Entrepreneurs Tackling Climate Change: “We need to teach children and youth about what is happening and what they can do” With Cassia Moraes and Amine Rahal

On the individual level, you can pay attention to your buying choices. You can choose to eat less meat, to buy local, and to buy from responsible companies. You can consider riding a bicycle or using public transportation to get to work. And you can volunteer with NGOs and companies like Youth Climate Leaders. We’ve also come up with several measures governments can take, such as providing incentives for renewable energy and products that reduce emissions. People sometimes think all companies are bad and that they are polluting the world on purpose, but this isn’t the case. We try to help responsible businesses see how they can do their part, and change economic incentives that perpetuate undesired collective outcomes. We also teach children and youth about what is happening and what they can do. One of the main goals here at Youth Climate Leaders is to really have a call for action, because you can’t tell people how bad things are without also telling them what they can do to help. We try to bring people together to focus their efforts toward a shared purpose.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Cassia Moraes, who is the founder and CEO of Youth Climate Leaders (YCL) and who also works at the Brazilian Forum on Climate Change as their deputy executive coordinator. Previously, Cassia worked with civic engagement at CIVICUS, and with international cooperation for sustainable development at the Brazilian Mission at the UN, the UNDP, and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). Cassia holds an MPA in development practice from Columbia University and a bachelor of arts in international relations from Universidade Estadual Paulista (UNESP).


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I have wanted to work in the field of climate change since I was an undergraduate. But despite my studies, and having written my undergrad thesis on the topic, I didn’t have the contacts I needed to land a job in the field. Instead I worked at a bank and then completed my master’s degree at Columbia University, where I was part of the Lemann Fellowship — a Lemann Foundation program that supports graduate students during their education and after as they hope to dedicate their careers to advancing Brazil. Last year, the NGO I was working for ended my contract early because of funding issues, and I found myself looking for work again. I considered several job opportunities that weren’t related to climate change, but then I watched the movie “Wonder Woman,” and it struck me as a sign that I should not give up on my purpose. Losing my previous job was life’s way of giving me a chance to get even closer to a career in the field I was really passionate about. At last I managed to get a job with the Brazilian Forum of Climate Change, where I still work part time.

While I was going through this career search, I had the idea of creating a social enterprise that would help other young people who are now facing the challenges I faced when I was younger, who want to work in the field of climate change but don’t have the right skills and contacts. I realized that this could be of value to both recent college graduates, career changers and to the environment, and that I had a strong network of contacts from Columbia University, the Lemann Fellowship, and my work on climate change around the world, whom I could use to develop that kind of enterprise. That’s how Youth Climate Leaders (YCL) was born.

What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?

Our mission is to help young people start their careers in climate change. I would say the main problem we’re aiming to solve is climate change itself, and we’re preparing young people to work for that mission. At the same time, we’re trying to improve education around climate change by providing young people with hands-on training to acquire the skills they can’t get with traditional university coursework. Finally, we work to solve the problem of youth unemployment. Many young people want jobs in this field, but — as it was in my case — it can be a challenge for recent graduates to start their careers without additional training and the right network.

Can you tell us about the initiatives your company is taking to tackle climate change? Can you give an example for each?

YCL has three main pillars. The first is multicultural learning journeys. We completed two programs this year — one of them a 40-day trip to Paris and Kenya — during which participants learn about real-life climate change issues in the field. We visit climate change organizations so participants can network, make connections and learn about the work these groups do. We also work together on real-life projects with local organizations and have a tailored curriculum mixing climate-related issues and professional development. The second pillar is our global network. We connect young people with mentors and immerse them in opportunities in the field. For example, participants can apply to attend global events such as COP24, the UN Climate Change Conference. The third pillar is direct job opportunities through our network and other partners. Right now we have people working in Germany, Kenya and Brazil, in the private sector, NGOs and international organizations. This is what we do to bridge the gaps between people and opportunities in climate change. We give them the education, skills and experiences to help them be more effective in building a career in this field.

What was the most difficult thing you faced when you first started your company/organization? Can you share how you overcame that? This might give insight to founders who face a similar situation.

I think funding was — and is — our main challenge. We realized right away that we could not be totally dependent on external funding, as most organizations are hesitant to give money to an untested idea. So out of necessity, we built a model where participants pay for our services and additional funding comes from donations. Most of our participants come from developing countries, so we need to raise money to offer scholarships. Although we’re aiming to be able to operate autonomously in the future, we are continuing to scale our fundraising efforts so we can give more scholarships to youth from the Global South.

Many people want to start a company to tackle environmental issues, but they face challenges when it comes to raising enough money to actually make it happen. Can you share how you were able to raise the funding necessary to start your organization? Do you have any advice?

You can’t rely only on donations, so you do need to make sure you have an idea or a product that people are willing to buy or support financially as a way to generate revenue. You can also learn a lot from other foundations who raise money with the same model you are considering. Finally, I think it’s important to do a small pilot to test your model. Your idea doesn’t have to be perfect right away — it’s more important to get something on the market that you can learn from and then adapt later. At YCL, we did a 40-day pilot to test all components of our program.

Do you think entrepreneurs/businesses can do a better job than governments to solve the climate change and global warming issues? Please explain why or why not.

A problem as complex and large as climate change can be solved only if all sectors are engaged. We all need to be working as hard as we can to tackle climate change, understanding that everything we do, from how we eat to how we commute, has an impact. But governments, businesses and NGOs all think about climate change in different ways. Certainly, as a business, we cannot work by ourselves to solve these issues. At Youth Climate Leaders, we’re looking to partner with local governments and government agencies, so we can combine our efforts to find solutions.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Last year, the Lemann Foundation nominated me to be one of a group of Brazilians, some of them Lemann Fellows as well, to have a private meeting with President Obama. I met other young people and was able to have an intimate conversation with the former president. I was so excited; it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and really demonstrated for me that YCL was on the right track. So I’m grateful that the Lemann Foundation Fellowship provided me with this opportunity, as well as a way to expand my network and ultimately to develop an organization that would provide this crucially important guidance to young adults.

I’m also incredibly grateful for my co-founder, Flavia Bellaguarda. She and I met when YCL was recruiting people for the immersion program. She saw our call for applications and contacted me, offering her support right when we needed it most. When you have an idea that appeals to people, that the world is looking for, amazing people will almost magically come into your world.

What are some practical things that both people and governments can do to help address the climate change and global warming problem?

On the individual level, you can pay attention to your buying choices. You can choose to eat less meat, to buy local, and to buy from responsible companies. You can consider riding a bicycle or using public transportation to get to work. And you can volunteer with NGOs and companies like Youth Climate Leaders.

We’ve also come up with several measures the Brazilian government can take, such as providing incentives for renewable energy and products that reduce emissions. People sometimes think all companies are bad and that they are polluting the world on purpose, but this isn’t the case. We try to help responsible businesses see how they can do their part, and change economic incentives that perpetuate undesired collective outcomes. We also teach children and youth about what is happening and what they can do. One of the main goals here at Youth Climate Leaders is to really have a call for action, because you can’t tell people how bad things are without also telling them what they can do to help. We try to bring people together to focus their efforts toward a shared purpose.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

  1. You can’t count on donations. I had some idea of how difficult it would be, but we were anticipating that we would have enough to build our organization properly and with adequate staffing from the beginning. That wasn’t the case, and we had to adapt.
  2. When working with clients, you need to be very clear. It’s important to be aligned on expectations from the start so no one is confused or disappointed about what you can offer.
  3. It’s important to know the right people. People who are already in the field can connect you to donors and partners. Our launch of YCL would have been easier if we had identified these people and secured their support before we ever started.
  4. Before you launch your idea, make sure to do a prototype — and be open to change. Ideas can look very good and perfect on paper, but there’s always something that can be improved. It’s a good idea to have potential clients provide feedback on your plan early on. This was an especially hard lesson for me to learn, because as a perfectionist I hated the idea of launching a “good enough” prototype.
  5. Don’t compromise on your dreams, and don’t underestimate the importance of education and networks. YCL is based around the idea of educating and connecting young adults on climate change so they can start their careers in a field they are passionate about. We are taught to chase jobs after we graduate, but we need to first know what we want in life and then look for job opportunities that fulfil our aspirations, not the other way around.

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring a great amount of good to the world, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

For me, Youth Climate Leaders is that movement. We’re inspiring young people to work together to address climate change, which is the ultimate challenge we face as human beings this century. But we also want to show that working with such a difficult topic can be fun if you have the right people by your side. Our goal is to inspire millions of young people worldwide, helping to shift mindsets and habits to bring about low-carbon societies. The YCL program has direct impact on the climate through the innovative solutions participants implement on the local level through our learning journeys. And that impact is multiplied by the further mitigation and adaptation efforts each participant will have throughout their long careers in the field. YCL aims to change the lives of its participants at the same time as we’re helping them change the world.

What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?

● LinkedIn: http://bit.ly/CassiaMoraes

● Instagram: @cassia_moraes

● Twitter: @casssia_moraes

● YCL website: https://youthclimateleaders.org

● YCL Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/YouthClimateLeaders/

● YCL Instagram: @YouthClimateLeaders

This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!