Interview by Megan Foo
Connie Chen is a sophomore at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where she is studying Business. An enthusiastic youth advocate for environmental sustainability and eco-friendly business practices, she is an active member of Greening Forward, an environmental nonprofit organization that empowers youth internationally to become 21st Century environmental problem-solvers. In addition, Connie was also the Youth Environmental Coalition President of The Green Building Institute, a nonprofit that with the mission of fostering sustainable building, energy, land use practices and technologies for communities.
Women LEAD: What is your background?
Connie Chen: I’m a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying Business, concentrating in Operations & Information Management as well as Environmental Policy & Management. I’m currently involved in a student government organization, an environmental consulting group, and a business law organization. I’m also a History minor, and I love viewing issues like environmentalism in a multi-faceted perspective, integrating economics, operations, culture, and past and current perceptions. In high school, I served as Youth Environmental Coalition President and worked actively with the Green Building Institute to plant a 2,000 sq. ft. rain garden, which spurred my interest in integrating sustainability and business.
Women LEAD: What inspires you about Greening Forward’s mission of empowering youth internationally to become 21st century environmental problem-solvers?
Connie Chen: Greening Forward really connects environmentalists around the country – I met youth from coast to coast (before college, I barely met anyone outside of Maryland), from California to Puerto Rico. These connections have been amazing in hearing about ideas, opinions and initiatives, and inspiring to so many budding environmentalists. I love that I receive so much support from fellow environmentalists, which really allows me to aspire to do more.
Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you during your work or outside of work?
Connie Chen: Oddly enough, my younger sister, now a freshman at Duke, influenced me a lot while I worked on environmental initiatives during high school. Although she was a junior when she asked to become involved in my environmental projects, I learned so much about leadership, education, and inspiration from her. I stopped only seeing my own perspective and taking for granted that everyone knew the basics of environmentalism. Since she was my sister, she was brutally honest when I was failing as a leader (i.e. communicating ineffectively) and constructive in how I could improve (environmental seminars! Policy proposals!)
I realized the importance of not only seeing who inspires you, but also how you inspire others and how your legacy can pan out. I’m much more conscious of not only the projects I create, but the true sustainability of the initiative. What lasting change is it going to make? How can we incentivize future generations to truly follow in these footsteps?
Women LEAD: What does girls’ education mean to you?
Connie Chen: It’s crazy to think less than a century ago most girls, compared to boys, would receive vastly different schooling, if any. Although needlework and sewing are fun hobbies, there were little to no opportunities or encouragement for girls to foment change. Girls’ education now means taking advantage of the amazing opportunity we have in the 21st century to battle issues like gender inequality or lack of access to natural resources and healthy environments, and expanding to other countries and changing the cultural perceptions of girls’ education.
Women LEAD: What, to you, is the importance of exposing youth to environmental issues?
Connie Chen: Many people have incorrect perceptions of environmentalism, viewing it as hippie, unrealistic, and/or economically unreasonable. I think this view is changing, and I’m excited that youth will be able to explore sustainable opportunities to the fullest.
Although turning off lights and recycling is an admirable start, it is important for youth to continue learning about current sustainable alternatives and resources and growing issues about energy and power. Only then will we have a new generation of leaders who pioneer rapid technology and policy reform that can significantly reduce our carbon footprint, waste and consumption.
To me, youth are the strongest group who can innovate these changes. Adults and professionals have the expertise, but in my experience, adults are much more willing to listen to persistent students (especially in a more academic setting) than a contractor, especially in the 21st century. By utilizing this leverage, youth can create unprecedented tangible change and impact.
Women LEAD: What advice do you have for the next generation of environmental leaders and stewards?
Connie Chen: Actively contact the environmentalists (or leaders of anything you’re interested in) that you know (or even don’t know!) for advice or opportunities. Be genuine and explain your situation – sometimes you may be surprised at the mentorship you receive.
Exposing yourself to opportunities and people who will contribute and change your outlook on the world are also invaluable. Pursuing one opportunity will lead to a multitude of others: through my involvement in student government, I joined and environmental group, which led me to sit on the board of an environmental non-profit, causing me to be involved in Greening Forward. This opportunity gave me the chance to go to all-expense-paid trip to New Mexico and attend an Environmental Institute, work with award-winning youth leaders from around the globe (shout out to Charles Orgbon and Hasib Muhammad!), and start several initiatives at Penn and at my high school.
The seemingly small initiative you take sometimes snowball into an impact you never imagined.