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Philanthropist Wendy Schmidt: ‘Solutions are always local’

The ROV SuBastain with careful guidance by its pilots uses the manipulator arm to collect a geological sample at 500m on Flinders Reef. Photo credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

The ROV SuBastain with careful guidance by its pilots uses the manipulator arm to collect a geological sample at 500m on Flinders Reef. Photo credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

  • Coming from respective backgrounds of design and technology, Wendy Schmidt and her husband, Eric, are the driving force behind some of the charitable organizations and investment vehicles working to address the challenges of climate change, clean energy, ocean health, and more.
  • Wendy Schmidt says they bring a systems-thinking approach to these challenges, to allow stakeholders to see connections that may not be obvious on the surface and work toward more resilient solutions.
  • “Humans need to develop new systems that work in harmony with the natural world, that are resilient in the face of a changing planet,” she says.
  • In this interview with Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett A. Butler, Schmidt advocates for the role of technology, but also explains why the idea that technology can be “scaled” to meet any challenge is problematic.

This week, scientists from James Cook University in Australia announced the discovery of a previously unknown detached coral reef in the Great Barrier Reef. It was the first new reef to be discovered in the area since the late 1800s.

The discovery was made by an underwater robot launched by a team aboard the Falkor, a research vessel owned by the Schmidt Ocean Institute, which provides scientists with a world-class facility to conduct oceanographic research, develop and test new technologies, and advance public understanding of oceans.

The Schmidt Ocean Institute is an initiative of philanthropists Eric and Wendy Schmidt, who have established a network of charitable organizations and investment vehicles that work to address some of the world’s greatest challenges, from human rights to clean energy to stewardship of natural resources.

Wendy Schmidt says her interest in sustainability and the environment was born out of her career as an interior designer, where she became increasingly aware of the impact that design choices can have on resource use and waste. That led her to become engaged in trying to solve three of the biggest problems facing humanity: climate change, the sustainability of food systems, and ocean health.

These efforts started with the Schmidt Family Foundation, but the complexity of these issues soon spawned the development of an array of entities, from grant-making and operating foundations like the 11th Hour Project and the Schmidt Ocean Institute, to social ventures like ReMain Nantucket to the “venture philanthropy” and incubator models of Schmidt Marine Technology Partners and Schmidt Futures. These projects have supported a diversity of initiatives, but the overarching philosophy is one build around “systems thinking” — a holistic way of looking at problems and solutions, according to Schmidt.

“We approach problems with systems thinking — examine what elements are contributing, and why, and what assumptions underlie the system. Find creative ways — including technology — to redefine the problem you are trying to solve,” she told Mongabay. “Then you can move quickly to design a model that addresses what was overlooked before and work towards a more resilient solution.

“When you approach philanthropy with a systems thinking approach, you can see connections that may not be obvious on the surface.”

For example, Schmidt’s 11th Hour Racing combines two things that seem totally disparate — professional sailboat racing and environmental issues — into a venture that raises ocean awareness and collects data on ocean health. Similarly, the 11th Hour Project has supported the construction of run-of-the-river microhydropower systems in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a way to protect gorilla habitat in Virunga National Park from demand for charcoal production and create new opportunities for young men who might otherwise join militias.

Small hydroelectric dam near Virunga National Park. Photo by Rian deVos, The 11th Hour Project.
Young mountain gorilla in Virunga National Park. Photo by Rian deVos, The 11th Hour Project.

Some of the interventions embraced by Schmidt’s ventures have a technology element, but it’s often in a supporting role. This may seem surprising given the Schmidt family’s pedigree — Eric served as Google’s chairman and CEO from 2001-2011 and executive chairman from 2011-2018 — but Wendy says technologies are best viewed as supporting tools.

“I think change is driven in small increments before anything ever ‘scales.’ The very notion of’ ‘scaling’ things is problematic because it ignores the reality that solutions are always local,” she said. “It’s technocratic thinking to imagine there is a solution to global problems that is universal, one size fits all — apart from something like a vaccine, and even then, there are issues. Technologies are tools, but not simple answers.”

Schmidt spoke about her philanthropic ventures and philosophy during an October 2020 interview with Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett A. Butler.


Mongabay: In a recent interview with Leaders Magazine, you explained how you became involved with the effort to address climate change. Did your interest in environmental issues pre-date “Inconvenient Truth”? And why have you taken such a special interest in oceans?

Schmidt: My environmental consciousness was raised in the early 2000s, when I was working as an interior designer. Over the years, I had become increasingly conscious of design around me—outside in gardens, and also in the natural world. In 2002, I was inspired by William McDonough and Michael Baumgart’s revolutionary book, Cradle to Cradle. This book and its philosophy, foreshadowing the Circular Economy we talk about today, spawned a movement. I joined it, and eventually helped launch The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.

Late in 2005, when my husband Eric and I were first establishing The Schmidt Family Foundation, the first event we sponsored was a simple slideshow and a talk, given by Vice President Al Gore, at Stanford’s Memorial Hall in front of 2000 people—while filmmakers were in the back of the room, shooting footage for the film, An Inconvenient Truth.  Following the talk, we hosted a dinner on campus for 350 Silicon Valley leaders in business, government, and the nonprofit world—bringing people together to meet and to recognize, for the first time, the evidence of human-induced climate change, and to talk about potential solutions.

Wendy Schmidt visit to Virunga National Park. Photo by Rian deVos, The 11th Hour Project.

Our work at the Foundation on climate change soon expanded into other program areas. It’s hard to address climate change without transforming the energy system, the industrial food system—both designed around fossil fuels—and how issues of environmental justice play into them.

In the summer of 2007, I began learning to sail, leading to an ongoing passion for competitive yacht racing that has taken me all over the world’s oceans in competitions. In 2009, I learned to scuba dive and became intrigued by all I was learning about the ocean and its essential connections to life on land.

Also in 2009, having acquired a retired German fisheries patrol vessel to convert into a state-of-the-art marine research ship, Eric and I established Schmidt Ocean Institute.  This mobile institute, with its flagship vessel, Falkor, launched in 2013, continues to serve as a platform for scientific parties from more than 30 countries, hosting more than 900 scientists to pursue their investigations in exchange for the open sharing of their data. This model of sponsorship and philanthropy fundamentally shifted the way marine science is conducted, with the goal of accelerating our understanding of ocean systems at a critical time for ocean health.

Falkor in 2019.
Dive control center on the Falkor. Photo credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

Mongabay: Given your family’s background, it is no surprise that technology is at the heart of some of your initiatives. What technologies are you most excited about in terms of driving change at scale?

Schmidt: We are obviously grounded in our view of technology as a powerful tool for change; spending 35 years in Silicon Valley tends to convince a person that it is possible to change the way we do things fairly rapidly. The iPhone only appeared in 2007 and we’ve only been searching online for information globally for maybe 20 years.

We have an approach to philanthropy that sees money as velocity; it’s energy put towards a goal, whether that’s connecting people to resources like clean energy and healthy food, reimagining processes and delivery systems, or trying to reconcile human economic activity with environmental sustainability and justice.

There is an interesting tension between technology as a powerful tool and the purposes for which it is used, and that always needs to be considered.

As a rule, I think change is driven in small increments before anything ever “scales.” The very notion of “scaling” things is problematic because it ignores the reality that solutions are always local.  It’s technocratic thinking to imagine there is a solution to global problems that is universal, one size fits all—apart from something like a vaccine, and even then, there are issues.  Technologies are tools, but not simple answers.

Rather than thinking about scaling technology, we approach problems with systems thinking—examine what elements are contributing, and why, and what assumptions underlie the system. Find creative ways—including technology—to redefine the problem you are trying to solve. Then you can move quickly to design a model that addresses what was overlooked before and work towards a more resilient solution.

For example, one of our grantees, The Common Market, has been working for several years to combine the resources of local family farms, ranches and dairies to provide healthy food to underserved “food deserts” in several large cities in the United States, including Philadelphia and Atlanta, serving public institutions from schools to food programs. This growing network of local growers has exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the demand for food boxes and food supplies for populations in economic distress grew exponentially.  That the network already worked well enabled The Common Market to respond in a unique and organized way to the current crisis, winning the group long-term government contracts that allow all the businesses involved to begin to “scale,” while also improving community public health through the delivery of fresh, nutritious food.

Farm supported by Food Commons near Fresno, California. Photo courtesy of the 11th Hour Project.

Maybe the lesson is from Silicon Valley, after all: the network is the message.

If we look at the Ocean, we could say the technologies now acting as our eyes, ears and hands in the deep ocean are only in their infancy as they dramatically increase our understanding of ocean systems. It is technology that has enabled us at Schmidt Ocean Institute to map the ocean floor, to explore and discover what was hidden before. New platforms for sensing technologies, like Saildrone, will transform the way we gather information about the state of the Ocean, reaching places and providing long-term measurements in ways conventional ships cannot do because of their size or the expense involved.  In this case, technology enables us to do more faster, safer, and at a far lower cost, with the goal of monitoring Ocean health.

Various underwater robots and drones aboard the Falkor. Photo courtesy of the Schmidt Ocean Institute.

Mongabay: Some of the interventions you are embracing to combat climate change and environmental degradation are on the opposite end from technology: for example, the 11th Hour Project has supported regenerative agricultural practices that have been utilized by indigenous peoples for countless generations. How did you wind up prioritizing that area for support and investment?

Schmidt: It’s not a matter of being pro-technology or anti-technology. We should be clear what the technology is for, why we employ it, and then, what its unintended consequences may be.

There are new technologies that help farmers measure soil health, for example, that were not available to the ancestors of indigenous people, but that could be employed today in support of the historic wisdom and practices that sustained indigenous tribes for as long as 15,000 years, through every conceivable condition.

Technology offers us tools we can use to reduce environmental destruction—from advancing renewable energies, to networks of sensors that protect marine life, to machine learning and artificial intelligence applications that can sort through visual data fast enough to show us the work of bad actors that was formerly hard to detect.

Communities that never had an industrial energy infrastructure, such as the millions of people in villages around Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the City of Goma, now have a technological solution, in a series of micro-hydro dams we helped to fund, now providing clean, renewable energy to more than a million people. Smart meter technology provides energy access to households and also a system for establishing personal credit in a growing local economy. The electricity coming from renewable sources offers opportunities for all kinds of businesses to grow up—everything from boulangeries and hairdressers to soap factories and rice milling plants.  And young men have alternatives to employment by local militias.

Wendy Schmidt, Virunga National Park’s Director Emmanuel de Merode, and Ephrem Balole, talk with a rice mill owner. The mill uses clean energy generated by run-of-river micro hydropower stations built by The Virunga Alliance. Photo by Rian deVos, The 11th Hour Project.
The Virunga Alliance business and conference center in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo by Rian deVos, The 11th Hour Project.

Think of technology as a partner to the goals of philanthropy. We say access to clean, renewable energy is a human right in the 21st century. Without it, you’re not on the same playing field.  People who spend most of the day collecting firewood cannot be compared to those whose homes are lighted, who can cook when it’s dark outside, read indoors after the sun sets and be safe on village and city streets at night.

Mongabay: The dichotomy between technology and traditional agroecology seems to be indicative of a theme in your investing strategy: looking for opportunities in disparate areas with an eye for systemic impact. For example, The Ocean Race combines sport and science to protect ocean health, while your recent op-ed the Sacramento Bee makes the case that California should phase out oil and gas drilling as a way to improve environmental equity for low income communities. Do you see this as a way to build new constituencies and alignments around environmental issues?

Schmidt: When you approach philanthropy with a systems thinking approach, you can see connections that may not be obvious on the surface.  For example, you might ask what professional sailboat racing has to do with environmental goals.  11th Hour Racing was born in 2010 when a group of sailors I sail with were inspired by the work of our Foundation, and decided to apply our approach to the world of sailing, as a point of intervention in an industry around worldwide regattas, boat building and maintenance, and education for an upcoming generation.  It was really a matter of understanding a system that depends on sponsorships, and if you can sell a wristwatch or a pair of athletic shoes when you sponsor activities, we thought why not inspire a global audience of sailors and sailing fans to embrace sustainable practices and protect the Ocean? This could mean anything from replacing crew plastic water bottles with reusable ones, using non-ablative bottom paints, recycling sail materials, to promoting composting of food waste.

11th Hour Racing team in action. Photo courtesy of 11th Hour Racing.

The response has been transformative for the sport, and we’re just getting started. In the last Volvo Ocean Race, 11th Hour Racing partnered with race organizers to host a series of 8 consecutive Ocean Summits in host cities around the world’s race course, highlighting local concerns and introducing expert voices from marine science, industry, government and journalism.  In each location, the stopover experience meant a waste free Race Village, a local government commitment to a specific change, an Exploration Zone to bring millions of visitors close to what ocean race sailors see and experience offshore and to show them why Ocean health matters to everyone, no matter where they live. 11th Hour Racing is the primary partner for the upcoming Ocean Race in 2022-23.

Connecting new audiences with their own, personal concerns for planetary health allows us to take environmental messages outside the conventional tent, and meet people where they are. You don’t need everyone to create a revolution. Research supports the notion that you need ten percent of deeply committed people in a population to completely sway the rest to their cause.

Mongabay: Building on that idea further, the United States is more politically divided now than at any point in most peoples’ lifetimes. Until relatively recently, some environmental issues had bipartisan support. Do you see opportunities for the environment to unify politically divided Americans? And if so, what issues do you see as having the most potential to appeal to people across the political spectrum?

Schmidt: I believe ongoing polling from The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, overseen by our grantee, Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz, confirms a growing consensus across the United States that environmental health is a high priority and that climate change is at least of moderate concern to most people across America if not a concern of the highest order—regardless of their political leaning.

As a nation, we are facing many challenges made even more plain by the impact of the pandemic. The silver lining, if that can be said, is that we have an unprecedented opportunity in the wake of this global disruption to reimagine and remake the world—to build back better. I really believe this, and so much of the work we’ve been supporting for the past 15 years has a chance to become mainstream, a part of the fabric of our new industrial economy.  For example, we all know there’s a crisis with plastic pollution in the ocean and on land. We know recycling has failed, and we know the fossil fuel industry aims to double plastic production by 2050, turning unneeded virgin fuel stocks into wasteful consumer product packaging.

Winner for the “Marine Plastics Pollution” category for Schmidt Marine Technology Partners.

The alternative to this path is to promote and support those newer, younger industries that seek to transform the way products are packaged and delivered, and converting many products sold today into those designed to be part of a new, circular economy, where nothing becomes waste, by design.

I have partnered with The Ellen MacArthur Foundation in the UK for almost a decade now in support of the Circular Economy, and in particular the New Plastics Economy, offering in 2017 a $2M prize package for innovators working to redesign materials used in packaging and processes for delivering products to customers.  Those efforts are expanding into the ecosystems of hundreds of corporate partners committed to transforming the global flows of plastic packaging by 2025.

All this takes innovation, willingness to take risks, and long term commitment to outcomes.

I fundamentally see philanthropic money as designated for risk: the risks others have no incentive to take initially. Not governments, not businesses.  If we can lead, they can and often do follow.

Today, more than ever, our philanthropic support for science is a critical part of leadership.  Science makes it clear where we all stand, and what has been happening over the past century of industrialization. The last time oceans were as acidic as they have become, the last time the atmosphere contained today’s levels of C02, there was a mass extinction of species on Earth. We need to pay attention.  Our recent funding of the Scripps Keeling Curve—the world’s longest running measurement of atmospheric C02, dating to the 1950s—provides that ongoing data measurement for all of us. We share the same atmosphere across the aisle and across the world.

Mongabay: Over the summer, the Schmidt Ocean Institute announced it would formalize its partnership with NOAA’s Office of Exploration and Research “to explore, characterize and map the deep ocean and boost public understanding of the global ocean.” The level of ambition needed to transform legacy systems on a timeframe that’s relevant for addressing the problems we face goes beyond what philanthropy is able to do and companies are willing to do, so government engagement is critical. What’s your strategy on getting governments on board with efforts to protect oceans, mitigate climate change, and stave off the extinction crisis?

Schmidt: At SOI, we’re excited to be partnering formally with NOAA. We’ve worked informally side by side for almost a decade. These relationships are essential to building the kinds of long-term, durable systems we need for both ocean discovery and resource protection, because no one can do this alone. In January, the United Nations Decade for Ocean Sciences for Sustainable Development kicks off, and we are a party to this, as well.

This will be a decade devoted to the rapid acceleration of ocean exploration, mapping the ocean floor, data collection and a great sharing of what we learn, leading to global ocean policies ten years from now that will do much more than we do today to protect ocean health for future generations.

This is an ambitious undertaking that requires international cooperation at a scale never before seen, with countries not just signing on to acknowledge the problems facing the Ocean, but committing to specific actions—open sharing of data, and of scientific, government, business and philanthropic resources.

On that front, SOI is working closely with eleven philanthropically funded marine research vessels around the world to help better coordinate our targets, our agendas, and to focus our scientific outcomes to help influence more effective Ocean policy globally.

Tripodfish photographed during a Falkor expedition. Schmidt Ocean Institute regularly publishes images, videos, and accounts of expeditions, creating opportunities for the public to connect with research taking place aboard the vessel. Courtesy of the Schmidt Ocean Institute.
Deep sea nautilus photographed during a Falkor expedition. Courtesy of the Schmidt Ocean Institute.
Pelagic Sea Cucumber photographed during a Falkor expedition. Courtesy of the Schmidt Ocean Institute.
Deepsea fish. Photo by Connor Gallagher
Catshark photographed during a Falkor expedition. Courtesy of the Schmidt Ocean Institute.

Mongabay: It’s evident from the Schmidt Ocean Institute, your speeches and presentations, and your involvement with media organizations that communications is an important strategy for your foundation. Why is that?

Schmidt: All our philanthropic efforts, including The Schmidt Family Foundation’s 11th Hour Project and 11th Hour Racing, Schmidt Ocean Institute and Schmidt Futures depend on communications to help shift the public narratives about what is possible—across the board. We have the power to reimagine, to shift the systems we live in, from anything as immediate as how we behave as consumers of energy, food and water to how we think about educational opportunities. From how we invest in businesses working to change the way we use material resources to eliminate waste, to the way we think about humans in relation to the rest of life on Earth.

Information is power— I think we learned that in the Information Age. A corollary would be that information deserts weaken society’s response to the needs that have connected humanity through thousands of years. It’s essential to restore those connections of people to each other and humans to the one planet that sustains us. Our recently announced grant to NPR to create two new regional newsrooms is one way we can support trusted journalism institutions as they address this challenge in America.

2020 has been a unique period in any of our lifetimes. It’s the stuff of scary movies that the world would be brought to its knees by a particle too small to see. But this is the reality we live in.  We believe it is time to reframe the conversation about the future of humanity to understand the fundamental interdependence of all living things. We need to grasp that the plants and animals we suppose to comprise life on Earth are but a small fraction of what is really here, and has been here, evolving and adapting for billions of years.

Humans need to develop new systems that work in harmony with the natural world, that are resilient in the face of a changing planet, and that incorporate the vast amount of information our technology has enabled us to gather to avoid the consequences of ignorance.

The 11th Hour Project’s Human Rights Program supported NGOs working to seek justice for some 360 households in Guinea who were displaced by an open pit gold mine. Photo by Rian deVos, The 11th Hour Project.

Mongabay: What would you say to young people who are distressed about the current trajectory of the planet?

Schmidt: Young people, on the whole, have a much clearer view of the world’s current environmental predicament than older people do, and demonstrate the energy and optimism needed to tackle these challenges left to their generation to solve.  I hope our generation will do better before long, and begin to pave the road for them.  We owe them that.

Our family’s investment in transformational technologies that help put an end to environmental degradation, and our investment in the promise of young talent, in whatever form it may take, through our upcoming RISE program, connect us to the changemakers. We really do have their backs, and see our mission, broadly, to raise them up, give them a voice, and use philanthropy as the kind of patient capital that will enable them to change the world for the better, for the long run.