The vigor that young people bring into this world blows me away. Their energy and passion is at times so palpable, you start questioning why no one has found a way to bottle this stuff up! Over the years, I’ve quietly admired a number of young people who break the rules in order to achieve something larger than themselves. Henry Elkus is one of these people.
Henry grew up under modest circumstances but that never blinded him from the reality that some people are born well-off and others aren’t. There’s no rhyme or reason; It’s just luck. Once you’re aware of this reality, there’s little to dissuade you from changing it. This is exactly what Henry has set off to do with his creation of Helena a global think-tank and NGO fit for the 21st century. In short, Helena gathers leaders across technology and innovation, thought, arts and entertainment, business, etc. to bring them under one roof to address and defeat the biggest global challenges of our time.
In the short amount of time that Helena has been in existence, the group has achieved a number of feats, not the least of which include a plan to defeat climate change by placing technological innovation at the heart of the solution and the creation of a UN Security Council meets Greek agora. This doesn’t even include their current membership of names such as: billionaire philanthropist Nicolas Berggruen (who I previously interviewed here), Deepak Chopra, North Korean escapee and activist Yeonmi Park, Chloë Moretz and Nobel Prize Winner Myron Scholes. With that said, I’m thrilled to introduce Henry Elkus in our interview below.
“External success should not be the sole prerequisite for doing good.”
Henry, you left Yale University sophomore year to take on a project convening the leaders of thought and industry to bring them in the same room to discuss, then implement ideas that could yield positive social change. Tell me about what inspired you to pursue Helena. Why were you confident that it could work?
I love thinking about the systems and structures that make up organizations. When I was at Yale, I stumbled into a fixation with organizations like governments, think-tanks, NGOs, and global summits, because of their historical and continued role in world affairs. If you boil down these types of organizations to their core missions, their purpose is ambitious but straightforward: to bring together some of the world’s great leaders, then to develop and implement innovations and solutions to global problems.
What fascinated me, however, is how fundamentally the world has changed over the last 100 years. Through the decentralization of media and technology, young people have now become world leaders. I felt that this change necessitated a new type of organization that was structurally designed for 21st century problems, and I wanted to do my part and create one.
“If the idea brewing in your head is truly something worth executing, then commit, and do it.”
I was confident that the idea behind Helena was strong, but that really wasn’t the motivation that drove me. What inspired me most were the conversations I had with people from around the world while beginning to build the group. I remember walking around the college courtyard in slippers, boxers, and a bathrobe in January at 2:00 a.m. so I could make Skype calls to Singapore and Japan without waking my roommates up. It would be twenty minutes into the phone call before I realized how cold it was, because I was so entranced in the ideas and conversation. The notion that I had the chance to create meaningful impact in the world from a laptop in a dorm room was so seductive and so novel that it only served to grow my confidence in the idea and the organization.
There’s a trend in students leaving college to pursue their ventures; Mark Zuckerberg is probably the most notable and successful example of this. Is it a good thing? What advice do you have for the next generation of leaders who have innovation and startup ideas brewing in their heads while they’re pursuing their studies? Is college even worthwhile given skyrocketing tuition?
I hope that this won’t be a dilemma for much longer. Considering that a core mission of the university system is to prepare young people for their future professional life, developing a professional venture while in college should be symbiotic with, not antithetical to, the college process. And that is why more universities are integrating student ventures directly into the curriculum. It is a good thing that young people are creating entrepreneurial impact in the world regardless of background and socioeconomic status, and to me it would be counterproductive for universities to be a barrier to that very positive trend.
My advice for younger leaders in school is to be wary of creating an organization just to create an organization. Really think hard about where your passion lies. If the idea brewing in your head is truly something worth executing, then commit, and do it.
When you were fourteen years old, you started your own high-fashion “streetwear” clothing company. At eighteen, you later became president of an international cooperative fund of millennial impact investors and the youngest member of the Wall St. Journal’s Experts Panel on small business. Where does your entrepreneurial spirit come from? What motivates you?
The biggest turning point I had was unfortunately the passing of a close schoolmate and neighbor when I was 14. That event had a profound effect on me. It forced me to confront the reality of time, but it also inspired me to care about what matters, and let go of inconsequential distractions. She had lived the fullest life of anyone I knew, and most of all she did it without sweating the small stuff. She also embodied an ethos of “taking action” that was well beyond her years, and it was that mindset that took away my own fear to take on a bit of risk if it meant doing what I loved to do. It was an important part of why I left full-time schooling that next year to focus fully on those projects.
As far as my own entrepreneurial spirit, I’m afraid I might have a boring answer for you. I have a bit of an appreciation for the stubborn, menial work that goes into building something new and exciting. The act of crafting something from scratch sews a sense of identity into you. What is most motivating is what can result from this process -- a project that is much, much bigger than oneself. Helena isn’t a vehicle designed to implement “my” change in the world; it is a platform designed to assemble some of the world’s great leaders, and combine them in a way that wouldn’t have otherwise taken place to create change at scale. The path ahead of us to achieve that vision is what motivates me, because I know it can exist far after I am gone, and for a greater purpose than just my own enrichment or advancement.
“Whether or not the future continues to yield monetary benefit to those who do good, I hope that the basic human instinct of altruism remains unchanged. Cooperation is the core component of society, not wealth.”
How did you convince world renowned individuals such as 4-Star Generals Norton Schwartz and Stanley McChrystal, Nobel Prize Winner Myron Scholes, Actress Chloë Moretz and Deepak Chopra to come on board?
We pitch it in a pretty nerdy way. To us, Helena is a supply chain solution. Right now, there are countless leaders dispersed around the world, all with great ideas and the ability to turn those ideas into action. It is the meticulous combination of those people and those ideas, over time and with the right resources, that we feel can lead to the solution of big problems. To us, and to our members, Helena is an exciting way to address that “information supply chain” problem. The progress we’ve already had and the promise of what we can create together is evidence of that.
Becoming a member of the group is completely merit-based. What would you say to those who think you’re excluding the very people you are benefiting from the conversation?
I would say email us, and work with us to create a new project, or to share with us what you are working on yourself if you think we might be able to help! It's true that there are a small number of members in Helena itself, but the projects and actions that the organization takes requires the participation of quite a large swath of people. We’ve been thrilled and humbled by those outside of Helena who have emailed and contacted us directly, and it’s been a pleasure to work with and learn from them, even if it’s just a small action point.
This year, the collaboration of Helena members led to the creation of the Helena Prize: an attempt to boost social initiatives by rewarding the next generation of impact-driven social entrepreneurs. Why should the business community lead the way in social awareness and not just the philanthropic world? Can social good really ever become the ethos of business?
The majority of the world’s monetary power and social influence comes through capital markets and the private sector. Simply put, that is an unavoidable lever of change we have to pull. In one of the first ever Helena meetings, our members voiced immediate concerns over climate change, but expressed hope that the private sector and tech community would look for solutions. That was the genesis of the Helena Prize - we wanted to find a sustainable, profitable technology in the field of climate, and actively push that technology’s development forward as fast as we could from every conceivable angle. That is where the support of the Boston Consulting Group, our Advisory council of climate scientists, Area 52, and so many other players came in.
I think I speak for the rest of the team when I say that we couldn’t have hoped to find a better winner: Climeworks. They have taken on an extremely challenging technological problem, and manifested a solution to that problem physically, not just on paper. Just a few weeks after winning the Prize, Climeworks opened the world’s first commercial carbon capture factory in Switzerland, and that is just the beginning of a very, very ambitious plan which we are humbled to be a part of. This is a real-world example of social good as an ethos of business.
What does the future at Helena look like? What are some of the projects you’re working on and what is the end goal?
The recent results of the Helena Prize were incredibly exciting, but that is only the beginning of our work in climate. We’re continuing to work with Climeworks from as many angles as we can, not the least of which is the consulting and management side with BCG, which is happening as we speak. The two major areas outside of just carbon capture technology that we are working on involve ocean conservation and climate messaging.
“The majority of the world’s monetary power and social influence comes through capital markets and the private sector. Simply put, that is an unavoidable lever of change we have to pull.”
One of the most exciting new projects we have developed out of Helena is the Helena Security Council. Our concern with the future of geopolitics, intelligence, and how technology will play a role in global security made us ramp up research collaborations with players in the intelligence and technology communities. This has culminated in the creation of the Security Council, which combines established leaders in the security and policy space with leaders from more cutting-edge, disruptive fields that are having an outsized impact in global security. To begin, we are helping to produce and then disseminate research findings in four issue areas specifically: the intersection of artificial intelligence and nuclear security, additive manufacturing, millennial perceptions on global security, and the decentralized media and speed of information.
To do this we developed a deep relationship with an incredible partner, the RAND Corporation. Through a multitude of sessions over the last few months, our Members have met with RAND to analyze trends in deep-learning AI, nuclear physics, additive manufacturing, the decentralization of media, and more. These sessions are contributing to comprehensive global security research due to be published in 2018. What we and our members are most excited about, however, is the work ahead to actually implement these insights across the public and private sector to a make a tangible difference.
In addition to our climate and security work there are promising initiatives in the pipeline in the fields of advanced technologies, youth voter turnout, and the empowerment of small business in United States urban communities. We can’t wait to share those projects soon.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
In college I took an excellent class focused almost entirely on the study of entrepreneurial leadership. I remember the first exercise we did as a group; our professor asked us to define the word “entrepreneur. ” Predictably, most responses described the concept of the entrepreneur as a bearer of risk, as someone who seeks to test assumptions, or as a leader who creates a newfound and needed solution to a problem. I don’t pretend to have an all-encompassing answer to the question. But I can report on an important facet of entrepreneurship I learned later on that is certainly less glorified and discussed.
“The notion that I had the chance to create meaningful impact in the world from a laptop in a dorm room was so seductive and so novel that it only served to grow my confidence in the idea and the organization.”
Entrepreneurship represents the willful decision to venture out alone, and to do away with an easy psychological “escape route.” There are often times in which someone can experience failure, discomfort, or shame and immediately redirect those feelings to their job, not to themselves. Being an entrepreneur is to fully intertwine your emotional identity with your work, and therefore to lose the ability to escape psychological discomfort when challenged. That isn’t an experience you can teach or describe - it’s a lesson you learn the hard way, and it’s one that you learn to appreciate and love. The highs are higher, and the lows are lower.
Finally, do you think that by doing good, you’re more successful?
Yes, but external success should not be the sole prerequisite for doing good.
We do live in a society where one can achieve financial and social gain from providing a service of social good. And I think that is a healthy and welcome natural continuance of the philosophy that Franklin and Emerson championed many years ago -- that “doing well” is the result of doing good. But whether or not the future continues to yield monetary benefit to those who do good, I hope that the basic human instinct of altruism remains unchanged. Cooperation is the core component of society, not wealth.