From a love of reading to entrepreneur

Tej Dhingra, Greenhill School rising senior and founder of Teen Book Lover, Big Thought Intern – Summer 2019

Dear Big Thought Community,

I’m writing this letter, not with the goal of chronicling my Big Thought intern experience down to each coffee run.  I’m also most definitely not writing this because my two months at Big Thought (coupled with the oh-so impressive status of being a rising high school senior) has in some way given me the license to dole out some grandiose call-to-action.

If living vicariously through my intern experience enhances your perception of the work being done through Big Thought’s mission, then writing this letter will have been time well spent. But first, a bit of backstory — I like to read.  I am well aware that my love of reading is not some innate quality unique only to myself.  It was only brought out because it was nurtured through ample resources and literacy engagement provided by my parents and early childhood teachers.

A few years ago, I founded Teen Book Lover.  My motive behind Teen Book Lover’s founding was simple (and self-evident, given the name).  I was a teen who loved to read, and I wanted to create an online community where other teens like me could share and submit book recommendations.

“It’s my realization of the power of the youth voice, and subsequently my individual voice.”


When I entered high school, I began to shift the focus of Teen Book Lover to provide resources that would help decrease illiteracy rates in other Dallas communities.   Did you know that, according to Literacy Instruction For Texas (LIFT), one-third of the Dallas population will be illiterate by 2030?

I was able to assemble a small team, and held a few book drives for an underresourced school in southern Dallas. We also visited several local elementary schools to engage the students with literacy-based activities. I was never able to get any real traction with Teen Book Lover and felt the problem I was trying to address was so complex that there wasn’t really anything some high school student could do to make a noticeable dent in it.  Being intimidated by the problem that lay before me, as well as being occupied with the other distractions high school provided made it easy to cop out. It was around this time that I applied and got accepted to intern at Big Thought in the upcoming summer.

Going into the internship, I was expecting a lot of busywork.  I was eager to learn, but I thought my experience would be more me on the sidelines watching.  As much as I hate to admit it, I think a small part of me was content with this- after all, shouldn’t mature professionals be the ones dealing with these large, complex problems?

Well, if my Big Thought experience taught me anything, it’s that the answer to that question is a resounding “no.” I was shocked that I was given responsibilities that had a direct impact on the effectiveness of Big Thought programs, as well as their general reputation in the eyes of the members of the Dallas community we worked with.  In all of my interactions with members of Big Thought staff, I can’t recall a time where I was looked down upon (even subtly) due to my age.

As I think back now, this level of real responsibility I was given at Big Thought is not at all surprising given the common mantra I have heard echoed countless times in the Big Thought office.  It’s also the first thing you see in bold print when you click on the “Who We Are” tab on the Big Thought website: “GREATNESS IS IN ALL OF US.

All of us.  There is no modifier in that phrase to indicate a certain age range, race, or financial background — and I think that this is purposeful.

It’s almost ironic.  During my work trying to get underresourced communities to understand the innate greatness within, I too, was also realizing the potential I had as a part of the youth to actually effect change where I felt it mattered most.

Post-Big Thought, I used the lessons that I had learned to shift my approach in my work with Teen Book Lover.  85 percent of the jobs available to us in 10 years haven’t even been created yet.  Knowing that the issue of illiteracy in Dallas is vast, I wanted to focus in on the development of that authentic voice (the importance of which I learned at Big Thought).  With this voice, anyone would be able to realize their “greatness.”

I developed free creative writing workshops which I was able to hold at many branches of the Dallas Public Library, independent bookstores, and Dallas ISD schools.  During this COVID-19 pandemic, Teen Book Lover created engaging online activities, as well as a Virtual Read Aloud Library which consists of pre-recorded story times from parents, teachers, high school students, authors, and other passionate community members.

Teen Book Lover finally got its long-awaited traction, and I was even able to write about its new mission in this article published in The Dallas Morning News.

Often times when people have internships, they are looking to acquire to take away specific skills they knew they were looking for going into it.  However, when people ask me what I took away from my summer at Big Thought, my answer looks a little different.

The main takeaway from my Big Thought experience is not stapling and collating skills or getting “really” good at data entry (although I did, I would consider myself a pro).  It’s my realization of the power of the youth voice, and subsequently my individual voice.  The power I have to take action now and not worry about whether I’m totally in over my head or not.

And for this, I’m eternally grateful to Big Thought —

Tej Dhingra


Tej’s Summer Reads

The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore

Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

Tej’s Middle School Reads

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

The Candymakers by Wendy Mass

The Neptune Project by Polly Holyoke