(Image: T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert announces the winners of the 2019 Changemaker Challenge, a nationwide contest that mobilizes young leaders with seed money and mentorship.)
From globally organized protests to individual acts of courage that spark national dialogue, the efforts of young leaders and activists have commanded attention around the globe in recent years. The power of youth-led solutions to address the world’s most pressing issues has not only garnered headlines, but it has also led to meaningful conversation and targeted action on topics as varied as climate change legislation, economic inequality and racial justice.
That’s what two seemingly unrelated issues — sustainable agriculture and healthcare equity — have in common: They’re the focus of Aqua-Pods and Medicine Encompassed, two organizations started by young leaders who were recently named winners of the 2021 Changemaker Challenge, a nationwide contest sponsored by T-Mobile, the T-Mobile Foundation, and Ashoka that mobilizes youth who have trailblazing ideas on how to change the world for good with seed money and mentorship.
When Aarushi Wadhwa was in 7th grade, she made a connection that would lead her to found a water conservation startup that helps community farmers across the globe. After learning in science class about diffusion and osmosis, she noticed that she and her classmates, who volunteered to water campus greenery as part of the school’s environmental club, were unintentionally overwatering plants. Gallons and gallons of water used to moisten the soil around trees, for example, were actually evaporating into the air. This overwatering was wasting water and also killing plants.
“I did research and realized that overwatering is actually a global problem,” said Wadhwa, now a rising high-school senior. “Once I realized how big of an issue it is, I knew I had to do something about it.”
After building a team of fellow teens from local schools in San Jose, California, and beta testing an initial product, Aqua-Pods was born. Aqua-Pods is a plant-based, biodegradable sponge filled with pre-curated natural fertilizer that combats water waste and leads to more fertile soil. It is placed around the periphery of the root of a plant to deliver water and nutrients. “Sometimes the simplest thing can make a big difference,” Wadhwa added.
When the pandemic hit, Wadhwa identified an immediate need for her product when she learned that people were tending their community gardens less due to stay-at-home orders, and therefore plants were not getting the water they needed. This was of particular concern in water scarcity-prone areas, so she decided to donate Aqua-Pods to international efforts in Nairobi, Kenya, and New Delhi, India, through partnerships with existing on-the-ground organizations.
A similar can-do attitude is clear in what Aliza Lopez and Gael Gonzalez-DeLaLuz have created in response to the lack of diversity in the medical field. They started Medicine Encompassed, a student-run nonprofit organization working to solve the problem of underrepresentation in medicine, to highlight the inequities and underrepresentation of all minorities in the medical field and prepare youth to bridge that gap.
“It’s really important for us to include diverse perspectives in the medical profession,” said co-founder Gonzalez-DeLaLuz, a rising junior in high school in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “We need to level that playing field.”
Gonzalez-DeLaLuz and Lopez met in 6th grade and have considered themselves a dynamic duo ever since. Having collaborated on projects in the past that integrated their inherent love for the sciences, they decided to launch Medicine Encompassed last year after discovering something else they had in common. As first-generation, low-income students who speak a language other than English at home, both have visited hospitals with family members on multiple occasions, finding themselves unable to communicate with doctors due to the language barrier.
With the rise of the pandemic last year, which disproportionately affected people of color, they saw their mission as more important than ever.
Medicine Encompassed increases access to medical careers for underrepresented minorities and students from low-income backgrounds. Offering free medical career readiness resources on their website, the Medicine Encompassed community includes 1,500 members from 50 U.S. states and 35 countries around the world. All of the educational resources provided online are sourced from and shared with their community.
“One thing I’ve been surprised with is our output,” said Lopez, also a rising high-school junior in New Brunswick. “We’ve managed to produce over 500 articles, resources and supplemental worksheets in one year. I think two heads are better than one, and this [has been] accelerated by having an entire community. What started with two people has expanded to thousands of people around the world.”
This level of collaboration is inherent in the work of this generation, dubbed Generation Z.
Wadhwa, who has partnered with everything from local nurseries to Starbucks to maintain a steady supply of natural fertilizer ingredients for her product, views collaboration as a key tenet of Aqua-Pods success. Through various events and international collaborations, Aqua-Pods has reached approximately 2,500 people with information about the global water crisis. Along with providing a product that supports water conservation, she and her team of fellow high-schoolers share educational materials on over and under-watering with the hopes of inspiring people to take water-saving steps in their own communities.
Wadhwa, Gonzalez-DeLaLuz and Lopez view their recent Changemaker Challenge win as just the start of what they hope to contribute to their respective causes.
Already thinking of her role in addressing the global water crisis, Wadhwa hopes to turn Aqua-Pods into a scalable solution for all agricultural market segments — from house plants to commercial nurseries and farms around the world.
Gonzalez-DeLaLuz and Lopez are thinking big, too. They are planning the first Medicine Encompassed virtual conference, a four-day global event later this summer featuring a series of panels aimed at further educating its community on different careers in medicine and other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
“We are a global community,” Gonzalez-DeLaLuz said.
Even more, these winners know their global scope demonstrates that age is not an obstacle for young leaders, but an asset.
“Age does not define impact,” Lopez added. “Regardless of how old or young you are, you can still pave an avenue to create impact in your community as long as you have the capability to do so. Winning this challenge says a lot about how much we are able to do in spite of our age.”
This article series is sponsored by T-Mobile and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Images courtesy of T-Mobile, Aqua-Pods and Medicine Encompassed
Nayelli is the Founder & CEO of CreatorsCircle, a resource hub that connects diverse youth with opportunities to create a life of purpose and impact. A trained journalist with an MBA, she also keeps the pulse on sustainable business and social impact trends and has covered these topics for a variety of publications over the past 15 years. She’s a systems thinker who loves to learn, share knowledge and help others connect the dots.