Mongabay Features

Philanthropist Wendy Schmidt: ‘Solutions are always local’

This week, scientists from James Cook University in Australia announced the discovery of a previously unknown detached coral reef in the Great Barrier Reef. It was the first new reef to be discovered in the area since the late 1800s.

The discovery was made by an underwater robot launched by a team aboard the Falkor, a research vessel owned by the Schmidt Ocean Institute, which provides scientists with a world-class facility to conduct oceanographic research, develop and test new technologies, and advance public understanding of oceans.

The Schmidt Ocean Institute is an initiative of philanthropists Eric and Wendy Schmidt, who have established a network of charitable organizations and investment vehicles that work to address some of the world’s greatest challenges, from human rights to clean energy to stewardship of natural resources.

Wendy Schmidt says her interest in sustainability and the environment was born out of her career as an interior designer, where she became increasingly aware of the impact that design choices can have on resource use and waste. That led her to become engaged in trying to solve three of the biggest problems facing humanity: climate change, the sustainability of food systems, and ocean health.

These efforts started with the Schmidt Family Foundation, but the complexity of these issues soon spawned the development of an array of entities, from grant-making and operating foundations like the 11th Hour Project and the Schmidt Ocean Institute, to social ventures like ReMain Nantucket to the “venture philanthropy” and incubator models of Schmidt Marine Technology Partners and Schmidt Futures. These projects have supported a diversity of initiatives, but the overarching philosophy is one build around “systems thinking” — a holistic way of looking at problems and solutions, according to Schmidt.

“We approach problems with systems thinking — examine what elements are contributing, and why, and what assumptions underlie the system. Find creative ways — including technology — to redefine the problem you are trying to solve,” she told Mongabay. “Then you can move quickly to design a model that addresses what was overlooked before and work towards a more resilient solution.

“When you approach philanthropy with a systems thinking approach, you can see connections that may not be obvious on the surface.”

For example, Schmidt’s 11th Hour Racing combines two things that seem totally disparate — professional sailboat racing and environmental issues — into a venture that raises ocean awareness and collects data on ocean health. Similarly, the 11th Hour Project has supported the construction of run-of-the-river microhydropower systems in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a way to protect gorilla habitat in Virunga National Park from demand for charcoal production and create new opportunities for young men who might otherwise join militias.

Small hydroelectric dam near Virunga National Park. Photo by Rian deVos, The 11th Hour Project.
Small hydroelectric dam near Virunga National Park. Photo by Rian deVos, The 11th Hour Project.
Young mountain gorilla in Virunga National Park. Photo by Rian deVos, The 11th Hour Project.
Young mountain gorilla in Virunga National Park. Photo by Rian deVos, The 11th Hour Project.

Some of the interventions embraced by Schmidt’s ventures have a technology element, but it’s often in a supporting role. This may seem surprising given the Schmidt family’s pedigree — Eric served as Google’s chairman and CEO from 2001-2011 and executive chairman from 2011-2018 — but Wendy says technologies are best viewed as supporting tools.

“I think change is driven in small increments before anything ever ‘scales.’ The very notion of’ ‘scaling’ things is problematic because it ignores the reality that solutions are always local,” she said. “It’s technocratic thinking to imagine there is a solution to global problems that is universal, one size fits all — apart from something like a vaccine, and even then, there are issues. Technologies are tools, but not simple answers.”

Schmidt spoke about her philanthropic ventures and philosophy during an October 2020 interview with Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett A. Butler.


By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.