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'The rules around ambition are changing': Gen Z women of color share how they turned their passions into purpose

Marley Dias, Daniella Pierson and Shilpa Yarlagadda discussed their businesses and projects at Marie Claire's Power Play event.

Marley Dias, Daniella Pierson and Shilpa Yarlagadda speak during Marie Claire's Power Play event at the Santa Monica Proper Hotel on March 19.

When Nikki Ogunnaike took on her role as Marie Claire’s editor in chief last June, she wanted to rethink the idea of ambition, especially as it applied to women.

“I really wanted to think about how the rules around ambition are changing,” Ogunnaike told Yahoo News. “I think that it can be a term that is incredibly complicated, especially for women. If you have too much ambition, you are unlikable. If you have not enough ambition, are you doing a disservice to women of all kinds? There’s just this sort of complication around it.”

She took this idea and used it to transform Marie Claire's annual live event, the Power Play summit — formerly Power Trip — which was held March 18 and 19 at the Santa Monica Proper Hotel. Curated by Ogunnaike and featuring a group of influential women across multiple industries, this year’s theme of “The New Ambition” explored the way women perceive ambition, as well as its influence on their lives in both personal and professional contexts.

“I’ve always said that I want Marie Claire to feel like a group chat of your most ambitious friends,” she told Yahoo News. “And so that also means reconsidering and constantly thinking and ruminating and analyzing these various structures that we are a part of.”

This year’s Power Play event featured a Generation Z-focused panel that tackled exactly that.

Marley Dias, Daniella Pierson, Marie Claire editor-in-chief Nikki Ogunnaike and Shilpa Yarlagadda.
From left: Marley Dias, Daniella Pierson, Marie Claire editor-in-chief Nikki Ogunnaike and Shilpa Yarlagadda at Marie Claire's Power Play event at the Santa Monica Proper Hotel on March 19. (Ralphy Ramos)

It’s true: Gen Z-ers (those born between 1997 and 2012) have gotten a bad rap in the workplace. Whether it’s criticism about their work ethic — namely, if they actually have one — their supposed inability to hold down a job or their alleged disinclination to connect with co-workers of other generations, Zoomers have been hit with their fair share of career-focused stereotypes. And yet, three Gen Z panelists at the event — all of whom have been featured on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list at one point — have completely defied them.

‘I think ambition now looks like trying to dismantle my desire to be a part of systems that were designed for my oppression’

Marley Dias, 19, who has donated over 13,000 books spotlighting Black female protagonists through her foundation #1000BlackGirlBooks — which she created when she was just 13 years old — moderated a discussion with Gen Z entrepreneurs Daniella Pierson and Shilpa Yarlagadda about their approach to ambition not only as women but also as women of color.

“I think ambition now looks like trying to dismantle my desire to be a part of systems that were designed for my oppression,” Dias told Yahoo News, referencing what she calls the country’s “intentional exclusion” of Black history through book banning. “A new ambition is going to require innovation and require me to …maneuver my way through systems that have now very clearly and very proudly [said] that they do not and will not prioritize women of color.”

Dias continued, “I'm interested in trying to create solutions that allow young people to not rely on old ways but to realize that they have to make their own and include others in that transformation.”

‘I literally thought that I was going to amount to nothing, because everybody in my life told me that’

Daniella Pierson, 27, founded the woman-centered newsletter the Newsette while she was a freshman at Boston University. She’s since launched two more companies: Wondermind, a mental health-focused startup, and Be a Breadwinner, an initiative that aims to help women gain financial freedom. Now, with an estimated net worth of $220 million, Pierson, who is Latinx, has been recognized as the youngest wealthiest self-made woman of color in the world.

As women of color who often find themselves in rooms where, as Dias put it, “there’s a lot of people that don’t look like us” and want to “take your light and extract it into something else,” remaining true to yourself can be a difficult feat. But for Pierson, remembering that she was “laughed out of a room by an old white man whose name was on the building” helps her stay authentic as her career flourishes.

“I remember those moments and they're chips on my shoulder and that's unhealthy too. But I remember that, and that's what keeps me grounded and humble,” Pierson said. “I missed Christmas for three years in a row because I was working, but I finally saw [my family] a few months ago and it was like, ‘Why do I do all this?’ It's because I want to be happy and be free and be free to go do these things,” she said.

This pursuit of freedom — financially and otherwise — has always motivated Pierson in her work. But that freedom wasn’t just for her.

"It was also to be able to give my mother, who’s an immigrant from Colombia, a small piece of my company, and she became a multimillionaire in her own right,” she said. “But I feel this immense responsibility because I literally thought that I was going to amount to nothing, because everybody in my life told me that, and I just had to keep going and survive.”

‘I want to be ambitious with the kind of person I am’

Shilpa Yarlagadda, 27, is an Indian American entrepreneur who launched her fine jewelry business, Shiffon Co. from her Harvard University dorm room between her freshman and sophomore years. Her signature duet pinky ring has been worn by the likes of Emma Watson, Michelle Obama, Serena Williams and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.

“I wanted to make a ring that could fit anybody,” Yarlagadda said of the idea behind her adjustable ring, which she made just two samples of while in school. “Growing up in Silicon Valley, I just didn’t really see that many female founders, and a community like this today didn’t exist back then. So I was like, ‘It would be so amazing if I could donate 50% of the profits to invest in female founders.’ So now that ring has funded more than 50 startups.”

But ambition, Yarlagadda acknowledged, extends beyond the professional. As an avid journaler, she said that self-reflection and spending time with her family are among the ways she nourishes herself as a person outside of work.

“When I spend time with my family, it really grounds me and I want to be a better daughter. I want to be ambitious with the kind of person I am,” Yarlagadda said. “So I think being the CEO of yourself and what you want to take in, what you want to improve is equally important. I think, sometimes, we can be so caught up in all of our career ambitions and [feel] inadequate at times. But having those processes of how you take care of yourself is also something I’ve been looking to be ambitious with.”