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The Path to Social Innovation

“There’s a chance to be an activist and a change-maker in business,” says Seth Goldman, founder of Honest Tea.  “Let’s just not stop something.  Let’s actually create something.”

by Elizabeth Cunningham, LearnServe Zambia and LearnServe Fellows alum, now a student at Georgetown University

For Seth Goldman it all started in a cramped kitchen with a few tea bags, simple ingredients, and his professor, Barry. Well maybe it started with newspaper routes, lemonade stands, and creativity. Regardless, Goldman started something innovative — a successful business. So what makes his million-dollar Honest Tea company different? Goldman, through his many self-starter, youthful initiatives, connected the dots and discovered a way to incorporate all he cared about into a small plastic bottle of healthy, organic, sugar-free, fair trade tea. What followed was Honest Tea, now distributing the product to tens of thousands of stores across the United States, while informing consumers and caring for the environment. While his story is unique and inspirational, anyone is capable of making a difference.

Honest Tea’s global headquarters, no longer the cramped, in-home kitchen, but a small, wall-less office space, filled with natural light, operates from Bethesda, Maryland, where it all started in that legendary kitchen. The bamboo floors, close contact between employees, old-fashioned chalkboard, and kitchen that also functions as a tea laboratory promotes collaboration and innovation, while never straying far from the attitude that started it all. Goldman says the headquarters will not expand anymore. Yet, somehow, the simple, eco-friendly office houses a million-dollar company that distributes the Honest Tea product across the country.

For Seth Goldman, the TeaEO and founder of Honest Tea, environmentally responsible behavior transcends all facets of his life. From vegetarianism, to geothermal heating in his home, to riding a bike to work, to running his business with the environment in mind, Goldman makes a personal commitment to sustainability. It’s his small actions — the newspaper route, sports, high school clubs — that helped Goldman make his connections and discover his path to success. It seems like any student could do the same thing, but how do you motivate students to connect these small actions to something bigger? In short, how do you make students care?

“You’ve got to meet people where they are,” says Goldman. Honest Tea not only provides a sugar-free, organic, fair trade, and healthy beverage, but it raises awareness about where the product comes from. “We didn’t call it lecture tea. If it didn’t taste good and wasn’t fun and engaging, we wouldn’t even get that chance to communicate,” Goldman jokes.

“You know campuses are unusual opportunities to spur environmental action,” adds Goldman.

“I think that students can do a lot. I’ve seen it firsthand where students can really raise the profile of recycling programs in the schools. They can raise awareness, and they can lead initiatives. If the students push hard enough, schools will change their policies,” says Goldman.

Students have unique opportunities to pressure universities and take action. “Well recycling is obviously a very visible one. And part of that is not just what the campus itself does, but what kind of behaviors you ingrain in that population,” says Goldman.

“Absolutely students can make a difference. It comes down to two things: awareness and hours,” says Seamus Caragher, a freshman at Georgetown University. “With any issue, aware and invigorated students can make a difference if they are committed to the time,” he adds. “Students need to know about issues, find what issues they are passionate about, and then put in the time to make that difference,” says Caragher.

Goldman’s story is a uniquely successful one, but is not impossible for students to make a difference — on any level.

“No matter who you are, you can make a difference,” says Scott Rechler, director and CEO of LearnServe International, an organization dedicated to business leadership, problem-solving, and cross-cultural interaction. He begins to motivate students by asking the question, “What pisses you off?” “Everyone cares about something,” Rechler insists.

Rechler says “Society doesn’t give students enough credit and recognition for what they are capable of doing.” The way to start something is think, “We won’t stand for this, and we are going to do something about it,” says Rechler.

Paula Wang, Advanced Placement environmental science teacher at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC, says, “Getting people to stop and take a look at what’s around them and find the ecosystems and beauty that you’re living in and caring about them is a place to start.” Firsthand experience, especially in environmental activism, is crucial.

Beyond firsthand experience, students must find connections and work from there. For Caragher, who works to promote urban farming, that is providing healthy, local foods to poorer neighborhoods, “getting students motivated — after they are aware of the problem — comes down to the human connection,” he says. “Recognizing the humanity of the issue motivates students,” Caragher adds.

Goldman’s initiatives had a profound experience in the creation of Honest Tea. For students, participating in campus activities that encourage certain values is a small, but good place to start.

Georgetown University’s famous Red Square publicizes multitudes of student initiatives, community service projects, and student involvement opportunities. Lined with booths of passionate and excited students, Red Square is far from quiet.

Impressed by the initiative of students who sit in booths all day, Caragher constantly finds himself asking, “Who am I going to see today, and what do they care about?” when approaching Red Square.

For Georgetown students the weekly Wednesday GU Farmer’s Market, right next to the bustling Red Square, sponsored by the Georgetown University Student Association (GUSA), occupies Copley Lawn weekly. Initiated last April 2012, the social Wednesday scene serves as a grocery opportunity for many.

The smell of Indira rolls, spicy chicken tikka, famous sweet Belgium waffles hot off the iron, and free samples of organic, local fruit, including Asian pears, Honeycrisp apples, and Fuji apples draw hoards of students to wait in lines. Many loop back to the same vendor several times for free samples.

Beyond the social atmosphere, smiling faces of vendors and students, and crisp fall days beneath age-old trees lining the Copley walkway, the GU Farmer’s Market affirms certain local and organic commitments of the Georgetown community and instills responsible environmental behaviors in the students.

Anna Colette Heldring, a freshman at Georgetown University says the farmer’s market “encourages small businesses in the area and healthy eating” for students. “It’s important for the university to not only participate in buying local but to also give local farmers options to sell and encourage small businesses,” says Heldring.

Impressed by the interactions between students and vendors, Heldring adds, “It’s a great opportunity for students to learn more about environmental issues and the ways that local business makes a difference.”

One GU Farmer’s Market vendor, Lilibet Clarke, a regular lining the flanks of the Copley walkway, really stands out and exemplifies the success of a passionate self-starter driven by initiative, much like Goldman. The cutesy name of her self-starter business, Lil’s Lite Bytes, speaks volumes to Clarke’s energetic, bouncy, and infectious personality. Her farmer’s market table exhibits precious, delicate cookies and teacakes adorned by fresh, colorful flowers. Clad in her chef’s hat, infectious smile, and apron, Clarke is every bit of the bouncy, excited, and artistic baker that she appears to be. Underneath, she is tough as nails.

Clarke’s proudest moment is her arrest last summer while protesting the Keystone Pipeline in front of the White House. In New Jersey, where she lived before moving to Washington, DC, Clarke worked on the local environmental commission, started a nonprofit to bring green festivals to her community, and initiated her organic, gluten-free, sugar-free, handmade treats business out of necessity, as she and her daughter are both lactose and gluten-free.

According to Clarke the most promising and effective area for change is consumption. “Make the connection,” she says, a common piece of advice. “Be aware of what food we eat; it comes from the nutrients and soil in the ground, and we don’t want to put bad things in our body.”

For her, sharing her story allows people to connect to the problem she tries to tackle head-on. Just by talking to the dozens of vendors lining Copley, students can begin to make small connections, much like Goldman did in his youth.

While environmental activism is only one outlet for student initiatives, it is a much-needed one, especially on Georgetown University’s campus. Georgetown’s $20

Million Environmental Initiative, launched on Nov. 1, 2012, is an exceptional opportunity for students to take action.

“The opening of our state-of-the-art new science building and this gift give us the opportunity to become a global leader in this increasingly urgent area,” says Georgetown President John J. DeGioia on Georgetown University’s website.

According to the university’s website, “DeGioia has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at least 50 percent by the year 2020,” and “Georgetown already has reduced its carbon footprint by almost 20 percent since 2006.”

In light of Georgetown’s Environmental Initiative, Wang (Sidwell Friends Advanced Placement environmental science teacher) challenges students to pressure the university to become part of the Chicago Climate Exchange along with University of Michigan, Tufts

University, and many corporations. It is a legally binding commitment that “usually involves making a commitment to purchasing a certain amount of renewable energy. Then you are looking at a much bigger footprint. It’s a beginning for environmental activism in your own community,” says Wang.

On a grander scale, Wang hopes environmentally responsible actions will encourage students to practice perseverance and better the world. Georgetown University Ecology Professor, Philip Sze, adds, “People need to realize what the problems and the challenges are. Then it’s a very personal decision. I think being able to make an informed decision about things is important,” Sze says.

Besides small campus initiatives, Goldman looks beyond and says, “Let’s just not stop something. Let’s actually create something.” Innovation and creativity, whether through engaging students in something as small as a farmer’s market or something bigger, will change society.

“There’s a chance to be an activist and a change-maker in business,” says Goldman, who challenges students to look to businesses as outlets to lead change.

Wang says, “No matter what kind of career you choose, you can incorporate some sort of environmental sustainability into those practices. I hope that they think a little bit differently and think about their impact on the planet,” she says of her expectations for her students.

So can the generation of youth make change? Goldman says, “There’s enough change needed that it won’t be done by the time your generation gets the power to. We are so far behind where we need to be as a society.” He says students have a real opportunity to effect change.  Wang echoes these thoughts. “I’m hopeful that your generation is going to push for policies that really change the way we use energy in our country,” she says.

The weekly GU Farmer’s Market may be a small, underappreciated environmental event, and Red Square is only a small area of campus. However, by beginning with awareness, engagement, and small changes in behavior through something so simple, Georgetown students have the opportunity to really make a difference. The farmer’s market has the power to establish roots for Georgetown students — roots that can hopefully grow deeper and encourage further action.

Rechler adds an interesting twist to the idea that young people are the future. He says, “Young people are the leaders of today. You can make a difference starting right now.”

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