It was late summer 2018 and Unnati Gupta and her family were living together in a small hotel room, their personal items crammed into their Honda Odyssey.
Gupta had been born and raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but a sudden job opportunity for her father had uprooted the family—mom, dad, Unnati, and her younger sister, Manya—prompting them to hurriedly pack up their lives, and scramble to resettle in Berwyn, where Gupta was to start her freshman year as the new kid at Conestoga High School.
“My whole life was just kind of turned upside-down,” Gupta says of that time.
She entered the school of more than 2,200 students, hoping to meet new people; she left after day one having talked to maybe two other students, demoralized by her recognition that pretty much everyone, when not in class, was glued to their phones.
It was around that time when Gupta, while on social media, stumbled upon a call for auditions for a local Tedx, the grassroots arm of Ted Conferences. Motivated by her recent experiences, Gupta decided to audition to give a talk about “moving in the age of social media”; she didn’t make the cut, but she didn’t feel totally dejected, either. Instead, she decided to throw herself into school clubs—trying out speech and debate and DECA, the national student organization that nurtures budding entrepreneurs.
“There are a lot of adults that won’t believe in you, there are a lot of people who will come by your ideas and say that no, this is not worth it, you’re just a kid, but I would really like to tell people that age is not a defining factor in what you can do,” Gupta says.
It was while participating in Conestoga High’s fertile extracurricular scene, where students who want to start a new club of their choosing are encouraged to go ahead and do so, that Gupta started to see just how talented and passionate her peers really were.
“I realized that there were so many people with ambitions and great ideas outside of the classroom, but there wasn’t really a platform for people to be able to put those ideas in one place, or for people to be able to really talk to one another and see how can they work together to bring their ideas to a bigger level,” she says.
As she found her place and her friends—Gupta also loves playing basketball and exploring outdoors—she continued to stay active in her school. And during her sophomore year, she thought back to the Tedx idea, and decided, along with a group of four other classmates, that they should create their own event.
Last year, they began to bring the idea to life.
“I thought that by creating a Tedx forum, hopefully we could harness all the good ideas that I saw happening around me and let people find like-minded individuals and, hopefully through that, collaborate and bring change to local issues that they find a special connection to,” she says.
Calling it [email protected] and giving it the theme of “Pushing Forward,” they planned to hold an in-person event at their school, featuring a diverse roster of young, motivational leaders from around the country. The defining criteria: “For us it really came down to Do they bring a new or unique perspective to an idea that is currently a problem in our community? Or an idea that we think could benefit people’s personal growth?” explains Gupta.
They landed on seven young speakers, including Tiffany Yau, the Philly-based founder of Fulphil and a co-founder of Project SHIELDS; Kuda Biza, the Zimbabwe-born humanitarian and serial social-impact entrepreneur; best-selling author and motivational speaker Jaclyn DiGregorio; and more.
The team pounded the pavement to rally sponsors. “It was a lot of trial and error,” Gupta says. “We would just kind of walk into car dealerships, and be like Hey, would you give us money for this event? There was no one telling us what to do. We were just figuring it out.” Funding, they knew, would be needed to cover costs like decorations, food, filming the event.
The date was set: March 28, 2020.
Then, the pandemic hit.
Ever-resilient, Gupta and crew decided to pivot to host a virtual event, instead. REC Philly, the Philly creative agency-slash-incubator, came on board to film it in a pro-bono capacity. And this past Saturday, [email protected] aired live. Now, the 90-minute event is available for anyone, anywhere, to watch for free.
Back when the plan had been to gather in-person, the intended audience was naturally local teens; the virtual platform, however, wound up having the benefit of welcoming people of all ages and in all places to witness what the Berwyn teens put together. Families, in particular, seem to have gravitated to the content, Gupta says, which is not surprising given how many inspiring words of wisdom are woven throughout speakers’ lively talks. (Spoiler alert: Speaker number two, Ben Conard, who founded the sustainable Five North Chocolate brand, juggles!)
There’s Yau, talking about how you don’t have to be Bill Gates or Gandhi or Greta Thunberg to change the world. “We have this preconception that we need to have something so big and so special about us to make a difference. And we learn to believe that any difference we choose to make has to be big and that it takes these miraculously capable people. But the fact is, impact doesn’t always have to be big. Impact comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes,” she says.
There’s Kuda Biza, the serial entrepreneur and founder of Nunbelievable, the one-for-one cookie brand that donates one meal for every cookie purchased, talking about the importance of pushing beyond our comfort zones.
“The first and most important achievement is that very first step you take when you’re stepping out of your comfort zone, because it is in that moment that you start growing,” he says, explaining the framework he applies to accomplishing goals.
“Understand that there is an immense power in the collaboration among youth right now. And that collaboration among youth is what allows our voice to go beyond barriers,” Gupta says.
It’s an inspiring, polished watch, for sure, made all the more powerful by the fact that a group of students who aren’t even old enough to vote put it together. But it’s just the beginning, Gupta says. The [email protected] website has already become a hub for connecting teens who want to take action on the initiatives mentioned throughout the day—like distributing PPE—and the plan is to build the website out even more deeply, with more opportunities for students to network and engage.
Gupta would like to hold one [email protected] talk per year, and smaller service-oriented networking and action opportunities throughout the year.
“We want to go beyond just talk,” she says. “For example, we had [data scientist] Megan Chen talk about climate change, and how important of an issue that is, and also about how prevalent food deserts are in cities right near us. So if we can create action points to fundraise for those types of events, or create an event specifically for climate change, to really try to hone in on the specific ideas that are being shared, that’s the direction I’m really hoping we can go in the next few months.”
She hopes the video, which so far has more than 500 views, continues to inspire and empower teens around the world, letting them know that their ideas and their voices matter.
“There are a lot of adults that won’t believe in you, there are a lot of people who will come by your ideas and say that no, this is not worth it, you’re just a kid, but I would really like to tell people that age is not a defining factor in what you can do,” she says. “If you have a spark, if you’re walking down the street and you have this idea about what you want to do, don’t by any means put that idea behind you. Understand that there is an immense power in the collaboration among youth right now. And that collaboration among youth is what allows our voice to go beyond barriers.”
Yau has been a treasured mentor along Gupta’s journey. She says she was drawn to the event for several reasons. “I believe their work really showcases the collaborative nature of Philly’s ecosystem, not to mention Unnati’s grittiness in hustling to put this together despite the pandemic,” she says. “It always makes me excited to see Philly people coming together to do something special.”
Yau would no doubt be proud to hear what Gupta says is her ultimate message to other teens:
“By working together and by bringing all of the small ideas and sparks that we have together, it can really create a change.”Unnati and Manya Gupta at [email protected]