Dream big, take risks: How to innovate like TIME magazine’s first-ever “Kid of the Year”

C2 Editorial Team

Perhaps you’ve read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, or have gone through a phase where you modelled your daily routine after the likes of Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey or Elon Musk. Those folks are impressive, but to our knowledge, they’ve never had to balance building new technology for identifying bio-contaminants in water with turning their homework in on time.

Sixteen-year-old Gitanjali Rao is a fierce advocate for using science and technology for social change and improving communities. By the time she was 15 years old, she had spearheaded innovation in water quality testing, opioid addiction diagnosis and online bullying prevention. As an inventor and in-demand speaker, she juggles school, time in the lab, volunteering, giving STEM workshops, and has even found time to make an appearance on Ellen and drop by the set of The Tonight Show.

While most of us can no longer aspire to be named TIME magazine’s “Kid of the Year” (alas, Gitanjali hasn’t invented the time machine yet), we really couldn’t resist asking her how she manages to get it all done.

C2: What does a typical day look like for you?

Gitanjali Rao: Usually, when it comes to innovation and problem solving, a lot of my work revolves around research but also around global outreach. So every day when I wake up, I’m either working on a project that I’m doing or talking to students across the globe or a combination of both. On top of that, I still have to balance school, my social life and my other activities. So imagine it like a typical teenager’s life with a couple more responsibilities mixed in.

C2: How do you manage your schedule?

Rao: Balancing my time has always been something that I haven’t been the best at, so I’m not going to say that I’m an expert! However, I try to stick with one principle every single day. If I commit to something, I’ll get it done. That’s what allows me to kind of make sure everything comes back to home base when it’s needed. 

“I’ve started to recognize that innovation and creativity can’t work on a deadline. School assignments might have a deadline, but something I’m passionate about shouldn’t. I’m a strong believer in doing what I want to do, not what I need to do.”

C2: What is your style of leadership?

Rao: When it comes to leadership, for me, it’s not necessarily teaching or being a teacher but instead starting a movement, inspiring the next generation to take it up and be the leaders of today and tomorrow for future generations. It’s almost like starting this ripple effect. Hopefully, I can be the start of one. 

 C2: What do you do for fun?

Rao: One of the biggest things that I do is bake a lot. Today is my brother’s birthday, so I’ll be baking a cake sometime today. I also play the piano. I have been playing for about 13 years. I also fence, and I’m working on getting my pilot’s license!

C2: What’s your favourite cake?

Rao: Red velvet — I love red velvet cake. 

C2: What’s your advice for people who want to make their ideas a reality?

Rao: My biggest piece of advice is don’t be afraid to dream big, take risks and then think back to reality. I think the biggest way that I’ve gotten to the place where I am is to expose myself. And my parents exposed me to the world around me at a very young age, so I was always learning and always looking at new things in my community. 

“I’ve always been a born risk-taker and always wanted to do what’s better for the community, and I started doing that through the work of innovation. So don’t be afraid to come up with huge ideas, because even if they’re not possible now, I’m sure that one day in the future they will be.”


The women of C2

One of the world’s most powerful businesswomen, a courageous whistleblower, a visionary architect, a badass marketer and a VC diversity champion are just a few of the remarkable, game-changing women who have graced the stage at C2 Montréal. Read what they said, and receive our newsletter for future stories and insights featuring inspiring women.