Project Management Institute

PMI Future 50: Young Leaders Building a Better Tomorrow

Transcript

STEVE HENDERSHOT

The 2021 Future 50 has arrived. And look out: These innovative changemakers aren’t content to simply deliver projects—they’re coming in strong with their own POV on building a better world.

ACKEEM NGWENYA

Young people, they’re quite driven by purpose. What is the purpose behind my job, or what value is my job or my project adding to the world? So whether you think of Greta Thunberg, in the sense of environmental activism, I think young people are in all these topics that world leaders seem to take however long to try to get to any consensus on issues. But young people are actively saying, “Well, we don’t have to wait for the president to change policy on something. We can do something ourselves.” And with greater connectivity, they’re able to see what other people are doing across the world.

NARRATOR

The world is changing fast. And every day, project professionals are turning ideas into reality—delivering value to their organizations and society as a whole. On Projectified®, we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s ahead for The Project Economy—and your career.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

This is Projectified®. I’m Steve Hendershot.

The pandemic really shifted our ways of working. But there was another big change: This past year also marked the first time millennials and Gen Z staked their claim as the majority in the global workforce. And they’ve wasted no time making their mark, as we see in PMI’s newly released Future 50 list. 

It’s an impressive group—coming in with bold thinking and innovative solutions on everything from child hunger to new modes of transport. We’re going to meet several of them today, and I also had the privilege of interviewing several others for the special Future 50 issue of PM Network®. Maybe I’m biased, but I highly encourage you to take a look both at that new issue of the print magazine and also the digital experience at PMI.org/Future50, where you can go deeper with exclusive audio and video extras.

Let’s kick off today’s episode with a discussion between Future 50 leaders past and present. Part of the inaugural Future 50 group last year, Julissa Mateo Abad is a digital transformation manager at Distribuidora Corripio in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and founder of Mujeres TICs RD, or Women in ICT.

Our other guest is one of the people on this year’s list: Ackeem Ngwenya is co-founder of Reframd, an eyewear firm in Berlin focused on designing frames specifically for the needs of overlooked communities.

We spoke about why they’re passionate about their projects and missions, how they approach project leadership and how young people are changing the world of projects.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
STEVE HENDERSHOT

You both have some really interesting projects going on, so let’s begin with why you’re doing what you’re doing. What motivated you to pursue the paths you’re on?

ACKEEM NGWENYA

I think about 11 years ago, I was in a conference, and there was an architect from Chile, Alejandro Aravena. He worked on a project addressing social housing in Chile. His approach to this problem, at least for me, was in a way that I’d not seen anything like it before, in the sense that he brought humanity to social housing.

While I was sitting in the audience, and I was thinking of myself as a designer, “What impact does my design practice have in the world?” And at the time, I was a jewelry design student, and I think that, for me, was the moment where I realized that I wanted to use my practice to make a difference. And so that is essentially why I do, I guess, what I’m doing now. And I try in my design practice to solve a problem that I have encountered before. Of course, I’m not going to end world hunger or poverty or such, but at least, if I’m working on something, I would like that project to have some real-world impact.

JULISSA MATEO ABAD

I really started this community of girls in tech because I once applied for a scholarship to go [to] an event, and one of the question from this said, “What you want to do after you come from this event?” And at that specific moment, I thought, “Why should we always let the government to take care of things that we can actually do something about?”

So, I was rejected for that event, but I decided to get in touch with many of my colleagues from the university and get to know each other more and see why we are interested in tech and other girls don’t. We decided to make a Facebook call, an event, inviting other girls to create the first girls in tech event for all of us. And we thought we are going to just reach out, maybe 10 or 12 girls, and we actually get more than 100 girls to come to the first girls in tech event that we had. From that specific moment, I knew that this was a great project that I want to be on. 

STEVE HENDERSHOT

You’re both clearly taking on big roles—what are your philosophies as you lead?

ACKEEM NGWENYA

In terms of how I see leadership in our project, Julissa also said it—why wait for the government to do something that you can do something about? And often, we also speak about inclusion, participation and representation. And we speak of all these other industries, whether the tech industry, or fashion, or design industries—they’re not going to change by themselves without external influence. And we can wait for these industries to change, but it won’t happen. And the only way these industries can change is through people from the outside of these industries, Julissa as well and myself.

I should bring the change that we want to see in the world, but also acknowledging that we, ourselves, have the ability just as anyone else in those industries. But, importantly, that it is ourselves that will carve out a place in this industry instead of waiting for someone else to open the door for us. So, I think that, for me, is maybe implicit leadership that myself, my partner have taken—at least that’s how I think about it.

JULISSA MATEO ABAD

For me, it’s the same. I think I used to be so shy. People actually don’t believe me right now, but I used to be shy because I never thought my opinions were taken into account, sometimes. So we as a girl, sometimes we don’t trust ourselves. So, we are expecting others to give us a voice. Your voice. Your own voice. When I first started with this community, I was really nervous about needing to lead all these girls when you don’t even think you’re something special. You said, “Okay, where am I taking those girls to?” I think leadership helped me a lot to get in touch with them, to create other leaders, to make them understand what was the mission.

But I think it’s really important to take action. Not only think about what you want to do—take action and actually show what you want to do with example. You must be the example for others to really, really take your position for real. If you try to tell them what to do, but you are not doing it, they’re not going to believe what you’re doing. If you’re the leader, you must be a leader by example. So, that’s the kind of leader that I think I am. I’m the person that is always at the same time work with my team, trying to get them understand what they’re doing, even in the community and also my work because I lead around 38 men because they’re few girls in this company working. It’s hard when you try to tell them something and they see you, you’re younger than them, and also you’re a girl. So, you must understand you have a voice, and you have the knowledge enough to really, really, really take care of this company and also the community and get us where we want to be. So that vision must be always there and also, being the example you want to be.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

How have each of you grown as project leaders?

ACKEEM NGWENYA

I think in terms of project leadership, for me, how do you make the, let’s say the framework democratic. I think by nature I don’t like hierarchies. I’m also not very good of a leader in that respect. I don’t want to be in a position of any sort of leadership. I’m just not that person. So if I work with someone, I would always ask. If I ever make a decision, ask my partner, what do you think? And I do the same for Reframd and for all the other projects that we work with.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Do you think that’s sort of a characteristic of younger teams too, that there’s less embrace of the command-and-control version of team structure?

JULISSA MATEO ABAD

Now, definitely. For young people, it’s easier to communicate better because we come from this kind of leadership where people [are] telling you what to do in the projects, where this is exactly what we expect. You are just somebody creating what was in other people’s head. But now, we got this collaboration where young people can bring freshness, I think, for what we are doing. Because sometimes we actually know how to do something. Well, they are always on YouTube or seeing new ways to develop while we are doing. I’ve been in the software industry for around 10 years, and I can tell you right now for me, I’m so happy in my team there are people that [are] younger than me because they find ways I never thought in my life were possible to do something. And I let them speak because it’s easier.

I think when you are working in projects, sometimes we are afraid of failing, but now I think it’s good to fail, but not in the same thing. It is good to fail one time in something, and now you know how not to do something, and then you can come to the next error. I think it’s amazing to see how can we be capable of using our mind to develop better ways to do what we’re doing.

ACKEEM NGWENYA

I would probably also add with regards to the project teams, the input from different members of the team and how each input is valued—it’s also quite important. When I was doing my masters in London, we worked quite a lot in team-based projects. And that was by design with the assumption that it is very difficult for one person to have a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of a problem.

The master’s program was made in such a way that it brought together people from engineering, design and business. And the intention was to try to bring these individuals from different parts of the world as well into a master program to try to solve real-world problems. And of course, if you are only looking at the world through an engineering perspective, you might miss some elements that are not core to engineering. And if you are only looking at it from a design perspective, you also miss other things. But also you don’t just want to make something that works—maybe it has a good user interface, but it has no business proposition either, right? You have all these members of a team that are not necessarily better than the other, but they all bring in valuable input.

And I think this is the kind of work environment where project teams, and maybe it’s more common amongst younger people, but this is a mindset that can take place whether you’re young or old. It’s just a mindset that needs to change. It’s valuing that you, as a person, you don’t have to be the boss of a company to work with someone. You don’t have to be in this kind of power dynamic at work. And I think if people are at ease, and if I can speak to my boss on [an] eye-to-eye level, I think I as an employee would be able to give more valued feedback, more valued input to a project.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Where are we headed? Over the course of your careers, how will projects look different?

JULISSA MATEO ABAD

The young people now [are] creating new ways to see things. I think they have another perspective to see things. So I think they are changing the way we do projects right now. We are moving for actually an agile environment where people [are] working from everywhere like we are doing right now. I think as project managers, we must be open to work faster in agile, in a way we are actually changing every single time, but understanding where we are going to get this organization. Because sometimes if we are just thinking about the way we used to be doing stuff in the past, probably the future is going to eat us completely.

So now that we are working toward creating faster deliveries and things like that, it’s important as a leader to be open, to understand how your team is working, what are their needs, and also try to get them into the project so they know exactly how to respond in any specific time. And I think you can be a project manager even if you are in a different specific field. This is something that we can do even if we are doctors, if we are doing things differently, because we can actually make sure everything is going okay. We are taking care of the resources, the people, how everything is working together. For me, it’s important to be clear, to love what you do.

For the future, get agile, look forward to create meaningful projects, and do not work just for your job, for the company specific where you are. Work for many organizations that are willing to help others, and at the same time, you can get practice in projects. That’s the way I learned how to manage projects, working with social projects.

ACKEEM NGWENYA

If the past year is anything to go by, definitely more remote work. So that has definitely some pros and cons in terms of project work, right? Some things you definitely need to be in the same room to execute. So for example, if my partner and I need to create some prototypes or need to have a sprint, sometimes it definitely has its advantages to be physically located in the same location. But this also implies that there will be a need for an even greater connectivity.

At least my experience over the past year with Zoom and any other video conferencing software is that there’s so many things that go wrong. And sometimes you might have what you think is a reliable connection, but it’s just not as reliable when someone else is using your connection in the other room. There will definitely be need for greater connectivity. But also that also implies as we work more remotely and connectivity becomes more advanced, the collaborative tools that we use also become more sophisticated. I think at least in the design world where it’s quite easy to collaborate, we’re definitely going to see more virtual rooms where I guess you can co-design, which is actually already happening where you can work around an object and you are designing in real time with someone who’s, well, let’s say thousands of kilometers away from you. So I think this will definitely become more mainstream where maybe I put on my VR headset, and then I can speak to someone in a virtual room. It’s definitely going to allow greater interaction, greater connectivity, more collaboration. At least that’s what I think the future holds.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
STEVE HENDERSHOT

It’s clear that young people are already making a powerful impact on the world of projects. And some of them haven’t even officially entered the workforce yet. Gitanjali Rao is a 15-year-old project leader from Highlands Ranch, Colorado in the U.S. who is inventing devices, building apps and inspiring problem solvers of all ages. She spoke to Projectified® correspondent Sarah Fister Gale about her journey.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
SARAH FISTER GALE

You’ve been inventing things and leading projects for a while. One invention that’s gotten a lot of attention is your Tethys device. What does it do, and how did you come up with it?

GITANJALI RAO

It’s called Tethys, and it detects lead in drinking water faster and more inexpensive than the current tools. And it uses something called carbon nanotube sensor technology to help detect for lead in drinking water. I actually heard about the work of nanotube sensors on MIT’s page, where they were using it to help detect for hazardous gases in the air. And I put that back into my work and decided to use carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead in drinking water. Even though it was a little bit difficult in the beginning, after doing a lot of courses, after reading through a lot of papers, it soon became instinct to me to want to learn more and read about ideas like this.

SARAH FISTER GALE

You have these grand ideas, right? But actually implementing them, getting the money and the materials and the understanding to put it all together is a big challenge. How did you overcome some of that stuff, turning what seemed like a great idea into an actionable product.

GITANJALI RAO

A lot of that started out with understanding that the innovation process is iterative, right? So it is okay to start with an idea that isn’t fully fleshed out, but from there I created a process which is observe, brainstorm, research, build and communicate, and that’s how I really started it off and kicked it off. And from then I built up that motivation to keep going with my ideas and recognize this idea that innovation doesn’t have a deadline. So when I start going, I can keep going and there’s no one stopping me there.

SARAH FISTER GALE

You’ve also created a service called Kindly that helps detect and prevent cyberbullying. Tell me a little bit about the challenges you faced on that project.

GITANJALI RAO

One of the biggest things about it was there were multiple beta testing versions. There were multiple versions where it wasn’t essentially perfect. It actually took me about two and a half years to completely build it. And some of the biggest challenges that I faced was building it from scratch because I was still learning about how to completely code apps, how to work with artificial intelligence, which all of Kindly is actually built on. But since then, it’s gone a long way, and it really proves to show that perseverance is just how you take it.

SARAH FISTER GALE

When you’re not going to school and building apps and solving water crises, you also teach workshops and you’ve done some TED Talks. Tell me about that.

GITANJALI RAO

I run workshops for students all across the world, and I’ve impacted about 49,000 students. Every new place is a new set of people and a new group of kids who are excited to learn and excited to make a difference, but maybe just don’t know where to start. And I hope that my workshops are able to give them that starting point as well. And, yes, I do TED Talks as well as speak with global organizations, and really the goal for that is to vouch for innovation in the early curriculum, as well as equality in education. And in addition to that, just this idea of the importance of youth in the workforce as well.

SARAH FISTER GALE

So, you’re partnering with other organizations like UNICEF at 15. Have you had issues where people didn’t take you seriously at your age

GITANJALI RAO

After a lot of my recognition was built up a little bit more, there was a little bit more seriousness taken into the work that I was doing. But in the beginning, actually, no. And that’s really one of the things and examples that I proved to show that it needs to be more of this age versus ability aspect, right? I might not have a PhD. I might not have a degree, but I have that same drive within me that anyone else has to solve problems.

SARAH FISTER GALE

And do you think being a girl makes it even harder?

GITANJALI RAO

I think so. Absolutely. There is that gender barrier, and that makes it even more difficult. Like, look at me, I don’t look like your typical girl in STEM. I don’t look like your typical anyone in science and technology. But really what you need to understand and what anyone needs to understand is this idea that you are who you want to be, and no one can change that, right? No one changes that opinion of what you are.

SARAH FISTER GALE

So what kind of advice do you give to young people who have big ideas but they don’t know how to translate them to real projects

GITANJALI RAO

My biggest piece of advice for them is to recognize that it’s okay to dream big and then think back to reality, right? Dreams are really just what you make them. We’re kids. We have the time to take those ideas and make it into reality. So do a little something every day to reach up to that goal, but it’s okay if it doesn’t happen overnight because nothing successful ever happens overnight.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
STEVE HENDERSHOT

The conversations we’ve had today make it pretty clear that the future is in good hands. And this was just a sampling—if you want to take a deep dive, grab a copy of the new PM Network® magazine or head online to PMI.org/Future50 to learn more about all of these amazing young leaders and the inspiring work they’re doing to make the world a better place.

NARRATOR

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