Gitanjali Rao is on a mission to empower young people to innovate and make change. Recognizing the value of immersion in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, particularly for girls who have traditionally faced bias in these fields, Rao is mentoring others and encouraging them to channel their own curiosity to make a positive impact on the world. For this and other initiatives, like fighting cyberbullying and opioid addiction, TIME magazine named Rao their first “Kid of the Year” at just age 15.
Speaking to PMI during the Virtual Experience Series (VES), Rao, a PMI Future 50 honoree, described her efforts to serve as a role model for other young innovators, the problem that first motivated her to develop her skills as an inventor and entrepreneur, and the moonshot idea she would like to make reality in this exclusive interview for PM Network®.
PMI: What is the most challenging project you are managing right now?
Rao: That's a great question! I think one of the most challenging ones is maintaining the innovation workshops that I run for students all over the globe. Hosting the workshops involves a lot of logistical information, which is always a challenge. But also regarding my audience: Who are the stakeholders in the process? Who do I want to impact the most? At the same time, I'll also work on my research and innovation projects. It's a lot to balance on my plate, but it's what I'm passionate about and what I continue to love to do, despite juggling so many things at once.
PMI: What's the most significant project you've ever worked on?
Rao: I have to answer with two different categories. One is obviously the workshops that I run, which I think is the most significant since they impact the greatest number of people. The other, regarding my research and innovation, is definitely my work on the Tethys [named for the Greek goddess of fresh water], my lead detection tool. What started as a sort of ideation process for creating a device to detect lead in drinking water [motivated by the contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan, USA] soon turned into a mission to spread awareness regarding drinking water quality. As a result, I immediately saw a change in more schools setting up regulations to test their drinking water and research facilities engaging in closer monitoring of lead in drinking water. It triggered a ripple effect and now a lot more people around the world have confidence in their drinking water supply. That's exactly what I wanted to do and hopefully, in the future, I'll have even more significant projects to work on.
PMI: While working on the Tethys project, what was a key lesson that you learned?
Rao: There are quite a few, but I think the most significant ones are bringing commitment and discipline to the work that I do. I've always stuck with one principle, which is: if I commit to something, I will get it done. That has been the basis for all of my work. It's allowed me to manage my time, manage my projects, maintain the best quality and have the greatest impact on my audience.
PMI: Do you have one piece of advice to help our community manage projects better?
Rao: My most important piece of advice is to be open to communicating clearly and using the best methods to foster collaboration among mentors, experts, researchers, your fellow colleagues and anyone you work with. Good communication allows you to pursue a project that will be successful and one that has potential going forward. The key idea there is potential going forward, because a lot of the time, once you're done with the project, others may have to carry it forward.
PMI: What is your moonshot idea that you would love to assemble a team around and make reality?
Rao: One of my favorite ideas that I would love to assemble a team around is actually looking at a happiness detector. It was an idea that I had a while ago and I think there's a lot of potential for it. Basically, it would be a way to diagnose for happiness, which is something no one's ever thought of. Hopefully, I will be able to utilize research into genetic engineering techniques.
Gitanjali Rao will join other changemakers for a discussion on spearheading impactful global movements during the 6–7 October PMI Virtual Experience Series. For more information about this inspiring event or to get on-demand access to past events, check out PMI's Virtual Experience Series.
Make Reality: Questions With Gitanjali Rao (2021).