Written by Lola Ogunnaike
Yara Shahidi: ‘My Metric for Success Is Having an Impact on Something Greater Than Myself.’ Meghan Markle is a fan. Michelle Obama wrote one of her college recommendation letters. Oprah Winfrey believes she’ll be president of the United States one day. Karey Burke, president of ABC Entertainment, tells me, only half-jokingly, “I want to be her when I grow up.”
They’re all talking about Yara Shahidi, whose very existence lays waste to the myth that Gen-Zers are lazy, social-media-obsessed, and self-absorbed. At the moment, the multihyphenate 19-year-old, who is most often described as an actor and activist, is reportedly enrolled at Harvard, shooting season three of her hit Freeform show Grown-ish, overseeing Eighteenx18 (an organization dedicated to increasing teenage voter registration), and working on her family’s new production company, Seventh Sun.
And then there’s her current social media reign. Shahidi regularly gives her nearly 5 million Instagram and Twitter followers a no-whiplash mix of happy fashion posts and searing social commentary. (A clip of her tearfully discussing the murders of Tamir Rice and rapper Nipsey Hussle, for example, has generated more than 1 million Insta-views alone.) If all this wasn’t enough, she became an ambassador for Bobbi Brown cosmetics earlier this year and works with Chanel, Tory Burch, and a host of other brands that want to be aligned with the wokest girl in Hollywood.
“What remains a through-line in each and every project—and any world that I occupy—is that I want there to be a greater purpose,” Shahidi tells me one Saturday afternoon during a rare break. “That purpose may be as simple as providing joy or it may be helping in the field of equity or amplifying other people’s voices. But my metric for success is having an impact on something greater than myself.”
It’s working. Shahidi wasn’t even old enough to vote in the last election, and she’s made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, won NAACP and Gracie awards, and interviewed Hillary Clinton for a Teen Vogue summit.
“[My mother] constantly says to me, ‘You deserve to be in the room,’” says Shahidi. “I’m 19 and a half today, and the one thing I’m still trying to figure out is how to advocate for myself as strongly as she advocates for me.”Sies Marjan blazer and top. Dinosaur Designs earrings.
Shahidi says that the unwavering belief of other women has been instrumental to her success. But for all of the Hillarys and Oprahs, her fiercest champion, she says, is her mother, Keri—equal parts mama bear, BFF, and strategic adviser. “She constantly says to me, ‘You deserve to be in the room,’” says Shahidi. “One thing I’m still trying to figure out is how to advocate for myself as strongly as she advocates for me.” A successful commercial actress, Keri has helped her daughter navigate an industry famous for devouring its young. “It’s important that women of color and anyone from marginalized identities understands that they will try to intentionally unsettle you,” Shahidi says of the roadblocks she encounters. “They’ll do this so that you’ll spend so much of your time trying to convince people you belong that you don’t get to dig in and do the work you were meant to do.”
Shahidi has been leaning in ever since she landed her first commercial at six months old. She skipped the first grade, made her big-screen debut starring opposite Eddie Murphy in Imagine That when she was nine and landed Black-ish at 14. An impressive résumé from such a young age, but Shahidi comes from a family filled with academics, creatives, and high achievers. Her brothers are actors. Her father, Afshin, an émigré from Iran, is a cinematographer (and Prince’s former photographer). Her cousin is the Rapper Nas. There’s even an astronaut in the mix.
To call her driven would be a gross understatement—after all, this is a young woman who started a corporation for the commercial work she was doing at age seven called Dharma Driven, which “means to be driven by purpose.” She is motivated, she says, by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. “I’ve always been curious,” she says. “My mother always says, ‘There’s nothing more interesting than an interested human.’ And I’ve just always been interested.”
“To entrust [Grown-ish] to someone so young was a lot of responsibility, but she embraced it and quickly became a leader of the show,” says ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke. “It was awesome to behold.”Alexander Wang top. Panconesi earrings.
Her parents actively fostered that curiosity, encouraging Shahidi and her siblings to look at the world critically. She says it was a privilege to grow up in a family that valued her thoughts. “There’s this assumption that young people are supposed to stay quiet and all of a sudden turn 18 and have fully formed opinions,” she says. “But the problem is that you haven’t been given a platform or the opportunity as a young person to develop or form those opinions.”
Shahidi didn’t realize that people were eager to hear her opinions until a fateful appearance on a NAACP panel about Hollywood diversity in 2015. She noticed that the more she spoke, the more people listened. And they haven’t stopped. “That panel was really pivotal for me because I realized I could not only be a leader in conversation, but I could be one of the voices representing things that are near and dear to my heart.”
Since then she’s used her megaphone to educate and draw attention to issues ranging from police brutality to STEM initiatives for young girls. The world is a better place for it, says fellow actor-slash-activist Kerry Washington. Washington met Shahidi when she played a young Olivia Pope in a flashback episode of Scandal. “She doesn’t allow her youth to be a limitation,” Washington says. “She sees that the unique perspective her age provides her doesn’t mean she should say less. It means she should say more. That’s the sign of a true leader.”
But even leaders get tired. Shahidi, an avid reader and NPR lover, admits the daily onslaught of dour headlines can be fatiguing. “You see the U.N. Climate Change report, a potential nuclear war between India and Pakistan, how many communities are marginalized, our faulty education system….” She sighs. “If you’re committed to doing the work and bringing about change, it does get overwhelming at times.”
And so she’s learning a lot about self-care too. A good home-cooked meal—“my mom makes a mean peach cobbler”—and live music help. (“I always walk away from concerts ready to take on the world.”) Shahidi also finds solace in history. “As chaotic as this period feels, we have to remember there was a time when there were rampant bombings targeting people of color in this country. There have been immigration bans and people have been in internment camps in this country,” she explains. “You have to remember that history is cyclical, so in order for us to succeed, we have to turn to history and turn to the people who have been historically doing the work. This is what gives me hope.”
What gives me hope? In 10 years Shahidi will be 29. And while she’s not one for bucket lists, there are things she wants to accomplish before turning 30. She’s focused on building her career, of course, which includes her production company. She’d like to open a music studio someday (“It’s a noncreepy way of hanging around people who make great art”) and write a textbook that restructures how history is taught in schools. Her activism goal is simply to scale: “I want to use the resources I have to actively engage other activists and help support them.”
Sorry, Oprah, but the plan does not include political aspirations…for now, at least. Instead, the future she envisions for herself is “policy adjacent.” “I’m so inspired by people who have been able to influence policy from the outside,” she says. People like Patrisse Cullors, a founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. Or more simply, “the people who are next to Capitol Hill—not on it.” For the 2020 election she wants to help drive young voters to the polls. “Without voting, the government is something that happens to us and not with us.”
In short, Shahidi is just getting started. She’s exceptional, yes, but she insists she’s not an anomaly. “I don’t think I’d be doing the work I’m doing if I wasn’t constantly inspired by the other young people doing this work, by the other young people doing work I didn’t even realize had to be done,” she says. “I feel like we constantly educate one another. Because we inherited a world in crisis, we enter this world inspired to make change.”
Cover Photo: Nadya Wasylko