Daniela Fernandez is CEO of Sustainable Ocean Alliance, a global organization that’s cultivating and accelerating solutions to protect and sustain the ocean’s health. Fernandez is a Forbes 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneur, World Economic Forum Global Shaper, and member of Friends of Ocean Action. One of Azula’s Top 5 Ocean Heroes of 2016, she received the Peter Benchley Ocean Award and Bustle Upstart Award. She spoke in the 2019 session Deep Thinking: Ocean Solutions to Climate Change.
We caught up with her about the oceantech economy, investing in youth, and creating your own purpose.
You started Sustainable Ocean Alliance (SOA) in 2015 when you were a 19-year-old student at Georgetown University. What did it take to do that?
For one: believing in myself enough to ignore the people telling me not to start SOA, and once I started it, to ignore the people telling me to stop building it. The second thing was to get help, so I built a community of supporters made up of an advisory board of Georgetown alums and administrators. And third, being stubborn: I didn’t take “no” for an answer in getting powerful people and heads of state to listen to me and to other young people speaking out for the ocean.
Why focus on the ocean?
I had been passionate about climate change since I saw Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth but when I learned that 50 percent of oxygen comes from the ocean, that 3 billion people depend on fish for protein, and that the ocean is the largest carbon sink, I realized that climate and ocean are inextricably linked — something that I don’t think most people are taught.
The first Our Ocean Youth Leadership Summit we hosted in Georgetown in 2015 was the first time I got a sense of how many more people there were like me who cared about the ocean, saw the relationship to climate, but didn’t have a platform or a pathway to build and implement their ideas. I had young people approaching me asking how they could start SOA back at their school. That first was the moment that catalyzed my desire to develop a recipe for ocean innovation and community organizing that was replicable so that any young person around the world could have access to the resources, mentors, and funding necessary.
So three Our Ocean summits later, with a fourth upcoming in Oslo in October 2019, what’s different today versus the beginning?
The main development is our emphasis on using entrepreneurship to build solutions and understanding that the sustainable ocean economy is so underdeveloped. Our initial focus was all on young leadership, but soon those young leaders were coming to me with concrete ideas for solving ocean problems and asking me for resources and I had nothing to give them. And when I researched it I realized it didn’t really exist. That’s when we started developing programming and resources for entrepreneurship to have a prevalent role in addressing these ocean issues. So I moved to San Francisco and found the perfect person, our CIO Craig Dudenhoeffer, to help me start the Ocean Solutions Accelerator. In 2018, we funded five startups and this year we will fund 15.
Did you always believe that one person can change the world or have you come to believe it by doing it?
I have always believed that. The mindset that differentiated me from other people looking for their purpose is that I created it myself. In elementary school I got one of those cheesy motivational posters of a penguin that says “Individuality: having the courage to follow your own path.” I had that poster up throughout high school and college and I still have it today. It’s liberating to discover that you have the power to build your own purpose and I’m lucky to have discovered that at an early age.
It seems all too easy to fall into climate fatalism and hopelessness. What gives you hope?
Our annual Youth Summits give me hope because that’s when I get to spend time sharing space with all the young people who embody the mission of SOA. Seeing their hope, passion, and courage reminds me that the sacrifices I’ve made mattered. And it reaffirms what I’ve always put at the heart of SOA: spending time listening to young people, giving them a seat at the table. Sea level rise is one thing to understand conceptually, but another thing entirely when a young person from Palau is telling me how it’s changed their whole way of life.
The emerging ocean technology that we’re seeing gives me hope. Three of the startups we funded in 2018 are doing amazing things. Loliware (seaweed-based products) forecasts $90 million in revenue across 86 countries and eradication of billions of plastic straws. SafetyNet Technologies (fishing net lighting technology) launched four commercial trials in Q1 2019 in Europe, U.S. and Latin America. And Calwave Power Technologies (power generation from wave energy) received an additional multi-million dollar award in January 2019 from the US Department of Energy to build a commercial-scale drivetrain.
What’s next for SOA?
Accelerating 100 oceantech companies in the next three years. Expanding our community of young leaders from 140 countries to every country and every coastal city. Building partnerships with government but particularly with business and entrepreneurs so that we can continue to create a world where corporate social responsibility is baked into economic choices and ecological capital is a prime factor in the bottom line.
What advice would you give to a college student who cares about the environment but doesn’t know how to make a career of it?
Develop self-awareness, be wary of “should,” and be honest with yourself. Explore your tolerance for uncertainty, your appetite for hard work, and your willingness to sacrifice. Most people don’t get to know themselves but go by the prescribed ideas of society and realize too late that their heart is not in their work.
I didn’t think that I would be starting a global non-profit when I crossed the stage at graduation. I was considering taking a finance job on Wall Street because it was what I felt I should do. But I stepped back, took stock of who I knew myself to be, and took a leap of faith to become an entrepreneur.
We millennials are entering a workforce in a time when it’s possible to make a positive impact and make money at the same. Things like impact investing and corporate social responsibility didn’t exist in the way they do for our generation, so the idea that you need to wait until you “make it” before putting time and money toward saving the planet is outdated and, in the context of our climate crisis, unacceptable.
If you weren’t doing this what would you do?
I would probably be doing exactly what I’m doing today. But in another life, I’d love to be an explorer. I’ve always wished I could have an explorer’s simultaneously intimate and scientific understanding of nature. But I wouldn’t want to do that in the midst of a climate crisis. In our reality, I’m more interested in preserving it than exploring it.
The views and opinions of the author are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.