June 2021

Changing the System

Wendy Schmidt applies the spirit of Silicon Valley to saving the ocean.

By John Steele

Like many people who grew up during the 1970s, Wendy Schmidt watched The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. She followed that great explorer and conservationist into the ocean depths, and they felt like another world indeed—which spoke as much to the marvels of marine life as to Schmidt’s all-too-common sense of disconnection.

Never mind that the ocean covers most of Earth’s surface and provides at least half of the planet’s oxygen. To people who don’t live on a coastline, it can seem distant. For Schmidt, a businesswoman turned environmentalist and philanthropist, that changed in 2007 when a friend invited her sailing. "I started to look at the world differently,"  says Schmidt, "and wonder what was under the water."

Just the previous year, she and husband Eric Schmidt, then the CEO of Google, had founded the Schmidt Family Foundation to promote the sustainable use of natural resources. Now they looked seaward and in 2009 launched the Schmidt Ocean Institute to advance oceanographic research and marine conservation.

That same year they purchased a discarded German coast guard ship and transformed it into RV Falkor, a state-of-the-art research vessel now made available to scientists around the world in exchange for freely sharing the data they gather and findings they make while aboard. Schmidt Ocean Institute also supports early-stage technologies, and helps young conservationists just starting their careers. 

“We have to get people closer to the experience of what is under the ocean,” Schmidt says, “the way that we excited people about what was in space.” Nautilus talked to Schmidt about her personal journey and her vision for the future.

Tell me about your journey. How did you become so committed to environmental issues and to the ocean?

I was working as an interior designer in Silicon Valley. As my children got through high school, I became more and more aware of environmental issues. There was a nascent group in those years called Environmental Entrepreneurs—I think they're still active—and their goal was to demonstrate that nature could win and business could win at the same time. We didn't need to be in opposition to each other. That made so much sense to me. 

From there I joined the board of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group that began with a group of lawyers speaking for nature. I was on a very steep learning curve. I was on the board for almost 10 years, I think, and just learning more and more. Then, as we got into the 2000s, a friend gave me the book Cradle to Cradle. That was probably the turning point for me. Because once you read that book, you never see the world the same way again. It's like a bell rings. You begin to ask yourself: Why are things the way they are? Why do we do things this way and not that way? How did our systems develop to be what they are? You start to unravel all of that, and to think about the world from a different perspective.

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Schmidt Ocean Institute's research vessel Falkor.
Schmidt Ocean Institute / Thom Hoffman

Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart, who wrote that book, really created a new philosophy for this next century. That's been my guidepost, really, and the base of everything else and all the other people who have influenced my work. By the time Al Gore was doing his slideshow in 2005 about global warming, I was already thinking about the world in transformative ways. This was right on the eve of when we were starting our foundation work. All these influences were coming together at that point.

I like the way you put that realization: how it dawns on you that this world we've inherited doesn't necessarily have to be this way. That it was constructed, and it’s possible to imagine other ways of being.

What was the transition like for you as someone going into the world of environmentalism from a background of entrepreneurship and technology? Were there ways of thinking that clashed—or, conversely, were you able to bring something different to the table?

I don't know if there was any conflict. I think being a part of Silicon Valley was to understand that the world was systematized in some way. That's what computer programming is.

I spent years reading and learning. If I could mention some of the other influences that were so critical to me in the early years, I would first say, Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff. Her question was: What is all this garbage doing on the sidewalks? Why is it this way? It was very similar to the questions that Bill McDonough was asking. He would say that everything begins from the intention of your design. When we see systems failing in the world, we have to go back and ask how they were designed. Well, they weren't designed not to fail. They were designed for some unclear goal. When we get to design today, we get to think about, what is our intention? What is the complete life cycle of this thing that I want to make? Why am I putting something in packaging that will last for 100 years when I'm going to go home and eat it and discard that packaging?

That thinking comes from work I've been doing with Ellen MacArthur. She's a world-class sailor who started the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. They’re focused on this transformation our industrial society needs to make to eliminate the idea of waste. Another really influential friend is Michael Pollan, who wrote The Omnivore's Dilemma. He started looking at food systems. Why are they the way they are? What is nature's design? How far away from it have we gone, and what are the consequences?

What is nature's design? How far away from it have we gone, and what are the consequences?

Sylvia Earle was extremely influential, too—her bold encounter and engagement with the ocean. When I was growing up Jacques Cousteau had a television program, and I didn't relate to it as my world. It was someone else's amazing world under the sea. It could have been in space. I would have related the same way. I think the challenge today is to engage people in the reality of what the ocean is in their lives, whether they live on the coast or not. Earle has said that we can't care about something we don't understand. That's a core challenge for changing the fate of the ocean for the better. 

Al Gore’s work on global warming was a huge wake-up call, too. When we started the foundation in 2005 we hosted him at Stanford University. He did a slideshow talk and had people filming An Inconvenient Truth at the back of the auditorium. Afterwards we organized a dinner with leaders from business and government and the nonprofit world, and that was the core of The 11th Hour Project and our mission to engage innovative minds in Silicon Valley. We had already seen the world transformed incredibly fast. From the time Eric and I met in graduate school in 1978 until the early 2000s, the whole world had changed the way they did almost everything. The fact that revolutions can occur is not a foreign idea to me. It’s very logical.

What are some ocean-related innovations that you're excited about now?

I think we're on the eve of an absolute revolution. Technology has really transformed our ability to explore the ocean. To go into conditions that are much more challenging than outer space because of the pressures and darkness and depth. Most of the ocean is three miles deep or less, yet it's very poorly explored—whereas we commonly fly six or seven miles high in the atmosphere and think nothing of it. We have higher-resolution maps of Mars, 120 million miles away, than we have our own planet.

Imagine you can view these ecosystems that no-one has ever seen before in high resolution. At Schmidt Ocean Institute, we're constantly discovering new creatures and new ecosystems and new places where life is thriving in chemistry that you couldn’t imagine would support life. That just plays around with your idea of what life on Earth is like. 

An early example of a group we supported is Saildrone. It was started by a friend who is a sailor and understood that vessels could move through the water with a fixed wing, and could be automated to do this as platforms for technologies like sensors. They could travel autonomously and go places that ships can't reach because they're too shallow or too far away. Ships are also very expensive. Saildrones are very cheap.

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In 2018 research vessel Falkor departed for the White Shark Cafe with two saildrones deployed from San Francisco to transmit data in real-time. The Saildrones listened for the acoustic tags that were attached to sharks, while also scanning with a sonar to detect the deep scattering layer. They were instrumental in helping to identify why the white sharks travel to this location.
Schmidt Ocean Institute / Monika Naranjo-Shepherd

A couple years ago they began to get a significant market capitalization from investors. We provided the initial capital and believed in this idea and this transformation. This is our approach to all of this technology. Our role as philanthropists is to jump in and provide that early money to get going. There were so many scientists I met when I was sponsoring XPRIZEs back in the early 2010s, people who have come up with ideas for how to clean up oil in the ocean and things like that, who had no path to commercialization. In fact they had no path to testing beyond their own laboratories. Schmidt Marine Technology Partners is about getting those people out of their labs and onto a path where we can test and commercialize and apply their products. 

Some examples: there are transponders that can go into fishing boats around the world and track illegal fishing. One of the scientists we supported has created a DNA barcode scanner that can identify what a seafood product is. There’s a lot of illegal products that come into the United States, but we have very poor screening; if you can use a simple tool to identify something, you could get at that problem.

We’re also developing an AI-based program that removes distortion underwater so that you can see clearly. Last week we learned that two scientists in Australia have developed a way to germinate kelp on gravel and drop them around to help regrow kelp forests that have been decimated in recent decades. Every week or two, there's another idea. 

I think we've all spent the last 100 years in our silos, perfecting our disciplines. When we're able to ask people to cross those disciplines, we start to have the possibility of really interesting ideas and insights and transformations. I think that is the essence of what our philanthropy is trying to be. Maybe that really does have its roots in Silicon Valley thinking: faith in innovation and faith in human ingenuity to solve problems.

In addition to the technological advances, are there also social or organizational innovations that you think could be powerful?

We're looking for collaboration. We're encouraging it from the very beginning. We're building a community that we see as transformative, because we're all trying to attack the systems that are broken and make them better.

There's a lot of outreach to young people in the moment their career is starting, to just spend time working on a project of their own for two years. We also have a program called Rise that's aimed at 15 to 17-year-olds to help them for life. Imagine if you got that opportunity based on some talent or skill that was identified by your community. We’re not necessarily talking about being a math whiz or an academic genius, but suppose you had some special gift, and you were given the opportunity to have that support through your education and through the rest of your life with the expectation that you would devote your talents to public service.

We're building a community that we see as transformative, because we're all trying to attack the systems that are broken.

The idea is that we would have a cohort of people, years from now, who are all dedicated to this goal and who have the support they need to make their activities come to life. And then to build that network of people around the world.

A lot of our thinking tries to get at changing the system. From the beginning our idea was that researchers who come and use our ship were going to share their data openly. The goal was to accelerate the pace of our learning at a time when the oceans are in crisis. 

We also engage local people in the places where we carry out expeditions. Their waters belong to them. And at Schmidt Futures, we collaborate with other funders as often as we can—which is a different approach from other philanthropic funders.

Changing perspective seems to be a real challenge when it comes to the oceans. How do you do that?

I think we have to get people closer to the experience of what is under the ocean, the way that we excited people about what was in space during the space race. There are a lot of stories to tell. Historically, humans have been afraid of the ocean; they see it as full of monsters. It's the Deadliest Catch. It's the Titanic. We don't look at it as our best friend and our life support system.

Most people don't understand that more than half the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere comes from plants in the ocean. We fly over the ocean at 35,000 feet. We might see it from shore or from a ferry boat, but we don't engage with it. Our mission at Schmidt Ocean Institute, conceptually, is to become relevant to someone who never lives near the ocean, who doesn't even see it, so that it becomes something they understand. 

In my general philanthropic work, I want people to understand the atmosphere. I want them to understand the ocean. I want them to understand soil, because those are the life support systems that we take for granted, that modern industrial activity is rapidly destroying. We're literally changing the chemistry of the world around us. If we look back at it, human settlements, for the last 10,000 years, have had the benefit of all of these resources. They were just there for us. They were in a certain kind of balance. Climate change threatens that balance, threatens that narrow band where humans have settled on the planet.

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This octopus (Muusoctopus sp) was observed at nearly 1,200 meters depth, during an exploration of the Ribbon Reef Canyons, 170 km northeast of Cairns, Australia. Schmidt Ocean Institute's Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) SuBastian was exploring the mid-section of a canyon that connects directly to the shallow waters of the Great Barrier Reef. The research team used the high-resolution cameras and robotic arm of the ROV to observe and collect samples of the geology and seabed organisms.
Schmidt Ocean Institute

I noticed that you supported the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act that California voters approved in 2008. The worlds of animal advocacy and environmentalism usually don’t overlap very much; is there a connection between them for you?

Absolutely. I've been reading Robin Wall Kimmerer's book, Braiding Sweetgrass, and also that wonderful Merlin Sheldrake book, Entangled Life. It's about fungi and lichens, the proliferation of life forms that have capabilities and intelligence, if you can use that word, that is unknown to humans. Again, we live in this enormously complex system of living things that we don't understand at all. We may never understand everything, but we have models of human survival in communities that did understand enough to protect their resources for the future. 

That's our big challenge now, given the system we've developed of our industrial framework that is the biggest threat to the planet. It's a threat to the air. It's a threat to the soil. It's a threat to animal life. It's a threat to everything. The biggest threat is human activity within this framework. This is the system that has to shift. We do a lot of work now with Indigenous peoples; we look to systems and understandings that persisted for up to 15,000 years on the North American continent through every kind of environmental challenge.

What did they know that we've forgotten? What are we exploiting? Why are we destroying our own life support system? We do a lot of work in ecological agriculture. What is the balance? If you take humans out of the equation, what is the balance? Humans have been fishing since there were humans; what leads our industrial system to the point of such great exploitation that we could deplete areas of fish, rather than use our intelligence, use our technology?

Another great technological advance is a kind of fishing net that has a certain kind of a light and a certain kind of opening that reduces bycatch by huge amounts, catching only what you're looking for and not depleting the environment. We have to reimagine this relationship and where we fit into this web. 

If we can work at communicating to people in ways that are relevant, that are meaningful, and that connect them to information, then we have a hope of transforming human societies. I think there's a great deal of inertia that you have to work against; the incumbent systems are not going to just go away. We have to find ways to intervene, to shift, to change incentives, to create a new economy even. Because if we don't do that, nothing's going to change at all. I'm very aware of that.

I'm also very aware that, as philanthropists, while we have a much higher risk profile for money we're giving away than do governments or industry, we also work on such long timelines that you don't get a report card. You don't get a quarterly report on how we're doing. We have to look at our challenges in very long frameworks, and really measure that progress incrementally the way that we do when we're sailing.

We have to reimagine this relationship and where we fit into this web.

We haven't talked about sailing yet. When you're on a sailboat and you're in a race and you're trying to go from here to here, I can't point the boat directly at it. If the wind is coming at me, I have to tack over. How I get there and why I win a race is because I'm really sensitive to the shifts in that wind. I'm taking it up one degree at a time. If the wind is shifting too far over, I'm going to tack over and pick it up again. I keep carrying my vessel along the wind to get to my target. That's how we have to think about what we're doing here. You're in it for the long haul. It's a marathon, not a sprint. To apply business thinking to what we're doing works to a point, but you have to be patient.

I love that analogy. And speaking of sailing, are there any experiences that have been particularly important to you?

All of them. I learned to sail in 2007, on a 46-foot wooden boat. I didn't experience dinghies like most sailing kids do growing up. I was pretty much invited into the racing world right from the beginning. I've been really lucky to learn from incredibly talented, world-class sailors. For me, sailing was very intuitive in the beginning. I think that's why I got hooked on it, because I understood something without having words for it. After that it's a lifelong process of learning the technical aspects.

There’s always this core element. I was thinking of how to talk about it to you. It's a really good metaphor for how to think about our lives and the changes we want to see and how we interact with nature, because sailing is fundamentally active, not passive. You're not waiting for something to happen. You're using what you have, the tools in your boat, to use the power of nature—in this case, the wind, the waves, the current, the tide. You're using those to move forward.

You're not hurting nature while you do that. You're not damaging anything. You pass through it. You leave it as lively and intact as it was before you got there. We need to think about our industry that way, about our passions through life in that way, about interacting with the world that way.



Lead image: Wendy Schmidt works to restore ocean health by advancing marine science and technology through Schmidt Marine Technology Partners and Schmidt Ocean Institute. Credit: Rian Devos

Schmidt Ocean Institute is a partner in Nautilus Oceans.