yousafzai has continued in her quest to help Pakistani girls receive an education, and her advocacy work has since grown into an international movement.
Yousafzai and her work have been honoured with countless awards and recognitions and, at age 17, she became the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate. Here is Yousafzai on Ellen:
Angela Zhang (20)
In 2012, at age 17, Angela Zhang gave the President of the United States a lesson in science. She briefed Obama on her award-winning research about a cancer-fighting nanoparticle at the White House Science Fair.
And if that’s not impressive, Zhang, a California native, was only 14 when she successfully cold-called her way into a Stanford science lab, where she eventually earned her place on a research team.
Now 20, and a junior at Harvard University, Zhang is working toward a degree in biomedical engineering, where she’s collaborating on patient-oriented research with her mentor, Dr. Pari Pandharipande. “This is my first mentor who has been a woman, and so I think growing older, being able to navigate [as a woman in science] has been a pressing issue that’s really been coming up a lot recently. I’ve been focusing more on it,” notes Zhang.
Read more here.
Rachel Parent (16)
When Rachel Parent, a Canadian anti-GMO activist, was 14, she went head-to-head with one of North America’s most ruthless entrepreneurs, Kevin O’Leary, a 59-year-old millionaire known for his combative disposition on Canada’s Dragons’ Den and the US’s Shark Tank television shows.
Parent, whose interest in GMOs (genetically modified organisms) flourished while she was doing research for a school speech, founded Kids Right to Know, a GMO-awareness organization. While O’Leary might have been accustomed to slugging it out in boardrooms, he wasn’t prepared for Parent’s sheer tenacity or the fact that she’s incredibly well informed on the issue she represents.
A kid herself, Parent decided that her peers deserved to know what was going into their food. GMOs, which can be found in approximately 70% of the foods we eat and which have been called into question regarding their safety, were not required to go on labels. Without labeling, Parent has argued, the public does not have the freedom of choice to decide what to eat… and what to shelf. As part of her work, Parent is demanding mandatory GMO labeling so that people will have a better understanding about what goes into their bodies.
Watch Parent’s debate with O’Leary:
Or view her TEDx talk:
Loujain al-Hathloul (26)
Loujain al-Hathloul is in the driver’s seat of helping make history for the women of Saudi Arabia, and it’s what landed her in jail… literally. al-Hathloul was released from 73 days in prison after partaking in a campaign to allow Saudi women to drive. In 2014, she was arrested and detained after an attempt to cross the border in her car from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia.
Today, al-Hathloul, who is a women’s rights activist and social media figure in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is Candidate Number 1 for Riyadh District 5, another historical precedent in a country where women have traditionally been left out of the political sphere. “I’m not excited by the idea of winning. I’m focused on increasing the number of women who stand in elections,” said al-Hathloul.
Eesha Khare (20)
Eesha Khare has managed to help resolve one of the biggest challenges we face in the modern-day world: a dead cell phone battery. Khare, of Saratoga, California, came in runner-up at the 2013 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), after developing a supercapacitator energy storage device that uses nanotechnology to maximize a device’s surface area, thus charging mobile devices much faster than previous technology has allowed for. “My goal is to have a supercapacitator charge a mobile device in less than a minute,” she says.
Khare’s innovation can eventually be harnessed to charge more than just cell phones; sometime in the future, it could potentially energize cars too.
Out of 1,600 students competing at ISEF, Khare walked away with the “Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award”, $50,000, and several of the most prominent tech companies in the world vying for her attention. Not too shabby…
Read more about Khare here or watch her in the videos below:
Yasmin Belo-Osagie (26)
Seeing a gap to create space for young women entrepreneurs on the African continent, Yasmin Belo-Osagie set out to fill the hole.
A firm believer in female empowerment, Belo-Osagie, who returned to Nigeria in 2014 upon completing her studies in the US, and her co-founder, Afua Osei, seized the opportunity to form the start-up, She Leads Africa. The organization is a platform for young women across the continent to develop and share entrepreneurial ideas, as well as providing support and access to professionals who can offer advice and funding to turn ideas into enterprises.
“[This is] an opportunity to create a brand that’s an inspiration for women. Women need to realise that their horizons are unlimited and they can go far beyond their expectations through hard work, grit and perseverance,” says Belo-Osagie as she describes some of the success stories that She Leads Africa is beginning to create.
By helping mobilize young women with bright ideas, Belo-Osagie hopes that She Leads Africa will become a symbol of female strength for women to break through social, cultural, and financial constraints.
Read more about Belo-Osagie here and check out her interview below:
Raquel Helen Silva (24)
It’s not every day that the First Lady of the United States tells you that you are an example for her daughters, but that is exactly the interaction that Raquel Helen Silva, of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, had with Michelle Obama.
Silva, who lost both of her parents when she was very young, could have led a life that was very different from the one she is living now if it wasn’t for her gumption and drive to succeed. An advocate for combating gender inequality and youth apathy, Silva’s work has taken her around the world.
In 2008, Silva was selected to partake in a US Embassy program that selected outstanding students from public schools who volunteer in their communities. The program gave Silva an opportunity to represent Brazil in the US and strengthen the ties between the two countries.
Two years later, in 2010, Silva was selected as the only Brazilian representative in the Women2Women Conference, held in Boston and focused on young women engaged in their communities. Shortly after, she was chosen by the British Council to become a Global Changemaker and was off to London for the Global Youth Summit.
In 2011, the British Council’s Global Changemakers Programme selected 18 individuals from over 1,500 applicants to attend the 40th World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Silva, again the only Brazilian chosen, was one of them.
Today, Silva is a member of The Global Shapers Community, an initiative of the World Economic Forum and a network of hubs developed and led by young people who are exceptional in their potential, their achievements, and their drive to make a contribution to their communities.
You can read Silva’s opening remarks, made at the Brazilian Youth Cultural Event with Michelle Obama, here. And, if you understand Portuguese, you can watch her TEDx talk below:
Dafne Almazan (13)
We often hear about those years of teenage angst, of kids figuring themselves out… so imagine becoming the world’s youngest psychologist, earning a degree that gives you the authority to help others sort through their issues. For Dafne Almazan, who just last month graduated from Mexico’s Monterrey Institute of Technology and who is touted as the country’s most famous child prodigy, what is only imaginable for some is a reality for this young leader.
Forbes recently named Almazan one of the 50 most powerful Mexican women and, according to the publication, her “power” springs mostly from her capacity to inspire others.
“I’m happy with the attention,” she says. “This way, I can show everyone that it’s worth it doing your best. And I can do something about prejudice that gifted children spend their time locked up in a library. We don’t have to give up our youth just because we’re gifted, you know.”
Despite her recent degree, Almazan has no plans to treat patients anytime soon. Instead, she’s heading back to school to pursue a masters in education, which will likely make her one of the few people in the world to gain an MA while still a minor. “I know it’s hard to reach and guide all gifted children in Mexico, but I’m optimistic that we’ll eventually be able to do so,” notes Almazan. “I always wanted to go to college, and I managed to achieve it too.”
Want to read more about Almazan? You can do so here. Or, if you comprehend Spanish, here’s a short interview:
On a final note, this wonderful video, recently unveiled by Plan International, beseeches its audience to “see the best” of girls and help propel them into leadership positions. “Right now, 65 million of us still have stolen dreams,” declares one video participant. “65 million of us could be left behind,” exclaims another.
The greater the visibility we bring to this issue, right now, the stronger our chances of ensuring that these dreams have a safe and secure space to manifest themselves.