Until I was 8 years old, I lived along the stunning coastline of British Columbia, Canada, where I developed a profound respect for the natural world. I can remember many days spent hiking up mountains, exploring the coastal tide-pools full of life, and being amazed by our planet’s wonders. As I grew older, however, I couldn’t help but notice that something was deeply wrong with humans’ relationship to the environment. I experienced it as a pit buried deep in my stomach that surfaced when I watched a large industrial truck emit thick black smoke from its engine, clouding the bright blue sky. It was the lingering guilt that I felt when I passed countless empty lots strewn with plastic bags and other trash, carelessly thrown aside. And the more I learned about the fossil fuel industry, the more aware I became of the gravity of the problem our planet is facing and what humans have to do with creating it.
When I started high school at SCH Academy and was introduced to the Sands Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, a light turned on in my head. This program seemed like the perfect place for me to create that difference. After taking my CEL elective classes, I self-selected into the Venture Accelerator (VA) program. This program was designed to enable students to pursue whatever venture they desired, whether it be a business, product, or nonprofit, with the help of specifically paired mentors. The VA program helped to provide more of a structure to an idea and gave young people like me the confidence to turn that idea into a real thing. As members of the Venture Accelerator, we were taken seriously—we were treated like adults, and our thoughts were valued and heard. This foundational work at the start of the program eventually paid off: in my 9th grade year, the Girls Climate Summit was born.
I envisioned this summit as a one-day, free event focused on strengthening the knowledge and leadership skills of young women who were passionate about the environment. I wanted to facilitate this kind of experience for young girls because women are so often left out of the conversation, their experiences and knowledge often sidelined when important decisions are made. I was also aware of the fact that the devastation of climate change disproportionately impacts women across the globe in a variety of ways. I hoped that this event would inspire girls to get involved in the climate movement through a series of educational and action-based workshops, speakers, and group activities.
I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to pull this off and quite quickly I was in over my head. I knew that it would be a great idea to have the summit, but I didn’t yet have a good sense of everything that would be required to make it happen. Things like securing funding, finding teacher and student support, reaching out to potential speakers, planning activities and outlining schedules, coordinating food…and the list goes on.
This is where mentorship became an important part of this story. Being paired with skilled mentors was one of the most unique, beneficial, powerful, and rewarding parts of being in the Venture Accelerator program. I was so lucky to have incredible mentors throughout my four years. Specifically, I want to highlight Anne Sudduth, Jamie Maguire, and, of course, Ed Glassman. Without these three, my project would have ceased to exist. They believed in me often when I did not believe in myself. They helped me to hone my ideas, work out logistics, and kept me on track for success. The lessons, both personal and technical, that I learned from them are invaluable. I cannot thank them enough for the difference they have made in my life.
After overcoming many obstacles, and learning so many things along the way, I was able to host three Girls Climate Summits in the springs of 2015, 2016 and 2017 at SCH Academy. Each year, over 100 girls from all around the city of Philadelphia gathered to learn, discuss, and problem solve. It was such an incredible and rewarding feeling to see something that you’ve worked so hard for pay off in a meaningful way.
As I reflect on my time in CEL, one of the things that rings clear is that the skills and life lessons that you learn in the Venture Accelerator program stick with you for the long haul. For example, I learned how to network and reach out to people in power—a skill that has come in handy! Doing a Demo Day pitch (an event where you present your project/idea to a group of potential investors) was critical to helping me develop my public speaking and advocacy skills. I also learned how to flesh out an idea, find its weaker points, and rework it. This program taught me how to be a good leader and how to effectively collaborate with others.
I also learned that it’s all right to ask for help and that, actually, it should be encouraged. I gained the courage to take chances and seek out new opportunities, even if they seem scary and daunting at first. I figured out how to be resilient and how to move forward after a failure. All of this helped grow my confidence and allowed me to be the best version of myself.
What’s important to remember is that these skills aren’t just technical. They are character building, and I have applied them to many aspects of my life, even after leaving SCH. They showed up when I was taking a rather difficult Organic Chemistry exam at Brown University, as I reached out to a senator during my internship with PennEnvironment, and while I was leading a group trip for the Brown Outing Club. I have found myself relying on these skills while applying for jobs during my senior year of college and now, in my post-grad life. I currently work as a research technician in a developmental and regenerative biology lab at University of California, Berkeley studying the processes underlying heart regeneration after injury in zebrafish. If we could figure out the mechanisms by which zebrafish hearts utilize regeneration programs, then we would have a better understanding of how to facilitate heart regeneration in humans. In its most fundamental form, research is based on problem-solving skills and creative thinking. The skills and character traits that have been instilled in me from the CEL program have enabled and encouraged me to be the best scientist that I can be. I plan to apply to Ph.D. programs next year, and I anticipate that these skills will be useful in that pursuit as well.
I strongly believe that any student would greatly benefit from participating in a CEL program. Quite simply, these kinds of programs are essential for building the next generation of young leaders and creative thinkers that our world so desperately needs.
by Rekha Dhillon-Richardson ’17 | Research Technician, University of California Berkeley
Over the past 10 years, the Sands Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL) has become a cornerstone of the SCH educational experience. It is a program as substantial in its educational content as in its inspirational impact. In celebration of the CEL's 10th anniversary coming this May, we are publishing a commemorative booklet with the voices of those thought leaders who have had a role in shaping the CEL since its inception. We look forward to sharing these articles leading up to CEL’s milestone event as it continues to provide opportunity, devise creative solutions, effect positive change, and more for the future of education at SCH Academy.
Learn more: www.sch.org/cel