Sushanth Raman is a budding entrepreneur and environmental enthusiast in his final year at American High School in Fremont, who aims to combine those interests in a cleantech startup after college and one day even start his own venture capital firm focused on accelerating clean technologies (but even though he’s already started his own startup incubator, he has to graduate high school first). He is one of the co-founders of FIERCE, a student-run environmental organization aimed at fostering youth interest in sustainability and the environment. It hosts and sponsors a variety of events throughout the year that facilitate collaboration between youth and the community to create a greener future.
Q: Tell us about FIERCE!
FIERCE strives to create environmental awareness in a unique way. Unlike your traditional environmental clubs, we focus on cleantech innovation, because we saw that there was a lot of interest in tech entrepreneurship in the area and wanted to integrate that into the movement for sustainability. Our flagship event is the annual Green Summit, a one day event with workshops and panel discussions for youth with leaders and experts of local green companies and nonprofit organizations. It’s really exciting. Last year, we brought in the CTO of Nokia as our keynote speaker, a SolarCity representative, researchers, and legislators, who all helped provide a holistic perspective on how the environmental sector works. They assisted with one of our biggest goals: showing participants that you don’t necessarily need to exclusively focus on the environment to get involved with the green movement.
Q: How did FIERCE start?
A surprising fact is that none of us had met each other until we started FIERCE. We were all separately in contact with our city’s sustainability coordinator, so he brought us together. When you have a group of people interested in the same thing, some pretty cool ideas get formed. After a few meetings, we realized something together: students aren’t interested in the environmental clubs at school, but in the business and technology clubs. And we also realized that students aren’t excited by simply picking up trash for service hours and other mundane activities, which lack direction and a focus on the bigger picture. So we started FIERCE to increase awareness by engaging students through adding an environmental aspect to what they already love.
Q: Where did your own passion for the environment come from?
When I was in India, my uncle suffered from this disease called arsenicosis, which is arsenic poisoning due to water contamination. I realized that his case was part of a larger environmental issue in India, including power outages and water impurity. I was greatly impacted by what I had seen, so when I came back, I emailed my sustainability coordinator, and started getting involved from there.
Q: Any challenges with starting out? How did you guys gain traction?
Initially, it was tough to gather the financial resources for the first Green Summit. We had to email a lot of different companies and organizations for grants. As for recruiting students to attend the event, many of the FIERCE founding team members were presidents of their schools’ green clubs, so we tapped into our existing school networks. We also contacted the AP Environmental Science teachers around the area, and many agreed to offer extra credit to students that came to the summit. Once the students came, they loved it, and we started growing a community from there.
Q: Who else is the FIERCE team working with on this endeavor?
We are working in collaboration with the city government on both of our agendas. For example, we consistently discuss with the Fremont sustainability council the problems they are trying to solve, while serving as an extension of their youth impact initiatives. The city is also working towards winning the Georgetown University Energy Prize, a $5 million dollar award to fund energy efficiency programs, so FIERCE is helping it meet certain eligibility criteria regarding youth involvement. In return, the city helps us with the logistical planning of our events.
We’re also supported by the Silicon Valley Talent Partnership, who helps us with inviting speakers and gives us general tips with presentations and outreach.
Q: One of the most defining characteristics of FIERCE is its relationships with all kinds of people, organizations, companies, local governments, you name it. What’s the secret to creating all these connections?
Find an amazing team that’s passionate about the issue, and try to make sure the team is compatible. A lot of people overlook the team and try working alone, but a solid team creates projects able to scale up, because it has a lot of manpower and potential.
Also, don’t be afraid to email people. The worst thing that can happen is not getting a response. All the resources and tools are out there for you to take advantage of them. Go out there and email everyone! Your city, any company, your school’s club advisor, anyone you know. People are out there to help you, and you’d be surprised: some of them are more enthusiastic about helping you than you are about getting their help! Many people and organizations today are looking for opportunities to work with students passionate about their field.
Q: What’s your vision for FIERCE?
We’re interested in expanding FIERCE from just the tiny Fremont area to the Bay Area, and hopefully one day spread our initiative throughout the nation. Our next step is expanding it to nearby cities and more schools, and we’re brainstorming about establishing a chapter model.
In terms of the immediate future, we’re planning an event called Green Hacks, which is a cleantech hackathon. We were inspired by the existing hackathons in the area, but wanted to add a twist to it: you have to build something with a green impact!
Fellow students, if you’re looking for something chill and engaging to fire up your environmental spirit (especially after AP testing), head on over to FIERCE’s Green Summit 2.0 on Saturday, May 21 (4210 Technology Drive, Fremont, CA). Register for it here, and look at their website for upcoming updates on the Green Summit and the cleantech hackathon, as well as more information on FIERCE!