What Being a 16-Year-Old Climate Activist Has Taught Me About Being a Successful Entrepreneur

Photo: Courtesy Sarah Goody
When I began my journey as a climate activist while in the sixth grade, I had no idea that effective activists and successful entrepreneurs actually share quite a few skills. Now, as a 16-year-old youth climate activist and a founder, I use those skills in tandem to further both my business and activist pursuits in hopes of making the biggest, most productive impact possible.

Here's how it all began: In 2017 during my sixth-grade science class, I learned about the threatening impact climate change poses on the future of the world. Immediately, I felt inspired to do something to help—I just didn’t know exactly what that meant or how it would look. Later that year, my dad learned about Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp, a sleepaway summer camp for young people looking to change the world. It felt meant to be, and so in the summer of 2018, I attended. While there, I developed the foundational skills required to be an activist: I learned how to fundraise, lobby politicians, and register youth to vote. Basically, my experience at YEA Camp served as a launchpad for my goals as an activist: I wanted to make a difference, and founding my own organization would help me do that.

After attending YEA Camp, I joined Greening Forward, a youth-led organization that provides grants to students for environmental projects. I worked as a youth council member for a one-year term, during which I was responsible for assisting staff members in their work and promoting student grant programs. I took account of what worked for the organization and, perhaps more importantly, what didn’t work. Understanding how other companies operate is crucial to setting your business up for success, and ultimately, my experience at Greening Forward prepared me to later start an organization of my own.

When it comes to starting a business, many people get stuck in the “paralysis by analysis” stage. They spend so much time thinking about what they want to do that they never take action, and in the world of climate activism, action is crucial. While attending a 2018 Greening Forward conference in New York City, I was introduced to the Fridays For Future movement, started by climate activist Greta Thunberg in 2018, which is an organization that uses strikes to bring attention to the urgency of climate change.

In both business and activism, sometimes you must give something up in order to receive something even better.

Inspired by Fridays For Future’s actions, after returning home to the Bay Area, I began striking outside San Francisco City Hall every Friday, beginning in January 2019. Yes, I skipped school on Fridays for 50 consecutive weeks. However, I believed calling attention to the urgency of climate change was far more important than attending school. In both business and activism, sometimes you must give something up in order to receive something even better. For me, missing Fridays during my eighth-grade school year was worth the sacrifice of being able to make a difference in my own community.

When I began, I had no idea how to strike effectively; I didn’t know what to wear, what my sign should say, whether security would let me sit on the steps of the building, or if I could use my megaphone. But over the course of the 50 weeks of my strike, I learned that thinking about an activity and planning for it are important, but sometimes you just need to do something to find out if it will work.

With that said, it's important to note that prior to engaging in public demonstrations and protests, you must always do your due diligence to ensure the location is safe and that you have a plan to obtain help in case the event doesn’t go as planned. Even though peaceful protests are legal, any public demonstration carries a risk of violence, as evidenced by recent events in this country.

As with striking in the name of climate activism, entrepreneurship sometimes requires trying out an idea to see how it will work in practice.

By getting out and striking, I was able to see which of my concerns were valid and which of them were irrelevant. For example, I discovered the outfit I spent hours preparing the night before had little relation to the impact of my strike, while my concern about using a megaphone was valid, as the city enforced specific rules regarding megaphone use. Additionally, trying out different messages on my signs and sitting in different locations helped me learn the best way to engage other people. As with striking in the name of climate activism, entrepreneurship sometimes requires trying out an idea to see how it will work in practice.

In the name of trying, I launched Climate NOW in the spring of 2019, a youth-led organization dedicated to educating youth about climate change and empowering them to make a difference in their communities. When I started Climate NOW, I had the mindset that my organization would be successful simply because of its powerful message. I quickly learned a lot more goes into creating a company than just having a good idea and executing on it.

There are a lot of responsibilities and hard decisions to be made: You must create a logo, design a website, figure out how you will cover expenses, and set up a bank account, amongst countless other tasks. Even something as seemingly simple as choosing a CRM system was a mind-numbing process for me due to the volume of great choices available. As an entrepreneur, it is important to know that there is more to setting up a business than just having a great idea. It’s important to be prepared to learn about topics you hadn’t considered (like, for example, learning that CRM means "customer relationship management software") and developing your ability to make decisions when faced with more than one right answer.

The experience I gained at YEA Camp, Greening Forward, and from striking weekly helped set up Climate NOW for success—more success, I’d argue, than if I’d started the organization with just an idea and little planning direction. To date, Climate NOW has educated 10,000 youth and young adults, given climate presentations to 50-plus schools, and managed 30 youth volunteers. Climate NOW is currently planning a number of exciting projects including our Earth Day Climate Action Crash Course Webinar Series for youth to bring awareness to climate change and empower young people to use their voices for change.

Throughout my journey as a climate activist and entrepreneur, the most important lesson I learned is to hold on to hope. I have spent the past four years of my life dedicated to fighting climate change, and even though all odds are against me, I continue to persevere. Because without hope, what do we have to live for? Similar optimism is required for entrepreneurial ventures, I’ve learned. Often, the path to success as an activist or an entrepreneur isn’t straightforward and you have to keep your head up as you navigate life’s curveballs.

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