Our Future of the Business World producers don’t often get to meet our podcast guests in person; our discussions are taped virtually. We’re happy to report, however, that we had a face-to-face chat with this month’s episode subject, Sahana Ahuja, while she visited the Wharton School’s Philadelphia campus in June 2023 for a summer high school leadership program. Sahana is a rising senior at the Medeira School in Virginia, U.S.
Since we had taped our podcast conversation weeks prior about her work with The Launch Project, she shared that she and a partner have since started developing an app to accompany her entrepreneurial venture empowering young women — and she has welcomed several new chapters to her organization’s network. Oh, and she wanted to give an extra shout-out to her sister Ariana, whom she mentions in our conversation. She says that Ariana, who is also in high school, works so very hard to help The Launch Project succeed.
With that, we hope you enjoy our conversation with Sahana, which is episode 34 of our Future of the Business World podcast. Be sure to click the arrow above to listen to our conversation. An edited version of the transcript appears below.
Wharton Global Youth: Welcome to Future of the Business World, the podcast that inspires high school students to learn from other young innovators. I’m Diana Drake of the Wharton Global Youth Program at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Our Wharton Global Youth community grows by thousands each year, as high school students take part in our annual investment competition, our Pre-baccalaureate courses, and our online and on-campus summer programs.
This month, we’re welcoming a new group of business leaders to our college classrooms. And today’s guest is among them. Sahana Ahuja is part of our Leadership in the Business World program, where she is no doubt sharing experiences from her own entrepreneurship journey as the founder of The Launch Project.
Sahana, it’s great to have you on Future of the Business World.
Sahana Ahuja: Hi, thank you so much for having me.
Wharton Global Youth: What is The Launch Project? When and why did you start it? And how has it grown? Tell us a little bit about it.
Sahana: The Launch Project is an international nonprofit organization focused on building critical skills and providing equitable opportunities for girls in the areas of business, politics and STEM, regardless of socioeconomic differences. We address the prevalent gender gaps that exists for women by targeting these three underrepresented areas. Some specific facts are: only 2.3% of venture capital goes to women entrepreneurs. Additionally, for the first time this year, women run more than 10% of Fortune 500 companies. Although it is higher than the 8% it was for years, it is nowhere near the 50% where we need to be. Our goal at The Launch Project is to equalize these statistics by empowering, educating and developing girls to become future female leaders, changemakers and entrepreneurs.
Since our inception, The Launch Project has expanded to 50 chapters across four continents, with an estimated membership of approximately 2,500 members. We achieve our mission through the organizations, workshops, interviews with successful female leaders, educational programs, design challenges, summits and competitions and more. Our focus remains on creating a world where girls have the same opportunities to succeed, regardless of their gender or background.
Wharton Global Youth: Fifty chapters…I’m definitely thinking about that. And that Inception started with you, correct? I mean, it all started with Sahana. Can you tell us about your inspiration for The Launch Project? And when this was and how you built from there?
Sahana: The inspiration for starting The Launch Project came from two significant experiences. The first one was my encounter with a girl abroad. She worked in extremely harsh conditions, while her brother had access to education. This was solely because of his gender. And this experience really opened my eyes to the stark realities of gender disparities, and the encounter left a lasting impact on me. This truly fueled my deep interest in addressing societal and gender equality. Additionally, attending a Girls in Leadership conference at the age of 13 made me realize the transformative power of bringing together successful female leaders as role models for teenage girls. Combining my passion for mentorship, education and gender equality, these experiences became the driving force behind the creation of The Launch Project.
Wharton Global Youth: Have you followed the progress of this young woman that you met abroad at all? And does she know that she was an inspiration for such a big, wonderful entrepreneurial venture?
Sahana: So, recently we try to contact the girl around the hotel where she was staying. We contacted them to try to reach out and provide some support to her. But unfortunately, she moved due to unforeseen circumstances.
Wharton Global Youth: So, she’s somewhere out there, and maybe she’ll discover you. I recently heard you talk about The Launch Project’s Female Empowerment Summit. Can you tell us more about this? And do you have a moment from that experience that really stands out?
Sahana: Definitely. The Launch Project Female Empowerment Summit took place at the United States Patent and Trademark Office headquarters. It showcased numerous female leaders and CEOs. Some of the speakers include the CEO of Accenture, Scout Bags, the Shatter Fund and Foundation, Marigold & Grey, and more. In addition, we were honored to have the director of the USPTO (United States Patent & Trade Office) and Senior Vice President of the WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Assocation) speak at the event. The one-day event was strategically organized to fulfill the mission of The Launch Project. It was aimed to inspire and empower participants through aligning them with the mission of the organization’s overarching goals and objectives. By fostering a transformative environment through engaging activities and discussions, the event served as a catalyst for advancing the mission of The Launch Project.
Going back to your question, a standout moment during the event was receiving the positive feedback from attendees and the impact it had on them. And a specific piece of advice from the summit that really stuck out to me that a lot of the speakers mentioned was the importance of every single school assignment. The speakers discussed how an essay will turn into a compelling email that you must write to land a business pitch or to get a job, and the importance of developing crucial skills, such as being able to write and present well.
Wharton Global Youth: Did you organize this whole thing yourself? I mean, is this really critical to the work that you’re doing — organizing these types of summits?
Sahana: Yes, I organized the event myself, along with the help of my younger sister, Ariana Ahuja. She is the vice president of The Launch Project and the assistant director of the summit.
Wharton Global Youth: How did you make all these powerful connections with businesspeople?
Sahana: So really, the most important thing that I’ve learned is just to reach out and really put yourself out there. I just created an email template, and I sent it out to as many successful business leaders and CEOs as possible. And additionally, going back to the Female Empowerment Summit that I attended when I was 13, I made some connections there. And I put myself out there for the first time at that summit. Some of the speakers I met were actually speakers at my summit.
Wharton Global Youth: Excellent. Great connections there. Part of The Launch Project’s mission is to provide equitable opportunities in business, politics and STEM, as you said. We’re throwing a lot of jargon out there in this conversation. What does gender equity mean to you? And do you really feel progress is being made in this area?
Sahana: Gender equality, as envisioned by The Launch Project, holds great significance to me. It really represents the fundamental principle that every individual regardless of their gender should have equal access to opportunities in the realms of business, politics and STEM. It truly goes beyond the mere equality and acknowledges the unique challenges and biases women and girls face. To level the playing field really means equal pay for equal work, equal opportunities and equal respect. I truly believe that progress is being made toward advancing gender equality. We have witnessed positive shifts in society with increasing recognition of importance of diversity, equity and inclusion, and efforts such as policy changes, awareness campaigns and initiatives focused on empowering women and girls. Additionally, four out of nine Supreme Court justices are women, and the Vice President is a minority woman. These have truly contributed to tangible advancements in society. Through initiatives such as mentoring programs, scholarships, and partnerships with the organizations that share the vision of The Launch Project, we are actively working to take part of changing these statistics and making more progress in society. A tangible way we are helping move the needle and drive change is through our recent partnership with the Shatter Fund to provide any young girl that is interested a free Entrepreneurship Certificate Program.
Wharton Global Youth: I really want to see the face of these young women that you’re helping. Can you give me an example of someone that you’ve met?
Sahana: A specific example is a young woman who attended a lot of our events and our recent Female Empowerment Summit. She reached out to me after and really stated how the skills and valuable assets she took away from these events helped her to present herself in a more formal way, and have the confidence to take charge of her passions. And she actually started her own business. She accredited a lot of the tangible skills she learned to The Launch Project, and the advice from the female leaders and entrepreneurs.
“The way I foster learning for everyone, including myself, is we start our meetings discussing positive things that have gone well, in order for everyone to feel success and unity within the team.”
Wharton Global Youth: I love the concept of all these chapters, you mentioned that you have 50 of them. It sounds very collaborative. How do you manage these chapters and the exchange of ideas?
Sahana: Our approach truly emphasizes the importance of a strong network. National events serve as pivotal moments where chapters come together to share experiences, insights, best practices, and more. These events provide a unifying platform that fuels collaborations and inspires innovative approaches to driving positive change. Going back to your question, some specific ways we manage these chapters are through regular check-ins, virtual meetings and collaborative platforms to enable chapters to discuss challenges, seek guidance, and exchange innovative ideas. So, while chapters are encouraged to plan their own events, The Launch Project team offers guidance and support throughout the process. This collaborative planning approach empowers chapters, allowing them to take ownership and tailor their events to their local communities, while ensuring alignment with our overall mission and objectives.
Wharton Global Youth: In managing this kind of network, I believe that you’ve probably learned something about goal setting and crafting a mission and understanding your purpose. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Sahana: Building The Launch Project has truly been one of the most gratifying experiences. It has challenged me in ways beyond an academic setting. Goal-setting, project planning and being organized, and setting milestones has been critical in order to successfully grow in an effective manner. This has not only provided me with a deeper comprehension of achieving objectives, but it has also enabled me to apply this in all facets of my life.
Wharton Global Youth: Who are some of your chapter presidents and what have you learned from them?
Sahana: Our chapter presidents consist of middle and high school students, as well as college chapters. We select them based on their application and commitment to The Launch Project’s mission. With over 50 chapters globally, the advantage of this expansion is the exchange of ideas and learning from one another. I have gained incredibly valuable insights from them. And I think it is very important to have a growth mindset where everyone has valuable contributions and input to provide. The way I foster learning for everyone, including myself, is we start our meetings discussing positive things that have gone well, in order for everyone to feel success and unity within the team. We talk about future tasks and ways to improve the execution, in order to be most effective. For example, for the summit, we had over 200 participants and needed a technology solution that would be able to manage restrictions, dietary preferences, and more for the in-person participants. And I learned from a chapter president, that a solution was using a particular technology that worked very well for our event in order to manage all of the attendees.
Wharton Global Youth: As long as we’re talking about this, what we’re learning from this experience in all this work empowering other women, I’m curious what you’ve learned about yourself and your own strengths and your own opportunities?
Sahana: So three key things that I have learned is truly being passionate about the idea you have, and managing your time efficiently. My advice for high schoolers is you should pursue something that you can do for hours, and it doesn’t feel like a task. Whenever I’m working on things for The Launch Project, I find myself getting engrossed in all of the tasks. I work on it for hours, and it doesn’t feel like work for me. And I really think you should find something that feels the same way and that doesn’t feel like work. The second thing is just to do it, as Nike says, Nothing will ever be 100%. And there will always be areas of ambiguity. You should be okay with that. And it’s really important to remember that you have to be flexible. Back in COVID, I started the organization, and I would not have imagined for it to have grown this much and have the amount of chapters and resources we have today. Additionally, mentorship is crucial and developing authentic connections is really important. I have come to learn that the most successful female CEOs and leaders are passionate about helping the next generation of girls to become future leaders. I’m still humbled by their willingness to be candid, share their lessons learned, and give really thoughtful advice. One thing that helps me is keeping a spreadsheet of all my contacts. This spreadsheet includes where we met and ongoing communication. I try to follow up with each of these contacts quarterly. I still keep in touch with many of the successful female CEOs that I met when I was 13 years old back at the first female empowerment conference I attended.
Wharton Global Youth: Do you have one you could name who has been particularly influential in your life?
Sahana: Definitely. A connection that has really stuck out to me is Amanda Zuckerman, the co founder and president of Dormify. I first met her back when I was 13. We discussed how to empower the next generation of female leaders, and this propelled my interest as well for starting The Launch Project. Ever since then, I’ve kept in contact with her and she was a recent speaker at a Launch Project event. It’s really nice to see how things came full circle from just meeting her and authentically having a connection and networking, to how it’s grown and how she’s truly become a mentor for me and The Launch Project.
Wharton Global Youth: You’re attending Wharton Global Youth’s Leadership in the Business World this summer? What do you hope to contribute to the group of dynamic young leaders? And what questions do you want to leave them pondering about the future of the business world?
Sahana: First of all, I am so excited to attend Wharton Global Youth’s Leadership in the Business World. And I’m really excited about the opportunity to contribute to this group of dynamic young leaders. I really hope to bring unique perspectives and experiences and skill sets to the table. One of the key contributions that I aim to make is to inspire my fellow participants to think critically and creatively about the future of the business world. I want to encourage them to take challenges and [question] existing norms and explore innovative approaches to addressing pressing global issues and societal challenges. By sharing my own insights and engaging in thought-provoking discussions, I hope to leave them pondering the following questions: What role can young leaders play in shaping a more equitable and inclusive business landscape? And what steps can be taken to break down barriers and promote diversity in leadership positions? Second, how can individuals, communities and institutions actively promote diversity, equity and inclusion in all aspects of their business?
Wharton Global Youth: One question I like to ask all our guests on Future of the Business World is if you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
Sahana: Great question. If I could change one thing, it would be to foster greater equality and eliminate systemic barriers that hinder individuals from reaching their full potential. This encompasses various aspects such as gender equality, racial equality, socioeconomic parity, and equal opportunities for all.
Wharton Global Youth: All right, let’s wrap up with our lightning round. Please try to answer these questions as quickly as you can. Number one is a toughy. A time that you learned from failure?
Sahana: During middle school, I ran for the position of class treasurer and I didn’t win. However, this experience became a learning moment for me, leading me to shift my focus toward social causes and ultimately, sparking the development of The Launch Project. Fast forward to this year, I ran for my school’s Head of Day Students, and I won. This journey has reinforced my belief that every setback and failure holds valuable lessons and serves as a stepping stone for future growth and successes.
Wharton Global Youth: When you’re not running The Launch Project, what is your favorite activity?
Sahana: I love reading and in my free time, I always read, whether it’s books, articles, and specifically, I like to read self-improvement books. My favorite book is Atomic Habits [by James Clear].
Wharton Global Youth: What is your hidden superpower?
Sahana: If I were to choose a superpower, it would be strength and resilience, I strongly adhere to the philosophy of find a way or make one. And when faced with skepticism, or the notion that something cannot be done, it only fuels my determination further and propels me toward accomplishing the goal at hand.
Wharton Global Youth: What was the last show you binge-watched?
Sahana: Outer Banks.
Wharton Global Youth: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Sahana: I hope to be a future leader and changemaker.
Wharton Global Youth: You’re starting your own business theme talk show. Who’s your first guest and why?
Sahana: I would pick Oprah Winfrey, because she exemplifies a strong woman who despite all odds has risen above hardships to create an entrepreneurial legacy. As a business leader, I find her ability to strike a balance between attaining financial success and upholding social responsibility to be truly admirable.
Wharton Global Youth: Sahana, thank you so much for joining us on Future of the Business World!
Sahana: Thank you for having me. It’s truly an honor.
Sahana Ahuja says we have made great strides in society toward gender equality. Do you agree? Why or why not?
Why do you think The Launch Project has caught fire? How has it been able to engage women leaders in an effort to empower young women? What is the secret sauce?
Do you have a question for Sahana? Ask it in the comments section of this article and she just might answer!