“The issues that the world has to face, like global warming, climate change, terrorism—all of these things are going to be inherited by our generation. Our hope is to inspire young people around the world to start making progress solving them today.”−Henry Elkus
As Albert Einstein observed, it is not possible to solve today’s problems with the same type of thinking that created them. Two 21-year-olds, Henry Elkus and Sam Feinburg, are putting this maxim into action through Helena, a not-for-profit organization designed to catalyze new world-changing ideas by bringing together leading thinkers and influencers from across a variety of disciplines and generations.
““Twenty-first-century problems are complex,” says Elkus, Helena’s chairman and CEO, who is taking a break from his undergraduate studies at Yale to work on Helena full-time. “Take deforestation, for example. It’s a social issue, it’s an economic issue, it’s a tech issue, it’s a biological issue, it’s a political issue. We don’t think it’s sufficient just to get a room full of politicians to handle issues like that.”
Helena, which means bright, shining light in Greek, has three unique characteristics:
(1) Each year, Helena will select a class of 30 people; half the group will be 25 years old or younger; half will be over 25.
“Technology and the digital age have allowed young people to create wealth and disrupt industries without needing large amounts of capital, without necessarily needing adults to guide them in the process,” notes Elkus. “That has built a new confidence level and a new culture among young people that I think is extremely healthy for the world.”
“Each class is permanent, and every year we add a new class of 30,” adds Feinburg, Helena’s chief operating officer and executive director, who has also put his Yale studies on hold. “This model came from our desire to expand the group annually and preserve its youth. It’s a decision we made to balance intimacy and scale, so that each member’s commitment to the other 29 members in his or her class remains constant, while Helena as a whole grows in reach.”
(2) The group will bring together accomplished leaders from a wide range of disciplines. The names of some of the members of Helena’s first class are well known, including spiritual guru Deepak Chopra, retired Army General Stanley McChrsytal, actress and model Chloë Moretz, and South Korean human rights activist Yeonmi Park. Others are recognized leaders within their respective fields, including Nobel and World Technology Prize winners, Fortune 500 executives, successful entrepreneurs, and luminaries in entertainment and the arts.
(3) The Helena community will be meeting and collaborating on an ongoing basis, not just for one event. “Our belief is that innovation and progress result from the combination of different ways of thinking, and we try to produce that combination as frequently as possible,” Elkus says. “This is why Helena members meet and collaborate throughout the year rather than gathering at a single summit, and why ensuring that we maintain diversity—of age and expertise—is so incredibly important,” he adds.
“The issues that the world has to face, like global warming, climate change, terrorism—all of these things are going to be inherited by our generation,” Elkus emphasizes. “Our hope is to inspire young people around the world to start making progress solving them today.”
Helena Prize aims to combat climate change
Helena’s ambitions don’t stop at bringing accomplished people together for networking and conversation. While Helena’s methodology is to curate groups of people and facilitate regular meetings, its ultimate objective is to develop and implement the ideas of its members and to help other world-changing initiatives get off the ground.
The first of Helena’s projects to be implemented is The Helena Prize, which was created to support young, socially conscious entrepreneurs in tackling serious global issues. Entrants must be under 30 years old and leading a for-profit venture. “The best way to ensure that The Helena Prize’s winning team will be able to continue their work indefinitely is by trusting the self-sustaining engine of a successful business,” writes Feinberg on the organization’s blog, Helena|Writing.
Each year, Helena Prize entrants will focus on a different challenge, starting in 2016 with climate change. To ensure that the prize has a chance make a real impact on global warming, the winning plan must show “a definable net negative impact on radiative forcing,” a measurement of the heating effect caused by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
“Instead of just offering a cash award, our plan is to throw the book at the winner from as many angles as possible to increase their chance of success,” Elkus says. Rewards include membership in Helena; mentorship from a broad board of industry experts, and in-kind services from an array of partners, including support from The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and the American Renewable Energy Institute.” BCG’s involvement in The Helena Prize is part of a larger strategic partnership with Helena.
“We plan to keep improving [the prize’s] value by adding new partners and advisors,” Elkus adds. Helena started accepting applications for the prize on October 1, 2016. The winner will be announced in August 2017.
Team brings business experience to social venture
The impetus to form Helena came to Elkus in July 2015 while he was attending the annual Nexus Global Youth Summit on Innovative Philanthropy and Social Entrepreneurship. “I ended up making a speech arguing that [change requires] partnerships between generations and fields, not just partnerships across governments,” he recalls. “I asked the audience to join me if they agreed, and I left with a lot of connections that converted into great introductions.”
From there, Elkus was able to leverage relationships and recommendations to start forming the first Helena class. “We’ve built this group quite carefully through doing a tremendous amount of research,” he says. “We talked to these people and really picked their brains.” By understanding members’ personal interests and passions, as well as their careers and accomplishments, “we can connect these individuals in a very unorthodox way.”
Helena is not the first entrepreneurial venture for Elkus or Feinburg.
Elkus was raised in an entrepreneurial family. His father, Bill Elkus, is founder and managing director of one of the most active venture capital firms in Southern California. As a teen, Henry Elkus traveled around the world to compete as a ski racer. He started his own high-fashion “streetwear” clothing company at 14 years old and later became president of an international cooperative fund of millennial impact investors.
Feinburg is a former world champion public speaker and debater. He was a winner in the 2014 World Schools Debating Championships and has spoken at dozens of universities and oration chambers around the world. He was involved in founding four startups by age 19.
Like many young entrepreneurs, Elkus and Feinburg struggled with the decision of whether to continue in college or dive into their venture full-time.
“We spent all of last year trying to pursue full-time education and Helena,” Feinburg tells Hatchpad. “We didn’t feel the dual commitments allowed us to devote enough time or effort to either, so we chose to leave Yale and work full-time on Helena.”
Feinburg adds that Yale has approved the time off he and Elkus are taking. “We don’t right now know if we will return or when that will be, so it’s safe to say this is an issue we’re still grappling with ourselves.”
Name of Organization: Helena Group Foundation
Founder: Henry Elkus
Age of Founder: 21
Organization Type: 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that convenes leaders with different ages and expertise to address meaningful global problems
Location: Los Angeles, California