Working won’t feel like working anymore — it will just become a part of who you are.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheila Morovati.
Sheila Michail Morovati is the president and founder of nonprofits Habits of Waste and Crayon Collection. She spearheaded the historic ban of plastic straws, utensils, and stirrers in the City of Malibu and has been featured in Forbes, LA Times, HuffPost, and various regional broadcasts.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I was born in Tehran, Iran just before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. My family left Iran and came to the United States in hopes of a new life. During those first years here in the US my family moved around quite a bit. In total, I went to 14 different schools and experienced many different people and different ways of life.
You are currently leading two organizations that are making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organizations are trying to change in our world today?
Crayon Collection is my first non-profit and the mission is to collect gently used crayons from restaurants and put them into the hands of vulnerable children worldwide along with first in class art education resources using crayons as the main tool. We have made a lot of impact over the years supporting schools and teachers but we also had some special milestones. For example, in 2018, we set a Guinness World Record for the largest crayon donation in history with over 1 million crayons donated to teachers at LAUSD and Head Start Centers in Los Angeles. In 2019, Crayon Collection donated thousands of crayons to migrant children at a mobile school in Tijuana. In May 2021, we worked with the San Diego Convention Center, where 1,500+ migrant children are being held while they wait to be reconnected with loved ones. Nickelodeon generously supported this donation. This July, Crayon Collection partnered with the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for a Virtual Art Exploration + art-making studio sessions available to children everywhere. The month-long summer program utilized the remarkable power of the crayon to unlock children’s creativity as we have been able to make art accessible to all thanks to the millions of crayons that are available to children through our programming.
Habits of Waste was born after we spearheaded the ban of plastic straws, utensils, and stirrers in the City of Malibu. We realized the expansion of our work outside of crayons needed its own space. HoW has been a huge success and we are proud to be change-makers protecting our precious planet. For example, through our #CutOutCutlery campaign we convinced Uber Eats, Postmates, Grubhub and DoorDash to change the default setting in their applications (globally) so that no one receives plastic cutlery unless requested — we’re now targeting fast food chains. Other campaigns include “Lights, Camera, Plastic?” where we are changing Hollywood’s habit of displaying single use plastics on-screen. Our #ShipNaked campaign is focused on the e-commerce excess packaging in our online orders. We have many other campaigns, but one more that is special to me is #8meals where we are working hard to help people adopt a partially plant-based diet. In all, our efforts are impactful and doable that result in people feeling empowered versus hopeless.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I graduated UCLA with a degree in Sociology and I was truly fascinated by the behavior of the masses. More importantly, I loved knowing that regular people can create changes in norms and social constructs. Of course, all of this came together when I moved right next to the ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains. This constant exposure to nature quickly led to a bourgeoning environmental consciousness.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and make a difference? What was that final trigger?
As a child I went on a family vacation to Mexico and on an after-dinner stroll back to our hotel one night many children surrounded me because I had a balloon in my hand and a few trinkets from the restaurant. My mom convinced me to share what I had because the children had so little and would find joy for weeks to come with these little toys. So, when I saw all the crayons being discarded while dining out with my own children I started my first non-profit, Crayon Collection with those children in Mexico in mind. It was only after I started to do some research and realized that restaurants were throwing away over 150 million crayons per year while teachers were spending over $900 of their personal earnings on classroom supplies right here in the United States. I knew that so many children would dream of having those crayons that were instead, headed for the trash. Plus, we were subliminally teaching our children to participate in the throwaway culture we find ourselves in today. My first step was to see how I could connect the restaurants with vulnerable schools located within 5 miles of one another. The school would pick up an average of 3,000 crayons per month from each restaurant partner, which helped teachers supply their classrooms with the necessary supplies and alleviate their personal spending. We dug deeper and brought the arts back to these schools by asking professional artists to provide deep lessons using crayons as the main tool. These project ideas were turned into lesson plans so that any teach could incorporate art into their curriculum.
Habits of Waste came next. It was in those very same restaurants that I realized single-use plastic straws were being imposed on us without anyone requesting them. Usually, the first round of plastic straws come with the complimentary glass of water, which most people don’t request. Then a second round of straws come in refilled beverages, followed by the small stirrers with post-meal coffee and tea. I decided that this wastefulness once again had to stop, so I went to a City Council meeting in the City of Malibu and requested that the iconic beach community set the standard and lead the way by banning single use plastic straws, stirrers and cutlery. This was a success, and many have credited the domino effect of similar plastic bans to the historical steps that Malibu took. This action also inspired #CutOutCutlery, our campaign that is behind CA state bill AB 1276 to make all plastic cutlery available only by request in the State of CA.
Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
I realized I needed to be a non-profit when I contacted restaurants chains and asked for their participation. They all asked if I was a 501c3, even though I explained that they would be doing the collecting and donating themselves, they insisted that I needed the non-profit status. Luckily a parent in my daughter’s preschool class believed in what I was trying to do and helped me process the paperwork pro-bono. It was lucky but I now know that many law firms do this for those who seek to start a non-profit organization.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
We were invited to speak at the World Economic Forum twice and had the opportunity to share our work with leaders located in different parts of the world. We even had the UCLA Vice Chair of Sociology use our work as a case study to prove how non-profits can cause individuals to make change.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
When I was in UCLA, every morning I brought bagels and cream cheese to sororities who would make calls with me to restaurants nationwide and convince them to collect/donate crayons to local schools that we would then pair them with. Since we were in LA we started with the East Coast and worked our way West so that we could benefit from the time zones!
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
There are so many people I have encountered along the way who help me push this organization forward. It began with the friend from my daughter’s pre-school class, and it continues now with virtually everyone I encounter. Everyone is so wonderful and wants to lend a hand. Most recently we built an app thanks to friends of friends who want to impact the world.
Are there things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
On the Habits of Waste website, we provide templated 1-click emails for participants to share their voice. These emails — pending campaign — are sent to local legislators, e-commerce giants, Hollywood Guilds, and more. We encourage sending these prewritten emails in order to make noise around the issue. Another approach is posting about the campaign on social media — if you see something, say something. Right now, we’re encouraging our followers to #ShowUsYourPackage and post an image when they receive a wasteful package and tag the company who sent it requesting that they #shipnaked next time.
As for Crayon Collection, there are plenty of ways to get involved. You can start your own Crayon Collection by asking your child’s school or your favorite restaurant about setting up a Crayon Collection box rather than discarding them. We also have a brand ambassador program allowing individuals to bring Crayon Collection to their city! Providing teachers with lesson plans is also an option where artists’ project ideas can be contributed and taught in virtually any classroom. More information can be found on CrayonCollection.org.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
Try and see the excess in any product and see what you can eliminate immediately. Can the item be produced with less of an impact? If so, give that a try as a first step. Paring down packaging is the first thing I would recommend to any company.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.
- Running a non-profit is really hard work and it’s a business in its own right.
- Trying to change behavior is one of the most complex things a person can try and do.
- You will be more fulfilled than you ever imagined.
- Your work will touch the lives of people that you never met before.
- Working won’t feel like working anymore — it will just become a part of who you are.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
That you MUST take-action if you see something that isn’t right. Use your voice at City Council meetings (every city has a public comment time where you are given 2–3 minutes to share a concern). Taking one step at a time towards a goal is really the best you can do so take it slow and just keep moving.
What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Be the Change you wish to see in the world. — Mahatma Ghandi
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Joe Biden so that we can create big changes together.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!