When I don’t finish my plate, I think of starving kids in Africa. It’s not because my mother told me to, it’s because I have a vivid memory of the young girls who I knew in Niger, West Africa taking my food wrappers out of the trash and licking the slight residue that remained. They say the Peace Corps stays with you. My experience made me want to devote my life to fixing the imbalance between the hungry and the overweight. So, together with a few talented friends, I founded Kuli Kuli.
I began by thinking about the problem. As Amartya Sen and others have clearly illustrated, we have more than enough food to feed the world — we could feed 10 billion people — and yet nearly a billion go to sleep hungry every night. For many years, we attempted to solve this problem by shipping unwanted food from the land of plenty into the places of poverty. But, as food aid reformers in the U.S. have argued for years (and the White House now seems to be hearing), sending heavily subsidized American crops abroad is inefficient and may even be hurting more than it helps when the imported food brings down crop prices such that local farmers can’t sell their harvests.
What does work is investing in farmers. During the Green Revolution of the 1960s, governments invested significantly in agricultural research, access to capital and in getting markets to work efficiently. Since then investment in agriculture has decreased dramatically with a 75% drop in agriculture-focused aid to the developing world over the last few decades.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work in Western Kenya for the summer. That summer gave me a new life perspective in many ways, but one way that it continues to influence me is in how I think about carbon offsets.
Deforestation is a major issue in Kakamega, Kenya and the NGO I worked for had a number of different initiatives to alleviate poverty and perserve the Kakamega rainforest. Together, we initiated a pilot biodigester project to help communities around the rainforest utilize energy from animal waste and other organic materials as an alternative to harvesting wood from the rainforest.
We undertook a series of interviews to gauge consumer interest/needs, and then designed and built a few low-cost biogesters. Our product worked and consumers were interested, all we needed was funding. I proceeded to blow my small stipend at internet cafes writing grant proposals, all to no avail. Finally, we had the idea of selling carbon offsets to fund our work since we were both preventing methane from entering the atmosphere and decreasing deforestation.
I researched the Clean Development Mechanism, a part of the Kyoto Protocol that allows emission reduction projects in the developing world to sell carbon credits to developed countries. We diligently filled out the lengthy application and even contacted Kenya’s Environment Minister to get his support. And then, nothing.
The frustration in the room was palpable. The chair of the meeting huffed into his microphone, chastising the governments of the world for not doing their homework. It would have been funny, except that their “homework” was to agree on an action plan to save the planet. And, despite negotiating for the past year leading up to the Rio+20 Earth Summit, it seemed as though the diplomats had shown up empty-handed.
Agreements at United Nations conferences hasn’t always been so difficult. In 1992 a similar group of diplomats gathered in Rio for the first UN Earth Summit, a conference widely lauded for its strong initiatives to stop climate change, desertification, species loss and combat poverty. After decades of Cold War induced defense spending, governments were only too happy to throw money and energy at something a little more cuddly than a nuclear warhead.
Now times have changed. Governments have arrived with their wallets tightly clenched and their lips sealed on anything showing leadership for fear of elections back home. The developing world is determined to make the developed countries pay for decades of pollution while the developed countries are just as determined to make sure that the principal of common but differentiated responsibilities doesn’t apply.
At one point, the endless nitpicking drove me out of the over-air conditioned rooms of the high-level discussions and into the civil society tent nearby. You could feel the difference, there was a buzz, a vibrancy as people from all over the world shared their solutions to the social, economic and environmental crises. In one room a group of scientists discussed technologies to close the carbon cycle, in another business people brainstormed clean energy financing mechanisms and in yet another young people shared ideas for engaging their peers in sustainable development.
Throughout the conference, young people have tried to infuse some energy into the talks. We stood outside a negotiating room with our mouths taped shut, holding signs calling for a High Commissioner for Future Generations, a position that we hope could bring a long-term perspective into short-term politics. Every evening we hold a Fossil of the Day, where we shame the countries that have been blocking progress towards a low-carbon future. Yesterday we held a flash mob and twitter storm where we marched to #endfossilfuelsubsidies and then got on our computers to urge all our Twitter followers to relay our message around the world.
We’ve heard that these actions have affected the negotiations, that we’ve helped remind country delegates that this conference is not about commas and clever word choices, it’s about creating a planet where future generations generations can thrive. Last night the meetings went until 3am as the governments of the world attempted to piece together a document that the world’s leaders can sign when they arrive on Wednesday. Many young people stayed in the plenary hall with them, waiting anxiously to see if the diplomats could create meaningful Sustainable Development Goals, end fossil fuel subsidies and strengthen the United Nations Environment Programme.
Though we might wait up all night to remind our governments how urgent this matter is to us, we’re certainly not waiting for them to lead the way to an inclusive green economy. If the governments of the world don’t do their homework, we’ll just have to find other ways to show them how its done.
For most of my life, I’ve specialized in working really hard without getting paid. This specialty seems inherent to many young people who seek to create social or environmental change; we spend countless hours fighting for the causes we love for little or no compensation and the rest of our time working restaurant-type jobs to pay the bills. Or we eat a lot of ramen. Or both.
But then we grow up and realize that creating social change is cute when you’re young but passion doesn’t feed a family. At least, that’s what everyone told me would happen.
A few months ago, I was offered a job in financial consulting that would have more than doubled the “ramen salary” that my solar startup could pay me. It would have enabled me to finally move out of my parent’s house and set up a savings account that didn’t hit zero every time I went on vacation.
I took a deep breath and turned it down. Many of my friends faced a similar decision right before graduation when Wall Street showed up to recruit: change the world or change to a six-figure income. It isn’t an easy decision to make, hence why we have so many of America’s brightest manipulating derivatives instead of innovating around how to provide for seven billion people with finite natural resources.
Today, I’m thrilled to announce that I made the right decision. My company, Solar Mosaic, has just raised $2.5M from venture capital investors and received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to build an online marketplace for ordinary people to create and fund solar projects.
This means that I now have enough money to move into a lovely new apartment and am getting one step closer to this mystical adulthood. I know this because my mother no longer does my laundry.
Fortunately for the laundry-folders of the world, I’m not the only millennial who has figured out how to be both a “changemaker” and a”change-earner.” I just spent the past three days in Rio de Janeiro, meeting with youth from all over the world in preparation for a United Nations conference on sustainable development, called Rio+20. Not only had nearly every young people there figured out a way to finagle various adults into financing their trip to Brazil, many of the older youth have managed to turn their activism into a profession that pays the bills.
While most of the media and politicians seem to be drumbeating the imminent doom of sustainable development should Rio+20 fail to produce a significantly weighty policy document, I’m not worried. Though it’d be nice to have the governments of the world on our side, we have already found innovative ways to integrate economic, social and environmental progress in our communities and our lives.
I have no doubt that we’ll be running things soon, and when we do, we’ll prove that sustainable development is more than a UN buzz word, it’s the only type of development worth doing. Until then, you can find us dancing to the beat of our own drum in the halls of the UN, the garages of the future Facebooks for social change and in lots, and lots, of unpaid internships.
“This is our moment, this could be the turning point,” said the young Belgian man at the front of the room. Around him sat youth from all around the world, young environmental leaders who had come to Rio de Janeiro to attend the United Nations Earth Summit. Though Rio+20, as it’s commonly known, won’t officially begin until June 20th, hundreds of young people have already begun organizing around what is expected to be the largest UN gathering in history.
I believe in climate change. I ride my bike everywhere, I work at a solar company, I buy organic and local when I can. I am young, liberal and idealistic. But I’m not an environmentalist. And I’m not alone.
If you won the jackpot today, would you go back to work tomorrow? The question may sound absurd, but there are plenty of lottery winners who have done just that. There’s a waitress in Florida who went back to making $400 per week the day after winning $1 million, a German salesman who was told that he won $27 million only to tell the shopkeeper that he didn’t have time to chat because he was late for work and a British shelf stacker who returned to her job at Walmart after winning $3.9 million. This seemingly strange phenomenon becomes less strange once we admit what we all know: work isn’t just about paying the bills.
I’ve always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was 10 and won a contest with my best friend for writing a story about recycling. We won a huge cash prize for our story, it was less than $100 but it felt like a million dollars for a couple of ten-year-olds. In high school I wrote for the school paper and in college I was an editor, reporter and op-ed columist, often all at the same time. Writing is how I express myself; despite years of piano lessons I can’t play anything more complicated than Hot Cross Buns, my best stick figures resemble sticks a whole lot more than they resemble figures and my singing is reserved to the shower for a good reason. Words are the way that I paint, color, hear and fill the world.
The past few months have been particularly exciting for me because for the first time large numbers of people have read my writing via blog posts for Forbes and The Huffington Post. With this excitement has come responsibility–I want to write informative and interesting that inspire people in some way. With every word, I aim to fulfill my personal mission statement (habit #1) to create the language and facilitate the dialog to build a more sustainable, just and joyful world.
Last Thursday night I did something that violated my mission statement. I wrote an article for Forbes called Why Crowdfund Investing is The Path to Economic Recovery but I didn’t take the time to thoroughly research the crowdfunding bill (H.R. 2930, called The Entrepreneur Access to Capital Act). I already knew a fair amount on the topic and so I read a few articles, pieced together a bunch of stuff that I’d already written about the bill for Solar Mosaic and sent the article to Forbes who published it right away. Almost immediately, I realized that I’d mistakenly written about the bill as though it had passed the Senate and President Obama had signed it when in actuality the bill had only passed the House–though it’s expected to become law soon, officially the bill hasn’t yet passed the Senate Banking Committee, gotten through the Senate floor vote and gotten a presidential signature. I emailed my Forbes editor right away, making the two corrections in bold (see below) to clarify that the bill is not in fact law yet. Unfortunately, given that the article wasn’t published till 2pm on a Friday, I suspect that she had already gone home for the weekend.
Perhaps I’m a bit neurotic but all weekend I’ve been stressed out about the article. Finally I realized that the best way to stop stressing about it is to recognize that accidents happen and that in terms of life mistakes, misrepresenting the legal status of one bill is probably one of the lesser mistakes I’ll make. I’ve certainly learned my lesson though, and in the future I am going to make doubly sure that I do the proper due diligence on everything I write!
Here’s the article as it should (and hopefully soon will) appear with corrections in bold:
The House did something astounding yesterday. They a) passed a bill and b) passed it with nearly full bipartisan support. This miraculous bill, called the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) Act, is a series of 6 bills tied together designed to make it easier for startups to gain access to capital. Undoubtedly the most exciting aspect of this act is what it does for crowdfund investing.
Think of it this way: you’re in the center of a room filled with everyone who has ever known you, friended you on Facebook or followed you on Twitter. You stand in front of all of these people and pitch the crazy, brilliant business idea that you’ve been dreaming of. If these people like your idea, they can invest in your company, benefiting financially if you succeed or losing a few bucks if you fail. Soon, this concept of “crowdfund investing” is expected to become law.
The potential for crowdfund investing to transform that way startups access capital is staggering. Crowdfunding platforms have already gained traction in the U.S. with the success of sites like Kiva, a microfinance platform and Kickstarter, which lets people donate to fund artistic ventures. Kiva has arranged nearly $250 million in loans while Kickstarter users pledge funds to the tune of $2 million a week. The key thing to note here is that these millions are being raised strictly as donations and zero-interest loans because until yesterday U.S. securities laws forbade offering a return on investment (ROI) to non-accredited investors.
While these crowdfunding platforms have been widely successful in their niches, they fail to fill a key need: the lack of financing for startups. Currently startup activity is at its lowest point on record–a point worth paying attention to since historically startups have created an average of 3 million jobs annually, while existing firms lose 1 million jobs each year. As the Kauffman Foundation report puts it, “Startups aren’t everything when it comes to job growth. They’re the only thing.”
As traditional Venture Capital firms have moved into funding later stage companies, there has been an increasing lack of early-stage funding, known as Seed Capital. According to the Silicon Valley Watcher, “the latest report on trends in US Venture investments shows a massive decline of 40% in seed investments in US startups in the final quarter of 2011, and a much larger drop of 48% for the entire year.”
All it takes is a look to our neighbors across the pond to see what crowdfund investing can do to fill this gap. In Britain, startups like Funding Circle raise more than $2.3 million each month for small businesses from individuals who earn an average yield of 7.3 percent and Crowdcube just successfully funded the first $1.75 million project.
As the Community Builder for Solar Mosaic, a crowdfunding platform for solar investments, I’ve seen what crowdfunding can do to bring people together and pool their money to fund solar projects on the roofs of important community organizations, like The Murdoch Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. I can’t wait to see what Mosaic and other startups like us can do once we’re able to offer returns on these crowdfunded investments.
One of lesser known perks of being 24 and still living at home is that everyone wants to give you career advice. Most of the time when my parent’s friends do this I smile and nod politely, thinking to myself that I want their idea of a good job about as much as I want that white picket fence in the suburbs (read: not very much). But recently I’ve come across some really good advice for young people like me who want to make a difference, make some money and be really effective at what they do.
This advice comes in the form of two books, both of which have overly long titles. The first is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a self-help classic published in 1989 that was named the most influential book of the 20th century. The second is the recently released Making Good: Finding Meaning, Money, and Community in a Changing World, a book that has the potential to become the 7 Habits equivalent for a whole new generation of professionals looking to make an impact alongside paying the bills.
Blend these two books together and voila, you have The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Changemakers.
Habit 1: Develop a Personal Mission Statement
Just as organizations need mission statements to spell out their overall goals and guide their decision-making, so too do individuals. After all, we all want to live meaningful lives but each of us have a different idea of what that means. At the same time, getting to the root of what a meaningful life means for each of us can be a difficult process. Stephen Covey of 7 Habits recommends envisioning your funeral and writing down what you want your family, friends, colleagues and significant others say about you. Billy Parish and Dev Aujla of Making Good have a slightly less depressing take on this idea, framing the mission statement as a “daily mantra” to remind you of what’s important and who you are. Parish and Aujla recommend thinking of a time when you felt your most powerful and then writing your mission statement. Though it might seem silly to write a mission statement when many of us can’t even find a job, beginning our career search with the end goal in mind can help us find a direction. As Covey says, “It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in an activity trap…to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover that it’s leaning against the wrong wall.”
Habit 2: Envision What Success Looks Like
Research has shown that the secret to success for almost all world-class athletes and other peak performers is visualization. They see themselves succeeding, feel it and experience it before they actually do it. This practice of visualization has exploded in the non-profit world where organizations frequently write out vivid descriptions of what it would look like for them to accomplish their mission statement. For example, an organization working on saving mountain gorillas in Rwanda might vividly describe what it would look and feel like to triple the population of gorillas and the employ hundreds of former poachers as tourist guides. This same principle applies to individuals; even more than writing down your goals, visualizing yourself accomplishing them makes you more likely to actually complete them.
Habit 3: Cultivate Your Special Powers
I went to a liberal arts college that taught me to be interested in everything. Then I graduated and realized that I was good at lots of things but great at nothing. Particularly for those of us without technical degrees, figuring out what we’re good at can be a challenge. One of the more hilarious activities suggested by Making Good to answer this question is to pair up with a friend and write all of your important life experiences on stickie notes, making maps of your lives on a wall. By doing a little homework on yourself, you can figure out what unique skills you have to offer and how you can best cultivate those skills. Then you can focus on offering those skills to your job, family, friends and community, using this practice to turn your skills into superpowers. For example, if you’re like me and love to write, you can use your skill to write compelling content for your company’s website, compose your family’s holiday letter, scribble love notes to your friends and volunteer to blog for a cool non-profit. All of this writing not only benefits your community, it makes you a better writer.
Habit 4: Find Your Inner Circle
As Making Good explains, “Our culture celebrates the myth of the individual achiever…we tell stories of heroes who accomplish incredible feats on their own. But this isn’t how things work.” Behind every successful person is a strong network of loved ones who has helped her get there, what 7 Habits calls the “paradigm of interdependence.” Despite the fact that we regularly like, follow, poke, text and email thousands of people, research has shown that humans can only hold 150 meaningful relationships at one time. Making Good suggests concentrating on an inner circle of 15 people who you spend the most time with since you inevitably you take on some of their characteristics. Then, take a look at that list, think about what it says about you and figure out who you’d like to build a stronger relationships with. If you want to change, focus on building stronger relationships with people who push you or have more experience than you. As Cervantes said, “Tell me the company you keep, and I’ll tell you what you are.”
Habit 5: Practice Deep Listening
There is a reason I talk to my dog. Unlike many humans who listen with the intent to reply or butt in before my thought is fully finished, my dog just sits there with these deep, understanding brown eyes. Of course, genius dog though he is, I’m not quite sure my dog can follow the 7 Habits principal, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Fortunately, I have a few friends who practice deep listening even better than my dog. After reading Making Good, I’ve begun to develop coaching relationships with a few of these people, relationships where we trade off deeply listening to each other, practicing focused listening without judgment or trying to steer the conversation. It’s amazing what we can hear when we really listen.
Habit 6: Seek Synergy
7 Habits calls this “synergizing.” Making Good calls it “organizing.” Though one concept is designed for older business professionals and the other more for young activists, the principal of cooperation is the same. Whether we’re building a movement or working on a team project, there are bound to be disagreements. As 7 Habits explains, the key is to value these differences and, back to habit 5, seek to understand where the other person is coming from. Only then can you both work to seek a synergistic third alternative.
Habit 7: Practice
As Aristotle famously said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
This article was also posted on the Huffington Post.
I just got off the phone with a teary-eyed friend of mine who recently lost her job. Strangely, she wasn’t being sacked for her performance but rather due to frequent arguments with her boss over how her job should be done. As a young woman in a lower-level position at a predominately male tech company, my friend’s experience encapsulates the difficulties faced by many Gen Y women entering the workforce.
As Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg recently presented at the World Economic Forum, while assertive and ambitious men are seen as more likable the more they achieve, the more women achieve and assert themselves, the less likable they become. One particularly discouraging study that Sandberg discusses in her TED talk shows a recent example of these stereotypes at work. When researchers presented students with a case study on a highly successful woman named Heidi and changed the name to Howard for one section of the class, the students rated Howard much higher than Heidi. They believed that Heidi was just as competent as Howard, they didn’t like her, they wouldn’t hire her and they certainly wouldn’t want to work with her.
This study, and many others like it, highlights the fact that to a large degree, women still can’t win. Three decades after we began entering the workforce in mass we’re still seen as ineffective if we conform to our gender stereotypes (nurturing, kind, sensitive) but as “brusque” or “argumentative” if we act assertively and display ambition.
Now let’s take these lovely gender norms and add them to what we know about Generation Y. Or, as I’ve begun to think of us, “Generation Why.” On the positive side, our love of technology has allowed us to Facebook, Tweet, Wikipedia and Quora our way into new knowledge–making us cutting-edge workers in a world increasingly run off of information technology. The other side of this, of course, is that all this information has taught us to frequently question authority and to give feedback to our employers as often as we seek it (which is often).
Though these norms don’t apply to every millennial in America–after all, we are the country’s most diverse workforce–and the workplace gender issues aren’t faced by every women, when you put these two characteristics together, you’ll find a lot of young women like my friend. Women who have been taught from birth to question authority but now are entering a work environment where those queries can all too often be interpreted as being overly assertive and disrespectful. Most of the time the problem isn’t that we don’t respect authority, it’s that we feel as though our employers do not respect us.
While this status-quo is enough to bring anyone to tears–particularly since jobs aren’t so easy to come by for my generation–acknowledging that these gender norms and generational divides exist is the first step to overcoming them.