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Meet the Disruptor: The GREEN Program

Melissa Lee founded her study abroad eco program when she was an undergrad. Seven years later, she’s launching careers in the city’s growing sustainability industry

Melissa Lee founded her study abroad eco program when she was an undergrad. Seven years later, she’s launching careers in the city’s growing sustainability industry

As a freshman at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, Melissa Lee, co-founder and CEO of sustainability study abroad course The GREEN Program (TGP), was—like many of her fellow college students—bored. An “undecided” major, Lee found herself drifting in lectures and study groups, wondering what the point of it all was.

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“I was really frustrated and impatient,” Lee recalls. “I didn’t understand how my everyday classes were connecting me with an impactful job that was going to change the world.”

A first-generation Chinese-American whose parents were born and raised in Malaysia, Lee had traveled frequently to South East Asia throughout her childhood. And she had long been an advocate for environmentalism. Her two passions combined her sophomore year during a trip to Costa Rica, when she and two friends explored the country and saw how it was utilizing and thriving from renewable energy via wind power plants.

That trip changed everything.

Back in her dorm room, Lee and two friends began developing the idea for The GREEN (Global Renewable Energy Education Network) Program, a short-term study abroad course that immerses students in sustainability efforts around the world. (Lee’s co-founders no longer work with the company.) The group used all the resources available at the university—from printing services to professors—to launch their business, and won a $1,000 student startup competition prize, which helped them make their idea a reality. Lee also used connections formed through the Rutgers Entrepreneurial Society, which she founded in order to leverage university resources, like rooms for events and faculty support.

Maya Cohn, Sun Power by Venture Solar

Starting a brand new program came with its share of difficulties, which in the beginning meant even getting students interested in learning more and joining in. In 2010, TGP took their first group of 15 students from Rutgers and Drexel to Costa Rica during winter break.

Seven years later, the program boasts a network of over 2,000 alumni and four study abroad destinations that offer transformational experiences focused on progressing the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty, fight inequality and tackle climate change by 2030. The company bridges the gap between traditional higher education and career development by maximizing students’ winter, spring and summer breaks so they don’t have to choose between a full study abroad program and, say, an internship or summer class.

Beyond the study, TGP’s goal is to train their students for jobs in the city and world’s growing sustainability industry. Worldwide, according to Bloomberg, $64.8 billion was invested in clean energy, just in the second quarter of 2017 alone. The Philadelphia Energy Authority has launched a campaign to invest $1 billion in clean energy that will create 10,000 jobs over the next 10 years, and support job training and local hiring. At the end of September, Mayor Kenney also announced the city’s first Municipal Energy Master Plan for the Built Environment, that aims to reduce the causes of climate change in its facilities by investing in renewable energy and other strategies.

Worldwide, according to Bloomberg, $64.8 billion was invested in clean energy, just in the second quarter of 2017 alone. The Philadelphia Energy Authority has launched a campaign to invest $1 billion in clean energy that will create 10,000 jobs over the next 10 years, and support job training and local hiring.

TGP works with companies to develop its programming, and to find alumni who match their hiring criteria; and works with its students by posting career opportunities, prepping for interviews and building the alumni network to help secure them jobs. Their increasing alumni network now represents 70 countries with employment in places like NASA, Tesla, and at the mayor’s Office of Sustainability here in Philadelphia.

“We have a common thread,” Lee says. “Every student wants to chase opportunity to pursue a more sustainable future, and we want them to know they can rely on the GREEN family to help them get there.”

The study abroad programs are spread around the world, focusing on an environmental focus in each destination. In Iceland, for example, the 8 to 10 day trip immerses students in that country’s renewable energy facilities, with field work and classroom study at Reykjavik University culminating in a capstone project about what they’ve learned. During the Peru program, students learn about the country’s water resource management and sustainability practices through access to Machu Picchu’s hydroelectric power plant facilities. And TGP recently launched their Fukushima, Japan, trip focusing on disaster mitigation and the transition from nuclear to renewable energy.

JingJing Zeng, a junior systems engineering major at the University of Pennsylvania, was one of the first students to dive into the pilot Japan trip, where—along with 20 other students—she experienced what it would be like to walk inside a nuclear reactor via virtual reality technology, and celebrated the fireworks festival in the city of Iwaki. “I didn’t know anything about nuclear energy at first,” Zeng says. “But getting to visit multiple sites and the actual nuclear plant was very exciting, and I learned a lot.”

Over half the students who participate in the program are women—something Lee takes as a point of pride. And this year TGP launched The GREEN Advantage Program to help lower-income students afford the several thousand dollar trips, with funding from like-minded organizations such as Inspire, a renewable energy company based in Philadelphia. Zeng was one of the first students to receive a scholarship, which paid 75 percent of the $4,500 cost of the Japan trip.

“We’re looking to help place our alumni into the city’s most impactful careers,” Lee says. “This is where we’ll see the systemic change happen. Philadelphia’s growing sustainable landscape has jobs, and we have the talent to fill them.”

“To really initiate change, you need a diverse set of stakeholders to have their voices heard and to collaborate with,” says Brady Halligan, director of strategy and business development for TGP, who was one of the first student to go on a GREEN trip almost eight years ago.

Halligan, one of seven TGP employees, and 50 global staff, has watched the company grow exponentially, with a 22 percent increase in participation from 2016 to 2017. He says continued growth depends on providing access to students like Zeng. In its second year, Halligan hopes half of all program costs will be funded by The GREEN Advantage scholarship program.

This year, Lee and TGP won the 2017 Philadelphia Stellar StartUp Award in the Women & Minority Entrepreneurs category, shining a light on their commitment to women in STEM. TGP was also nominated for this year’s SustainPHL Awards’ Impact Business Leader category. In 2018, Lee will announce new programs, a more robust scholarship fund, and expects to see another 30 percent growth in program participants.

Lee moved TGP to Philly from New Jersey shortly after graduation, because of the large number of both colleges and jobs here. (TGP is based out of Pipeline co-working space in Center City.) And the city has become part of the company’s ethos: TGP doesn’t want to find impactful jobs for its students just anywhere. The program works to pipeline their alumni back into the city they call home. They collaborate with the city’s colleges and universities to help fund and provide educational opportunities, and gauge where TGP alumni will excel in the city.

“We’re looking to help place our alumni into the city’s most impactful careers,” Lee says. “This is where we’ll see the systemic change happen. Philadelphia’s growing sustainable landscape has jobs, and we have the talent to fill them.”

Header Photo: Christopher O'Donnell

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