21 Gen Z Locals To Watch

Members of Gen Z, born in 1997 or later, include entrepreneurial, tech-savvy, and politically progressive young people who are leading the next wave of innovation and doing incredible things across the country and in our own backyard. We’ve chosen a few from O.C. to represent their cohort—athletes, podcasters, performers, documentarians, social justice reformers, humanitarians, and more.

Tatum Larsen and Sydney Charles
Ages: 23 and 22, respectively
Cohosts of the “Black Fam 2.5” podcast

Bona fides: UC Irvine literary journalism graduates Larsen and Charles were first introduced by lecturer Amy DePaul, who recommended the pair collaborate on a podcast for a class project. The two became fast friends and launched “Black Fam 2.5” in early 2020. The podcast aims to redefine the minority experience and began by focusing on issues affecting Black students at UC Irvine. The name references the low percentage of Black students at UC schools. The women interviewed students and faculty first, and later expanded to topics outside of campus—everything from mental health and the impact of COVID-19 on minority populations to the Black Lives Matter movement. The School of Humanities asked the duo to host an online video series highlighting Black students, alumni, and faculty. “The Welcome Table” was funded by the Office of Inclusive Excellence and won a Council for Advancement and Support of Education District VII gold award. Larsen and Charles are now roommates and doctoral students at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

In their words: “Within the first week of launching, a Black guy came up to me at a grocery store near campus and was like, ‘Hey, you made that podcast! I really like it.’ It felt so good to have someone from the community we were making it for validate it and say they needed it.”—Sydney Charles

“In every generation, it’s the young people leading the activism. We have to hold the older generations accountable. We need everybody to get with the program, because there’s no going back. We’re going forward.”—Tatum Larsen

Gen Z Inspiration: Both: Zoe-Raven Wianecki, Tatiahna Chrishon, Alesia Robinson, and Sarah Sulewski of OC Protests Community Coalition

Ava August
Age: 16

Bona fides: The Laguna Niguel teen caught the nation’s attention in the spring when she made it to the Top 12 on “American Idol.” The Dana Hills High School student plays piano, ukulele, and guitar, and has been singing at farmers markets, baseball games, and other community events around Orange County since she was very young. A talent scout reached out to her to audition for NBC’s “The Voice” at age 12. Though she didn’t receive a chair turn, she got another opportunity last year when she was asked to audition for “American Idol.” After earning a golden ticket to Hollywood, her performances were heavily showcased during her run, most memorably a duet with Josh Groban on the Joni Mitchell classic “Both Sides Now.” Judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan praised the performance, calling it “Oscar-worthy.” August is in talks with record labels, recently performed the national anthem at SoFi Stadium, and is set to release new music.

In her words: “The music industry today is so different for my generation. You used to get signed, and that was it. It’s a lot more work now in terms of finding your own path. There are so many opportunities to be heard now, which is great, but on the other hand you’re competing with everyone including viral TikTok videos. But you just have to follow your dreams. My dream is to perform at Ohana Fest or even Coachella one day.”

Gen Z Inspiration: singer Billie Eilish

Miguel Zamudio
Age: 22
Volunteer at LGBTQ Center OC in Santa Ana

Bona fides: The Irvine resident is one of the facilitators of Prism, a young adult group for the local queer community in Orange County. One of the group’s goals is creating a safe space for everyone to feel comfortable. Zamudio was originally a member of the group when the previous facilitator noticed his leadership qualities. He started to draw more people to the group by organizing events including game nights and “Queers, Peers, and Dears,” an annual speed dating event. In addition to being a source of comfort for members, the group provides information about navigating healthy relationships, safe sex, financial literacy, and finding a job. With a goal of being a social worker, Zamudio finds joy in bringing people together and is eager for in-person events to return.

In his words: “Growing up queer in O.C. was definitely rocky. I am also Mexican American, and there’s a machismo culture that pushes you to not be queer. It was the wellness counselor at my high school who first helped me out and led me to the direction of the LGBTQ Center. (My experience) definitely impacted me; I wanted to be a figure for other people. Prism is so important because as a young queer adult, the first
thing thrown in your face is alcohol and drugs. I created events at the center (that were) alcohol-free and

Gen Z Inspiration: James Bacon, volunteer at LGBTQ Center OC

Brooke Shannon
Age: 24
Founder of Jilaine Swim

Bona fides: Shannon’s love for the ocean began when she moved to Huntington Beach as she was entering high school. In an oceanography class, she learned about the poor state of our oceans and began participating in beach cleanups. Her passions for swimwear and design were melded together when she attended Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, where she not only learned more about the industry, but also how the waste it produces negatively impacts the environment. Jilaine Swim, the line that bears her middle name, uses fabrics made from regenerated ocean waste and recycled water bottles. The durability and quality of the material also prevent it from releasing harmful particles into the ocean, which can happen with fast-fashion fabrics. Her designs have caught the eyes of celebrities including Jillian Michaels, who wore a Jilaine Swim top on the cover of Women’s Health UK.

In her words: “(It’s important to) understand that it’s better to have quality over quantity and learn where you’re buying your products from. It’s worth buying a sustainable product over something that’s fast fashion.”

Gen Z Inspiration: YouTuber Emma Chamberlain

Natalie Nielsen
Age: 19
Received AA in Japanese while in high school

Bona fides: Nielsen’s love for anime drew her to the Japanese language. But it wasn’t one of the languages offered at El Modena High School in Orange. So the incoming freshman asked her counselor and principal if she could take a Japanese class at Irvine Valley College and have it apply to her high school credits. They agreed to the plan. After taking several classes, Nielsen decided to work toward receiving her AA in Japanese. During the pandemic, Nielsen created a club through her high school called the College Prep and Future Planning Club, where she informed fellow classmates about dual enrollment and the options available to them. Nielsen graduated Summa Cum Laude in December with her AA. In June, she graduated high school and is now studying engineering at UCLA.

In her words: “I’d say I work about as hard as a varsity athlete, because it takes about the same amount of time—you spend a few hours after school (at the college class) and then a few more hours of homework.”

Gen Z Inspiration: Dutch inventor and entrepreneur Boyan Slat

Nikhita Kaushik
Age: 16
Founder and president of the Southern California Youth Neuroscience Association

Bona fides: In elementary school, Kaushik was introduced to a child with autism, which launched her interest in neuroscience. This continued into high school at Arnold O. Beckman High in Irvine, when she attended a two-week camp focused on neurobiology. After realizing that most kids interested in neuroscience don’t have access to classes on the subject until college, Kaushik began the Southern California Youth Neuroscience Association (SCYNA). Members can attend career panels, lectures by professors, and even journal clubs where they read various neuroscience articles and discuss them with graduate students. The association also reaches out to elementary school students to spark early interest. Prospective members can join by applying online.

In her words: “In school, we don’t have any classes that talk about the brain and depths of neuroscience. It’s such a vast field, so different people with different interests can go into it.”

Gen Z Inspiration: family friend Padmaja Sundaram

Keane Veran
Age: 23
Founded a company, OURA, to help Make-A-Wish kids

Bona fides: At age 10, the Anaheim Hills resident was diagnosed with leukemia. After the Make-A-Wish Foundation gave him the opportunity to meet President Barack Obama, he felt inspired to give back to the group by becoming an ambassador and speaking at charity events. At the same time, Veran was undergoing chemotherapy, which caused him to lose his hair. He started wearing hats and realized how dirty they got. Having a compromised immune system, he wanted to find hats that could be easily washed or that were antimicrobial. In 2017, he was declared a cancer survivor. That same year, he and his brother started OURA, which creates products such as hats, aprons, towels, and more with antimicrobial compounds woven into the fibers. Each purchase helps grant a wish to a child in the Make-A-Wish program. So far, the company has granted six wishes.

In his words: “The one thing that really stood out to me was (Obama) talked to me like I wasn’t just another kid. He made me feel so comfortable for someone who was so nervous and insecure, and I think that was what really stood out to me the most. He said, ‘It’s kids like you that really inspire me.’ To hear that from one of my idols was just beyond anything I could really hope for.”

Gen Z Inspiration: activist and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai

Claire Jantzen and Sara Nell
Age: Both 22
Codirectors of a 2021 GSA BAFTA Student Award-nominated film

Bona fides: During a film class, Chapman University students Jantzen and Nell were put into a group of five women to create a short documentary. The group looked to the two of them to be the film’s directors, and Nell also edited the project. The team wanted to make a film that helped to bridge the gap between the older and younger generations’ understanding and opinion of climate change. Jantzen and Nell began researching subjects for their film, which is when they came across a now 95-year-old Glacier National Park ranger, Doug Follett, who had been working in the park for close to 60 years. The film, “Your Friend, Ranger Doug,” is focused on Follett and his powerful messages about climate change, having witnessed the glaciers melting firsthand. After winning awards at various festivals, Jantzen and Nell learned their film had been nominated for a 2021 Global Student Accommodation BAFTA Student Award, one of the most prestigious student film awards.

In their words: “(The experience) alone was a big enough win for us. That’s what filmmaking is for us—the process of creating and what you learn along the way.”—Claire Jantzen

“I felt that our personal strengths were each other’s weaknesses. We really balanced each other out.”—Sara Nell

Gen Z Inspiration: Both: cinematographer Céline François and producer Kayla Borkovec

Kaya Do-Khanh
Age: 19

Bona fides: At 17, Irvine’s Do-Khanh self-published “When You Know Nothing,” a poetry book that is available on Amazon. She describes the book as “a collection and dissection of (the) emotions of a Generation Z teen.” The book is also heavily influenced by Do-Khanh’s love of the sea; she grew up on the beaches of Orange County and vacationed in Hawaii every year with her family. She developed a habitual and natural love for writing in middle school, always scribbling in journals and forming her thoughts as poems. She looks up to fellow poet Rupi Kaur, who has a distinctive, minimalistic style and whose poems are accessible and often shared on Instagram. Going into her second year as an English and communications major at UC Davis, Do-Khanh is working on a project depicting the college experience during the COVID-19 era.

In her words: “I think my book itself is the characterization of Generation Z having grown up with technology. I was able to self-publish a poetry book with online resources at 17. I think people can step into the mind of an Orange County Gen Z teen through this book. It captures the breaking, the loving, the growing, the beginnings, the endings, and how social media and technology (are) part of our lives.”

Gen Z Inspiration: O.C. poet and activist Kinsale Hueston

Photograph courtesy of Tisha Custodio

Tisha Custodio
Age: 20
Actress and singer-songwriter

Bona fides: The OCSA alumna recently starred in “Big Shot,” a Disney+ original series featuring O.C.’s own John Stamos, who plays a basketball coach at an all-girls private high school. Custodio credits her passion for acting to her Shakespeare instructor Peter Uribe. She went on to become an intern at Shakespeare Orange County. On the show, she portrays Carolyn “Mouse” Smith, one of the girls on the team. An episode that aired during Pride Month this year included a scene in which her character confesses her romantic feelings to another girl through song. As a Filipino American immigrant, she is passionate about helping create and tell stories centered on diversity. She was especially drawn to “Big Shot” for touching on topics that aren’t highlighted as much in the media. Also a talented musician who plays guitar and banjo, Custodio spends her free time writing songs with the goal of releasing a debut EP.

In her words: “(I saw) Mouse start as a strict rule follower and end up as a confident and self-assured young woman at the end of the season. It didn’t really hit me that Mouse meant a lot to younger audiences until I started receiving messages saying how this character I am portraying is helping them feel more confident in who they truly are, since they finally have a character that represents them in the media.”

Gen Z Inspiration: castmate Tiana Le

Photograph courtesy of Jordan Bentley

Jordan Bentley
Age: 24
Owner of clothing brand Hypland

Bona fides: Bentley started Hypland for a school project when he was 13. He awoke from a dream in which he had collaborated with an anime show, which sparked the idea of combining his love of fashion with anime. His school project turned into a hobby, selling shirts at school. In 2016, when Bentley was 19 years old and attending UC Irvine, Hypland made its first million dollars. After realizing how his business was quickly turning into a full-time job, Bentley switched his computer science major to international business, which helped him with his company. In 2018, he started selling Hypland at Zumiez; now it’s one of the top-selling brands at the retail chain. This month, Hypland will release a collaboration with Yu-Gi-Oh.

In his words: “What I love so much about school that helped me with my business was … I got to talk to so many different folks that are studying different things, and I could really implement knowledge and information from all these subjects. I think that was my main takeaway from college—all the relationships and the freethinking ideas everyone has while you’re in school.”

Gen Z Inspiration: his brother Trevor Williams

Photograph courtesy of Laurie Hernandez

Laurie Hernandez
Age: 21
Olympic Gold medalist, author, and TV personality

Bona fides: At age 16, Hernandez earned two medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics: gold for the women’s gymnastics team event and silver on the balance beam. She later became champion of “Dancing With the Stars.” She has also penned a memoir, “I Got This: To Gold and Beyond,” and a children’s book, “She’s Got This,” both of which made it onto The New York Times bestsellers list. After an injury kept her from competing in Tokyo, Hernandez leaned into her experience, hosting “American Ninja Warrior Junior” and doing Olympics commentary for NBC Sports. She lives in Costa Mesa and is looking forward to pursuing a career in acting and production while continuing to be an advocate for mental health. Catch her in the Gold Over America Tour gymnastics event.

In her words: “My mom’s a social worker and my sister’s a therapist, so I kind of grew up learning a lot about mental health. I struggled a lot when I was younger in understanding my mental health and even though things were explained to me, there was still a lot of self-discovery that was happening throughout the years. Once I started talking about it publicly, people were just responding and connecting with everything I was saying. Even on TikTok, I’ll joke about my own struggles in a way that people can connect with. It’s spreading the word about it and pulling the stigma (away) from it.”

Gen Z Inspiration: American trampoline gymnast Charlotte Drury and American snowboarder Chloe Kim

Nithin Parthasarathy
Age: 17
Zero Waste Initiative founder

Bona fides: Parthasarathy is the founder of Zero Waste Initiative, a nonprofit that collects food otherwise discarded from local eateries and gives it to organizations that feed the hungry. The group has donated more than $140,000 in food that would have been thrown out. Parthasarathy had to make a lot of phone calls at the start to convince food venues of the need for the program, gaining his first agreement with Bruegger’s Bagels. Now the initiative receives extra food for donation from close to a dozen Orange County places. The Northwood High School (in Irvine) alumnus and finalist for the 2021 California Prudential Spirit of Community Award believes Zero Waste has had a positive impact on the community. He’s actively looking to recruit more people to join in the effort and hopes to add to the list of businesses that can donate surplus food. Parthasarathy says he’ll always remember the smiles on people’s faces, especially the kids, when he shows up with his bags of free food for those in need.

In his words: “I’m so grateful that I have the opportunity to help people. We even donated bagels to the firefighters fighting the Silverado Canyon fire last year.”

Gen Z Inspiration: environmental activist Greta Thunberg

Tara Tanjasiri
Age: 24
Food safety manager at Crema Bakery in Irvine

Bona fides: As the daughter of Tarit Tanjasiri, owner and chief executive baker of Crema Bakery, Tara grew up in the food industry, working at the family restaurant in Seal Beach. After a whirlwind year for the family business, she stepped up and lent her knowledge and expertise to expand the bakery’s wholesale clients. She describes her role as “making other people’s jobs easier,” handling everything from payroll to cooking staff meals. During the pandemic, Tanjasiri hand-delivered baked goods to neighbors and was on-site at the artisan pop-up in Orange distributing free meals to frontline health care workers. She has also been instrumental in maintaining a tremendous standard for health and safety, which has led Crema to secure accounts as large as the Disneyland Resort. After studying environmental science at USC, Tanjasiri is also helping transition Crema Bakery into the digital age and becoming more eco-friendly in its operations.

In her words: “I think the thing I bring right now is a fresh perspective. I helped redo all the websites. We used to have paper ordering for all the pies. We made nearly 900 pies in 2019, but we switched to online ordering and made more than 1,200 in 2020. Instead of paper invoices, we’re using digital invoices.”

Gen Z Inspiration: roommate Stephanie Kim, project coordinator at “AsianBossGirl”

Elena Bock
Age: 20
Co-president and hub coordinator of Sunrise Movement at UC Irvine

Bona fides: An environmental science and policy major at UC Irvine, Bock has been passionate about the topic of climate change since she was quite young. Originally from Davis, the rising junior chose UC Irvine specifically for its interdisciplinary environmental science program. Bock heard about Sunrise Movement—a national youth organization focusing on political action for climate change—when she was a freshman. Now she runs the group alongside her friend Kelly Perymon. Bock considers her chapter’s biggest achievement thus far to be pressuring Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) to publicly support and cosponsor the Green New Deal in Congress. Bock and her team pushed for a meeting with Porter for months, using social media to make their voices heard. They also appear at local town halls and protests, armed with facts and posters and prepared to face those pushing back on their ideas.

In her words: “Climate change is one of the biggest threats to our generation. We’re taking action because we’re feeling its effects already, and it’s only going to get worse. Sometimes we show up with our signs and banners and people tell us we’re too young and uneducated to know what this country needs. It’s intimidating. But we just have to rise above.”

Gen Z Inspiration: Kelly Perymon, co-president and hub coordinator of Sunrise Movement at UC Irvine

Jordyn Curet
Age: 12
Actress, model, and singer

Bona fides: The Orange County native is an up-and-coming star who started modeling as a baby, eventually landing commercials for Target and campaigns for brands such as Gap and Guess. She then embarked on her acting career and moved to Los Angeles to pursue it full time, appearing in the hit Disney Channel series “Bizaardvark” alongside Olivia Rodrigo and Jake Paul. Since her acting debut, she has appeared in the Oscar-winning drama “A Marriage Story” starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver and is a series regular on ABC’s “Home Economics,” now in its second season. Curet is also working on a secret Lucasfilm project and hopes to one day star in her own drama film.

In her words: “My character Shamiah (on “Home Economics”) is a super sweet, super outgoing girl. She loves fighting for what she stands for such as social justice and women’s rights. All of that is what she is willing to put out into the world. She’s not afraid to speak her mind. I relate to her because she is so outgoing and so courageous with those things.”

Gen Z Inspiration: tennis player Naomi Osaka

Photograph courtesy of Annie Somers

Annie Somers
Age: 19
Led protest for in-person learning at Newport Harbor High School

Bona fides: After months of online learning in 2020, Somers longed to get back into the classroom for face-to-face interaction with her teachers, classmates, and friends at Newport Harbor High. Being involved in sports and associated student body, she missed all that comes with the high school experience. Somers was excited to find out that students would be able to come back for hybrid learning in September of last year, only to be disappointed when that date was pushed back twice. In October, she organized a protest at the school district to open hybrid learning. She created a graphic to post on Instagram as well as posters to carry. The next day, around 100 students and parents showed up to the protest, which lasted more than an hour. Afterward, Somers applied for the Newport Beach Foundation Scholarship Program. She was one of four students to receive the award out of 50 applicants.

In her words: “I take pride in where I go to school, and I just wanted it to be a safe and healthy learning environment. That’s why I pushed for hybrid learning.”

Gen Z Inspiration: Sadie Robertson from “Duck Dynasty”

Arush Mehrotra
Age: 17
OC Justice Project founder and president

Bona fides: Mehrotra envisions a world where equal justice for all is not just an ideal, but a fact. He started the nonprofit OC Justice Project while attending University High in Irvine. His goal: provide a platform for other high school students to get involved in social activism. He hopes to inspire others to address the issues he believes undermine the democratic ideals of the American justice system. Mehrotra credits a TED Talk for sparking his initial interest. The presentation was about the cash bail system and how a person’s socioeconomic status could be used unjustly as punishment. Soon, Mehrotra was writing op-eds for his school newspaper, then opinion pieces for the Los Angeles Times. Last year, he hosted a virtual town hall with Farrah N. Kahn, now the mayor of Irvine. The 2021 WAVE Guiding Light honoree believes it’s important to provide a platform for others in his age group to advocate against social inequities, especially within what can be a complex legal system.

In his words: “The social justice system can seem out of reach for high school students, but our project lets people who have a desire to, actually enact change in the areas they feel strongly about.”

Gen Z Inspiration: Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor and gun control activist David Hogg

Photograph courtesy of Dejah Mulipola

Dejah Mulipola
Age: 23
Softball Olympian

Bona fides: Mulipola started playing T-ball at home in Garden Grove when she was 4 years old. She was introduced to softball by her mom and aunt, who also played, and her two younger sisters ended up playing as well. When Mulipola was a freshman at the University of Arizona, she was asked to play for Team USA. She played on the junior national team her first year, was on the Japan roster her sophomore year, and on the women’s team her junior year. She was asked to try out for the 2020 Olympics, which she did in October 2019. While the team was finishing tryouts, she learned she had made the roster for her senior year. She flew to Tokyo in July, where she and her team played six Olympic games, five of which they won, earning them the silver medal. Mulipola hopes to play in the 2028 games in Los Angeles.

In her words: “I was just super stoked to even be at the tryout, whether I made the team or not. It was a goal of mine since I was a little kid to get to the Olympics. To have that chance was something I was working toward, whether or not it was going to come true.”

Gen Z Inspiration: her teammate Rachel Garcia

by Crystal Chang, Soleil Easton, Astgik Khatchatryan, Michelle Pagaran, Chelsea Raineri, Barbara Neal Varma, and Maria Watson

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