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Erin Schrode: On passion, leadership and how she and other millennials are causing problems for good

I am truly inspired by all who I met while giving a talk at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. I cannot stop thinking about the energy among the students and public who attended my lecture and side events. While there, I shared with a journalist about how we can all find and fight for our passions. 

by Tracy Brown Hamilton

Erin Schrode’s generation—the millennials—have not always been referenced in a generous light. “If you Google ‘Why are millennials…,’” Schrode says, “you get results like, ‘so stupid,’ ‘so lazy.’” Yet Schrode has a different view of her peers, whom she calls the “most connected, most innovative” generation we’ve seen.

She certainly is not lazy. When she was just 13, Schrode—American citizen activist and youngest US congressional candidate in history—cofounded Turning Green, a national non-profit organization devoted to education and advocacy around environmentally sustainable and socially responsible choices for individuals, schools, and communities.

She got the idea to launch the NGO when she discovered as a young teen that her favorite shampoo contained formaldehyde and parabens and phthalates—things she says are “are linked to neurotoxicity and autism and birth defects and cancer.” It triggered her to launch into environmentalist action. “I wanted to cause problems for good,” she says.

Finding and harnessing your passion

She addressed Maastricht University students at the School of Business and Economics (SBE) earlier this month, and said her passion and optimism make her work not feel like work, but more an extension of the issues she cares about most. She is driven by her desire to fight her chosen fight, and she urges all of her millennial peers to find their passion and follow it. So how do you find it?

Schrode says it’s important to look inward and find what you really care about. “I talk often about mining your own life,” she explained. “Go into your own life. Where are the pain points? What are the solutions you wish existed, be it to a social problem or a product from an entrepreneurial standpoint. And ask yourself how you can address that. Is that shared? Are there other people who have that same issue? Do you have a solution? Has someone else come up with a solution?”

Focusing your energy on causes you are passionate about, she says, is what leads to innovative solutions. “You see so many beautiful companies coming out of collaborative consumption and the sharing economy—Air bnb, Uber—there’s a whole growth of an industry that is rooted in values that are so millennial in their essence. I love talking about that. It’s thrilling seeing my peers … one of them is about to launch an app all around the sharing of food. Literally. You can go to other people’s homes and they will cook food for you.”

Embedding social good

Schrode strongly believes an entrepreneur’s principles—be it care for the environment, for the planet, making sustainability a priority—must be reflected in the businesses they create. 

“Embed social good and positive impact into the DNA of your business,” she says. “Because as you scale and grow, so too does that positive, social, environmental impact. I think that now from a sourcing perspective, from a strategy perspective, if there are things that you can embed into your company from the launch, that are good. Define what values matter to you. Pick what matters to you and focus on those thing, and ensure that they are integral to your success. Create businesses that address problems.”

And while Schrode encourages young entrepreneurs to be socially conscious, she says there’s nothing wrong with also making a profit. “I don’t think you have to choose between profit and social good. I don’t think it’s an either/or,” she says. “It’s awesome to make a lot of money. But you can also make a lot of money doing a lot of good. People need to see more success stories of entrepreneurs who create businesses that grow and scale and succeed. But show them businesses that don’t destroy the planet. How can you create technology that connects people? How can you add meaning and value to people’s lives? As we moved to this digital world and you think about a business, you’re not just providing a concrete, tangible service, but helping people live a more delightful, happy, health existence. It’s important.”

There are several examples of SBE alumni having a positive impact in society through the companies they build. While changing the nappy of his son, Arend-Jan Majoor got the idea to launch the Dutch nappy recycling foundation, Luierrecycling Nederland. Hidde-Jan Lemstra launched a company that developed a technology to remove print from laser-printed and photocopied paper—“unprinting”—allowing paper to be reused several times before being recycled.

Compromising or guiding?

Schrode consults with various companies, from multinationals to startups, giving a millennial perspective on products and practices that will appeal and meet the principles of her generation. When asked whether working for companies such as Coca Cola compromises her green-living convictions, she has harsh words for the product, which she says she has never purchased: “I see Coke as artificially dyed, high fructose corn syrup, genetically modified, obesity-inducing crap in a largely non-recycled plastic bottle marketed to children. That’s what I think of Coke. On record.”

Nonetheless, she believes shepherding corporations on what she called the “sustainability journey” is important, and has a positive impact. “When you look at the global impact of Coca Cola, when you look at the global impact of one percent or two percent of a business like Coke, or like Nestle, or like Unilever, that is larger than the entire organic sector in the United States. So the net positive impact of shifting a piece of their business does more good,” she says. “I think that we cannot let perfect be the enemy of the good. When they come out and say, ‘okay, we’re reformulating because [our product] had toxins in it,” should we challenge them? Yes. But should we also usher them along on this journey? I believe so. But it’s a slippery slope.”

About the Ambassador Lecture Series

On 8 September 2016, Schrode visited Maastricht University (UM) to deliver her lecture, “The Youth Revolution: Transforming Passion into Leadership.” The lecture was part of the Ambassador Lecture Series, which is organised by students, for students. The series aims to create challenging, intellectually simulating and eye-opening discussions, and features academically valuable lectures and debates that suit the multi-disciplinary interests of students at UM. Read more here.

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