Future of the Business World: Sanjana Yeddula on Raising Gen Z’s Political Awareness

by Diana Drake

In September 2020, the Wharton Global Youth Program launched its first podcast series, Future of the Business World, which explores the motivations and creations of young entrepreneurs from around the world. The project was inspired by the program’s Future of the Business World online course, launched in the summer of 2020. Be sure to listen to our debut podcast episodes with Rucha Mehendale and Jakarta’s Jiro Noor. They’re both fascinating innovators. 

This month, our conversation fittingly focuses on Gen Z’s civic engagement, particularly as it applies to the U.S. presidential election on November 3, 2020. In the past year Sanjana Yeddula, a high school senior from New Jersey, U.S., has created a product to help youth navigate the online news about political figures. Her team won recognition at this year’s Diamond Challenge global high school entrepreneurship competition. Through the development of her digital product, Sanjana has collected insights about teenagers’ political activities and what it might take to bring the next generation of voters more deeply into the political process.

Listen to the podcast at the top of this page or on iTunes! An edited transcript of our conversation appears below. 

Wharton Global Youth Program: Hello! And welcome to Future of the Business World, a podcast that features young entrepreneurs sharing their successes, challenges, and unique perspectives. I’m Diana Drake with the Wharton Global Youth Program at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. At Wharton Global Youth, we work with lots of high school students through our summer programs, competitions, and online business journal. Honestly, they inspire us. Time and again, they tell us their stories of innovation and entrepreneurship. And they pitch their ideas with endless passion and creativity. So, we decided to bring some of those stories to you.

Today, I’d like to welcome Sanjana Yeddula to Future of the Business World. It’s great to meet you. Sanjana is a high school senior from New Jersey in the U.S. About a year ago, she launched a product called PoliPro, a Google Chrome extension that helps people explore politics and better understand current events. As we navigate an energized election season in the U.S., I think it’s a great time to discuss this topic. Sanjana, can you tell us more about PoliPro? How does it work?

Sanjana Yeddula: Like you said, PoliPro is a Google Chrome extension that I developed with some friends. We noted that a lot of teenagers our age aren’t aware of what’s happening in our country and not very engaged with our political discourse. When we began to ask around we noticed that it came down to two main factors: people weren’t willing to put in as much time to read news articles and when they began to do so oftentimes it got really confusing. The goal of PoliPro is to ease these two obstacles without having people stray from their typical news sources. All you have to do is go to the Google Chrome store, download the PoliPro extension and after that you’re good to go.

If you’re on any article on the web, you can highlight an unknown figure or political figure and click the PoliPro icon in the corner of your browser. After that, a pop-up will come up right next to your article that provides further background on whatever you’re reading. For instance, if you’re reading about our current election and want to know more about Kamala Harris, you highlight her name and a picture of her with different icons that indicate her policies will pop up. You can hover over her picture to learn more about here or her different policies to get different information about who she is or what she stands for. It cuts down the time it takes to read the article because you don’t have to go to another tab to learn more. And we’re really committed to not delivering biased information, so all the information in the PoliPro database comes from unbiased sources. We’re also aware of the potential dangers that condensed news poses, so we really stress to our users that PoliPro is meant to enhance your experience while reading the news and not replace it.

Wharton Global Youth: Help me understand how you built this. What goes into the back end for a product like this?

Sanjana: It definitely took a lot to build it. I can’t say single-handedly that I built it. It took a lot of help from people on the team. When you’re developing these kinds of extensions, you want to learn along the way. I’m not an expert coder, but the fun came in figuring out things as I went along. It took months and months, but after the final product was out there it was so worth it.

“A lot of my peers who are at that age to vote or can register don’t do so because they feel their vote doesn’t matter.” — Sanjana Yeddula

Wharton Global Youth: You’ve said that “fake news” really motivated you to act entrepreneurially. What is fake news and how has it influenced your innovative spirit around civic engagement?

Sanjana: I see fake news as information that is not factual or credible. It attempts to lure readers in, especially young readers, with flashy headlines and images. A lot of news sources have gotten very good at this. It’s not something that will be going away any time soon. Unfortunately that’s how the media works these days, but for a lot of young people, sometimes the line between what’s credible and what’s not becomes blurred. It’s really easy to fall into those traps. Everyone has been there at some point. With credible news sources, they usually have more heavy material that takes a good amount of time to digest. In doing my research, I learned that there isn’t much out there that can flag fake news. So our goal quickly became to create something that would give credible news sources the similar appeal that fake news sources have, such as convenience and time efficiency.

Wharton Global Youth: How do you define a credible news source? Can you give me some examples?

Sanjana: The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post. Although these news sources do have some political bias, they are delivering you the right information. If you’re looking for something that is not as partisan in our country, you could go to international news sources, such as the BBC.

Wharton Global Youth: Is this primarily a U.S.-based tool? Or does it work globally?

Sanjana: As of now, PoliPro is U.S.-based, but because we’re available on the Google Chrome store, it does work globally. We have downloads in other countries such as India and Kenya, but our content is really based on American politics. Our next step is to figure out what countries we can build a strong customer base in. Although our mission was originally focused on America, as we’ve spoken to mentors and experts in the field we’re really understanding how this extension can make a global impact as well.

Wharton Global Youth: Generation Z, which you’re a part of, is the most diverse and digitally connected generation in the U.S. You guys were born after 1996, so you’ve endured a serious recession, a pandemic, a climate crisis, mass shootings, global unrest, police violence. That’s heavy stuff.  I read that some 24 million members of Gen Z will be eligible to vote this November. How has your generation’s diversity as well as all that it has experienced helped to shape its political views?

Sanjana: Everything you’re saying is very true. I feel like every generation has their fair share of catastrophes to live through. What really distinguishes Generation Z is the way we harness technology to talk about these issues. There are countless resources and platforms available at our fingertips for us to talk to people who have different backgrounds and political views. We really use our diversity as an asset to learn from each other and grow as individuals. Although there can definitely be downsides, having that table open for discussion has allowed me to step out of my bubble and learn about the world as other people see it.

Wharton Global Youth: You engage politically with your peers. What issues are on their minds and hearts? What do you identify as the most serious political issues for the future?

Sanjana: When I talk about the future of our country with my peers, what really riles up people lately has been race issues. We’re happy to see how many people have come together through that. When we started hearing about George Floyd and what’s happening in different parts of the country, despite the pandemic people were still willing to go out to protest. That speaks volumes about how our generation is going to react to bigger issues and how we can really take action on change. When you have people who are as young as we are and as old as it gets fighting for the same issue together, that’s how change comes about. That’s what I would identify as the biggest issue for our future, but the way people are reacting to it there’s also a lot of hope going forward.

Wharton Global Youth: Do young voters feel the system is broken, which fuels their apathy around civic engagement?

Sanjana: I definitely feel that people feel that the system is broken. A lot of my peers who are at that age to vote or can register don’t do so because they feel their vote doesn’t matter. Especially in an election where there are a large portion of voters using mail-in ballots, a lot of young voters are expressing concerns about corruption. I would say the biggest factor that fuels apathy comes from the way that politics are dramatized in the media. People know more about our leader’s public scandal than actual policies. That’s really frightening. For example, if you take the recent Presidential debate [on September 29], a lot of people were tuning in to see how the two candidates would bicker instead of actually focusing on the meat of the policies. This attitude toward politics deters people from being actively engaged.

Wharton Global Youth: How do you change that?

Sanjana: It comes down to how you want to live your future. Do you want your kids or your grandkids to grow up in a world where politics is essentially seen as a reality TV show, or do you want them to live in a safe democracy? When you think about the future, I think that’s when people really start to mature and understand why these issues are important and why it’s important to take politics seriously. It comes from the bottom up. I really believe that.

Wharton Global Youth: Can you share analytics on PoliPro’s use? Are youth using it? In general, do you feel your classmates and peers are becoming more energized around political issues?

Sanjana: Since the launch [about a year ago], we have upwards of 300 downloads. Daily active users really range from day to day. We notice that during more politically active times, such as when the debates are getting closer, there are more active daily users. When I introduce the product to my friends and teachers, they all get very excited about it. They tell me how helpful it is and how much they’re learning. It’s heartwarming to hear that and it motivates us to think bigger. Currently, we’re working with some schools to get PoliPro installed on school devices, but this process has been slowed down with COVID-19 impacting schools.

Wharton Global Youth: Can you share a story that illustrates this entrepreneurial journey for you? A moment when you felt like your product was making a true difference?

Sanjana: When my team and I wanted to take this to the next level, we entered an entrepreneurship contest that would bring us funding and also access to a lot of mentors. When we were there and talking to these big CEOs in Philadelphia, we noticed that adults were getting excited about this. We thought that we would be targeting a younger audience, but when we had adults who are professionals saying they could benefit from this and that it was helpful, it made our idea seem more real. We thought it was something we have to stick with and something we have to keep developing. It’s really making a difference in people’s lives.

Wharton Global Youth: What’s been your biggest stumbling point?

Sanjana: Developing, for sure. There have been nights when I’m up trying to make one little feature work and I’ll mess up [the code] and have to go back and start from the very beginning. When you’re done with it and you make that one little feature work even if people notice it or not, it’s such a fulfilling feeling. It makes you want to just keep learning more.

Wharton Global Youth: Will you be voting in the U.S. election this November?

Sanjana: Unfortunately, I will not be because I’m 17. I missed the cut by about five months. But I am registered to vote, so the next opportunity I have, I definitely will.

Wharton Global Youth: What lasting thoughts would you like to share with high school students about the importance of civic engagement?

Sanjana: I would say that we’re all really in it for the same goal. Regardless, if you think your vote matters or it doesn’t, there are so many different ways to get engaged, whether that is through campaigns or getting involved in your community. Voting is just one way. Knowing what is happening in our nation and understanding the root of these problems is how they get solved. Even if you feel as though your one voice doesn’t matter, our voice in numbers is what is going to make a difference in the long run.

Wharton Global Youth: One question I like to ask all of the entrepreneurs we interview on Future of the Business World is…If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?

Sanjana: That’s definitely a really difficult one. In a very ideal world, I would make sure that everyone has access to basic needs, regardless of whether it is developed or developing countries. When people no longer have to worry about health care or getting access to basic needs and having food on the table it opens up new doors and creates that chain reaction of progress. As a global society, the less people have to worry about basic survival, the more we can focus on these bigger issues.

Wharton Global Youth: And let’s wrap up with our lightning round. Answer these questions as quickly as you can.

What rally would you most like to attend?

Sanjana: Women’s rights. I’m a huge advocate.

Wharton Global Youth: Business-related issue you would most like to see on the ballot?

Sanjana: Data protection. It’s been very controversial lately with Tik Tok and Facebook.

Wharton Global Youth: One product or service that just makes you smile?

Sanjana: Those long-distance lamps that you can touch to let people know you’re thinking of them.

Wharton Global Youth: A technology innovation that blows your mind?

Sanjana: Undoubtedly the versatility of artificial intelligence.

Wharton Global Youth: The business person would you most like to invite to lunch and why?

Sanjana: Donald Bren, because I’m fascinated by his real estate empire and I would love to learn about how he got started and any advice he has.

Sanjana, thanks so much for sharing your story with us on Future of the Business World!

Sanjana: Thank you so much for having me. This was great.

Related Links

Conversation Starters

In describing PoliPro, Sanjana Yeddula says, “We’re really committed to not delivering biased information, so all the information in the PoliPro database comes from unbiased sources.” What does she mean by this?

Sanjana says, “When you think about the future, I think that’s when people really start to mature and understand why these issues are important and why it’s important to take politics seriously.” Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not? Speak to Sanjana’s ideas in the comment section and she will respond!

How do you feel about the political process, especially at a time when the United States is so divided in how it thinks politically? Do you agree that the system is broken? Are you disenchanted with politics as a result? Or does it energize you? Share your thoughts in the comment section of this article.

5 comments on “Future of the Business World: Sanjana Yeddula on Raising Gen Z’s Political Awareness

  1. I think what makes PoliPro such a great product is that it addresses one of the most pressing issues for our generation: political awareness. Gen Z is the future of politics. This is why it’s so important for us to engage in discussions about the global political climate, no matter how stressful or confusing these discussions may be. If we as a generation do not take the initiative to educate ourselves about politics, then our future is in great jeopardy.

  2. I have a confession to make: I have 56 Chrome tabs open right now. It is not a lot, but it is enough to crash my computer a good few times. In my defense, I am doing some research to better prepare for the upcoming debate season, but thank you, PoliPro! At least seven of my tabs are meant for defining key terms and figures, and PoliPro’s exact purpose is to cut down this excessive space. PoliPro is a niche innovation, but what are its limits? Does it do more harm than good in the long-term?

    I have been debating for six years and am starting my seventh in August. Especially when it is tournament season (around September/October and January/February), I am reminded of the torturous nature of debate: pulling all-nighters, waking up early at 7 AM to attend competitions, raiding the nearest convenience store of its stock of Red Bull–this is debatably hilarious too–, and worst of all, handling the occasional arrogance and aggression that pervade the competitive space. However, despite all of these cons, I have stayed committed to the activity because it has rekindled my sense of curiosity and love for research.

    My daily commute to school takes an average of 3 hours round-trip, so while I am on the bus and train, I huddle over my screen, scrolling through news sites and perusing dissertations. A great research strategy I have learned is to always check through the references section of an article. There are usually great resources and authors that are hidden in those citations, and I usually go down and get lost in that rabbit hole. But that is what makes the experience so riveting! Picking up new information, witnessing the clash of different perspectives, and feeling the satisfaction of finding the perfect statistic! I have delved deep into many political and economic topics thanks to the art of web-surfing.

    However, PoliPro’s main purpose is to streamline the Googling process and make it more manageable so that teenagers are willing to look into politics. After all, it makes sense–we often associate innovation with convenience and efficiency. I went ahead and tried out PoliPro, and here are some of my initial thoughts:

    PoliPro might limit Gen Z’s political interest and engagement in the long-run. PoliPro provides the basic information of relevant terms and people, and for many students, that is enough. As a result, many users may not feel the need to dig deeper and learn the nuances and caveats of certain issues. Especially as more and more social justice issues come up, there is a growing obligation for all of us to better understand our political and social climates at a more thorough level. PoliPro takes away some of that obligation and pressure, for better or for worse.

    Throughout the interview, Sanjana mentions fake news as another major problem that our generation faces. I think PoliPro can fall under the same criticism of misinformation because it does not tell the user where its information is coming from. For example, when a user searches up Kamala Harris, we get a basic portfolio of the Vice-President and her stances on issues such as abortion, the healthcare system, etc. But where is this information from? Are they from Wikipedia pages? An amalgamation of different news articles? Users might feel slight hesitation and doubt because we simply do not know where these facts come from.

    However, fear not! As I mentioned, the Chrome extension is niche and addresses a vital, budding concern for people of all ages. I think these two concerns mainly stem from logistical and technical issues that PoliPro can address as the application further develops and expands. It would be nice for PoliPro to include a references section. It would also be cool for the extension to suggest additional websites and links for those who are interested in learning more. That way, PoliPro maintains its convenience, but it gives users the opportunity to give into their curiosity and become more well-informed citizens of the United States and the world.

    Just like how research is critical for a debater’s success, iteration is key for entrepreneurs and their products, and I am excited to see PoliPro continue to experiment and succeed!

    Thank you for a wonderful interview, Sanjana and Knowledge @ Wharton!

  3. I was really impressed with Sanjana’s innovation of PoliPro. Her invention is not only helpful to myself but to many students I know who are curious and want to be more politically astute. What really resonated with me was when she said “Alot of my peers who are at that age to vote or can register don’t do so because they feel their vote doesn’t matter.” I completely agree with this statement and feel confident that when you advocate for something, regardless if it is not voted on, it can affect the opinions of other people and your issue will be taken more seriously in your community. Voting is the most fundamental way of expressing an opinion on what the parties are planning on doing if elected. To me her innovation encourages the previous statement because her product is able to impact many communities and allow people to stir up factually political dialog. These conversations may lead people to go out and vote. Entrepreneurs and innovations like Sanjana’s are important to all communities, especially minority communities.

    In this case Sanjana’s innovation is able to impact the community around where I live. Not only do my peers think that their vote doesn’t matter but also many older people in my Hispanic community feel this way as well. Many Cuban Americans like myself want to change this. The Hispanic community is known in political circles as the sleeping giant. The Hispanic population in the US has grown from 4.4% of the nation’s population in 1970 to 17.6% in 2016. It now represents the nation’s largest and youngest minority group. Despite their individual and group achievements, Latinos have yet to fully share in the benefits afforded to other members of the broader community in the U.S. In my community the Hispanic community struggled with leaving behind jobs where they experienced anti-immigrant sentiment or ethnic discrimination. In 2016, Latinos only accounted for 6.4% of all entrepreneurs in the country. We need to make sure that new Latino startups have the financial support to survive and to enhance further entrepreneurship activity in our Latino community. Political awareness and voting can help change this. The Hispanic community needs to turn up in large numbers and vote if they wish to change the system. The key to increasing Latino voter participation is finding strategies to motivate the Latino electorate to register to vote. I think knowledge of the political arena will encourage this. Sanjana said that she originally targeted this tool to a younger audience but thought adults could benefit as well. I agree that Polipro would not only be a great help to my peers but my Hispanic community young and old as well. In addition, I believe that getting involved with your political community and suggesting this browser extension to other peers will help fix this. I feel that my experiences interning with my city councilmember would benefit others in my community learning about local politics.

    I look forward to Polipro’s advances and I will be recommending it to those in my community. This is one small step for youth, one giant leap for equality for everyone!

  4. After a school-wide voting info session for the 2020 Election, I was rallying some of my friends to go to the community conversation afterward on bipartisan political policies.

    “Come on, let’s go see what they have to say!” I blurted, but my friend shook his head slightly.

    “I don’t know what to talk about though… ” My heart sank.

    If I had known about Sanjana’s PoliPro, I would have added it to my friend’s Google Browser right then. For my daily news check today, I downloaded PoliPro to check it out. Making my usual rounds through SCMP, BBC, and the NY Times, I stumbled across an unfamiliar name “Seth Moulton.” With PoliPro at hand, I highlighted his name, and a tag list of Moulton’s abortion, healthcare, economy, gun control, and immigration policies popped up. In a few words, the captions summarized Mouton’s stance on each category. Knowing full well that I would have normally glanced past the name, I was delighted to learn more about this MA congressman who turned out to be the representative of my district! User friendly, quick, and straight-to-the-point, PoliPro offers an ingenious option for both my friend and myself, meeting us at where we are and encouraging us to learn as we go. I see Polipro’s philosophy of “encouraging learning as one goes” as the embodiment of Generation Z’s entrepreneurial spirit, and Sanjana exemplified this ideal through her own actions. Despite the many difficulties she encountered when programing Polipro, especially in coding its back end, Sanjana embraced the challenge and “learned along the way.” With Polipro, she is allowing other young people to do the same.

    Channeling Sanjana and Polipro’s innovative spirit, I hope Sanjana and her team can expand Polipro to address the issue of political polarization. Along with the fake news that prompted Sanjana’s project, uniformly opinionated media prompted by various algorithms facilitated the growing divide. People are constantly experiencing confirmation bias with the information that their news outlets, social media, and search engines have selected to their liking. Even with its current functions, I can see how PoliPro will fit perfectly into combating this side-picking frenzy. For instance, while browsing on a biased news site, PoliPro can suggest an article by a news site with opposing or moderate views, so readers can get a comprehensive overview of the matter with simple clicks. PoliPro could also prompt reminders when readers browse extremist websites. These functions, if implemented, can not only allow political “newbies” to get a full range of opinions but also allow already politically active browsers to be mindful of their biases and keep an open mind, enabling all of us to learn along the way.

    As the arguably most tech-savvy and well-connected generation, Gen Z still has a long way to go in becoming more politically connected and less divided. But with Polipro to help us learn while browsing, I have no doubt that Gen Z will change the narrative of politics from being a divisive subject to a path to reach mutual understanding. Thinking back to the origins of my own political interests, it was one of my friends from middle school who brought up hot topics in international politics during lunch. Casual and open-minded, my friend allowed me to explore politics without bias and finger-pointing. I was beyond fortunate to have a friend like her, but with Polipro, everyone can have such a friend, encouraging learning as you go.

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