Tuesday, September 17, 2019

How Sophie Kennedy (CAS ’19), Co-Founder and Chief Sustainability Officer at SeaStraws, Uses her Passion for Oceans to Drive Environmental Change

Sophie Kennedy in an NYU dining hall
What did you study at NYU?

I transferred to NYU after my first year at the University of Miami where I studied Marine Biology. We are an NYU family - my mother (Daphne Kennedy, Wagner 1994) and aunt (Sarah Goldsmith Harrelson, CAS 2000) are alumni and my brother, Harrison, is currently studying filmmaking at Tisch (Class of ’22). I always wanted to attend NYU. After just minutes on my tour of campus, I knew I wanted to be a part of this passionate community and take advantage of all of the opportunities within the university and the city at large. It was such a gift to be at NYU, I loved every second of it.

I majored in Environmental Studies with minors in Anthropology and Business Studies. All of my classes were amazing. Professor Disotell’s Health & Disease in Human Evolution class made me fall in love with Anthropology and inspired my minor. I love that he allowed me to examine my passion for the environment through an anthropological lens, exploring topics like the impact of evolution on coral restoration or even the links between fisheries science and human health. 

Professor Schlottmann was my advisor in Environmental Studies and helped make everything possible for me, from my environmental internships and studying abroad to graduating a semester early. Even abroad in Florence, Professor Semeghini supported my passion for the environment as I created mood boards with sustainability as the “trend of the future” for Italian designers like Prada. My Environmental Studies Capstone project was one of my favorite to work on as we designed a funding plan using innovative finance mechanisms to support the Bahamas Protected Areas Fund (BPAF) with Professor Tolisano. This class along with Jeffrey Hollender’s Sustainable Business class helped me identify my passion for sustainable business.

Sophie Kennedy: her story continues

What was your favorite memory of your time at NYU?

I have three! The first was winning the $300K Entrepreneurs Challenge with my SeaStraws team - 9 other NYU students including co-founder and CEO Antonio Di Meglio (Stern ’20). We won the Social Venture Competition grand prize. Our company’s mission is to empower hospitality through sustainable alternatives such as backyard compostable straws and utensils.

Sophie Kennedy and Antonio Di Meglio presenting
Sophie Kennedy and Antonio Di Meglio

The second was when NYU Dining Services purchased a semester’s worth of SeaStraws last year after NYU went plastic straw free. I was and to this day still am so proud to be at a university that is a leader in sustainability.

The third is when I worked in communications at the Office of Sustainability and interviewed Provost Fleming about her office going plastic-free. She had previously spoken at my University Leadership Honors Course and I’ve always found her to be such an incredible leader. With the help of NYU Green and Provost Fleming’s office I was able to create an Instagram series with her staff to track their changes and share with the NYU community. We had a lot of fun and it was one of many projects I worked on at the Office of Sustainability including writing posts for their Sustainablog and organizing social media campaigns. 

Provost Fleming “going green” in Sophie's Instagram series
Provost Fleming “going green” in Sophie's Instagram series

How did SeaStraws come about?

Antonio and I met when I studied abroad in Florence and we participated in the EU in Focus program together in Brussels. He started SeaStraws and invited me on as Co-Founder, Chief Sustainability Officer, and COO, knowing that sustainability and protecting the oceans have always been passions of mine. SeaStraws is a team effort. At SeaStraws I focus on sales, sustainability, nonprofit relationships, and business development but as a Co-Founder any type of project is fair game! We received our first offer for venture capital investment when I walked out of my last exam at NYU. To date, we’ve sold over 4.5 million paper straws and have prevented the use of over four thousand pounds of plastic. 

I had previously done coral research and interned at environmental nonprofits. I felt like I wanted to provide solutions instead of just “don’t use” messaging. I love my work at SeaStraws as we bring sustainable products to market. We focus on sharing sustainability education and advocating for environmental action. Many of our clients are universities and it is inspiring to help schools communicate their commitments to sustainability through SeaStraws’ sustainable products.

How can alumni and students incorporate sustainability into their daily lives?

Sophie snorkeling
Photo credit: Harrison Kennedy (TSOA ’22)

My family was always environmentally focused. I grew up snorkeling in the Florida Keys. The ocean was my playground which is why I am so passionate about protecting it.

Everyone has to start small:
  • Use a reusable water bottle to reduce single-use plastic, this also saves you money!
  • Bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store - produce bags are key here.
  • Get a small, reusable utensil kit.
  • Think about how often you use taxis or car companies and instead take the subway to save emissions.
  • Purchase sustainably sourced seafood. The process of catching seafood is one of the biggest contributors to plastic waste in our oceans.
  • Compost your food waste to keep it out of landfills.
  • Lead by example.
  • Support sustainable businesses and products as a consumer.
SeaStraws team winning a prize
What challenges have you faced as an entrepreneur?

Balancing school and entrepreneurship was a challenge and most of the SeaStraws team are still students. I learned a lot about managing my time and making sacrifices. During my senior year I was taking a Social Entrepreneurship class with Dan Porter in Wagner where I learned how to get started - he assigned so many incredible podcasts and also encouraged me to start talking to customers and users to better understand the value we can offer. I reflect on these lessons to this day.

Being young can have advantages and disadvantages. We have less work experience, so we have to be able to prove ourselves in other ways, such as revenue, traction, key performance indicators (KPI), case studies and measured impact. It can be challenging to be taken seriously when pitching because I am so young. I try to use my age as a positive, since I understand what my generation is looking for in products and how businesses can be tailored to appeal to a younger audience.

The advantage is that there are incredible resources for NYU student entrepreneurs - we have the opportunity to use the Leslie eLab. My team and I went through a student accelerator program to secure venture capital funding and we just finished the Summer Launchpad program at the Leslie eLab. The 300K Challenge is another great example. I have brought on many of my NYU Professors as business advisors. Several of them are leaders in their field and have provided great industry connections.

Sophie studyingWhat advice would you share with current NYU students?

It’s a big school and it is easy to get lost. Connect with people from other schools and the global campuses. Enroll in classes outside your major and take advantage of resources throughout the whole university instead of just limiting yourself to your school. Attend panel discussions and lectures whenever you can. It is so rare to find a community of faculty, students, and alumni that are so passionate about what they are doing and willing to help you.

And study abroad as much as you can! Also, don’t forget to sleep and take care of yourself. His Holiness the Dalai Lama once told me how important sleep is - don’t neglect this in college.

Read Sophie’s interview with her brother, Harrison Kennedy (TSOA ’22), about his work documenting sharks and other marine life: https://wp.nyu.edu/sustainability-nyusustainablog/2018/10/05/meet-one-of-our-green-students-harrison-kennedy/

Sophie at the CAS Baccalaureate in May 2019
Sophie at the CAS Baccalaureate in May 2019

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