Sophia Watkins ’15 is the Founder of Forest Fund, a startup that tests practical solutions to prevent or reverse the loss of Amazon rainforest and the surrounding ecoregions. We asked her a few questions about her experience while at Harvard and her latest project.
Office for Sustainability: What have you been up to since graduating from Harvard? Why did you found Forest Fund?
Sophia Watkins: After graduating, I got a scholarship to participate in the Climate-KIC climate innovation summer school, during which I met my co-founder, Maria Cecilia Oliveira. In the fall we lived together in São Paulo while we sorted out the bureaucratic hurdles of starting a company in Brazil. Since then I've been traveling back and forth between South Florida and Juína, our company's base at the deforestation forefront.
There is a lot of redundancy in the world of sustainability, in part due to the inefficiencies and secrecy inherent to donor courting and grant writing, so I wanted to make sure I didn't get caught up in that world. I decided to found Forest Fund because I saw a profound disconnect between local realities and the proposed solutions being funded. There are very few organizations acting at the Brazilian deforestation forefront, so I knew I was not contributing to redundancy. I also knew my company could exist with close to no operating costs, which means money and time would be spent on doing. It has been an incredibly freeing and rewarding experience to be able to focus on living and learning and acting in a biome that is so important to the sustainability of our planet. While I am only a rookie in a centuries old endeavor, I am excited to be collecting the understanding and the tools to help write the next chapter.
It has been an incredibly freeing and rewarding experience to be able to focus on living and learning and acting in a biome that is so important to the sustainability of our planet. While I am only a rookie in a centuries old endeavor, I am excited to be collecting the understanding and the tools to help write the next chapter.
OFS: How did your time at Harvard influence your pursuit of a career in environmental protection?
SW: David Johnson and the late John Briscoe were incredible mentors to me during my college years. They helped me learn how to address environmental problems with a hard head and a soft heart.
I decided to study economics as my fourth and most international language. My undergraduate thesis is on the cattle industry at the deforestation forefront of the Brazilian Amazon and was made possible through the support of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, the Harvard University Center for the Environment, and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. As I neared the end of my undergraduate experience I grew frustrated with the disconnect between academia and real pressing problems. I decided to move to Latin America and immerse myself in understanding first hand the "messy data" that too often deters the engagement of the academic world. I have come back to the region where I conducted my thesis research, to better understand the economics of deforestation and unsustainable resource extraction.
OFS: Can you describe the program you are running? What do you hope participants will get out of your program?
SW: This summer program is the synthesis of my experiences in learning how to address environmental problems productively. During the six weeks we will study the past and current economic activities that have shaped this forefront community, while identifying the resulting sustainability issues. Participants will learn how to identify a problem and apply stakeholder engagement, business plan writing, market testing, and pitching to the formulation and presentation of their proposed solutions. Entrepreneurship will be at the core of this summer program, augmented by a foundation in sustainability economics, statistics, and cultural acumen.
I hope this summer will be a humbling and empowering experience. Humility is critical when addressing sustainability problems as they are more often than not found at the delicate intersections of socio-cultural, economic, and institutional realities. It is important to remain cognizant of our limitations in understanding. However, it is also important to learn how to identify when you know enough to get on with doing. Entrepreneurship is a process of constant learning and the best teachers are the challenges faced along the way.
Humility is critical when addressing sustainability problems as they are more often than not found at the delicate intersections of socio-cultural, economic, and institutional realities.
While I hope the participants will take away a lot from and grow as a result of this summer program, I'm more excited to find out what they are capable of bringing. The potential of the sustainability solutions found and developed during their time here is boundless—I suspect that their dedicated, thorough, and collaborative work will uncover ideas worth continuing well beyond the program.
Entrepreneurship is a process of constant learning and the best teachers are the challenges faced along the way.
OFS: Why did you pick Juína as your base camp?
SW: Juína is where I conducted my original thesis research, a strategic municipality, as it is one of the more developed towns in the region. It attracts commerce from the surrounding municipalities and is a major processing site for the wood and meat industries—home to twenty plus sawmills and the largest slaughterhouse in northwest Mato Grosso.
OFS: What other projects are you working on?
SW: Forest Fund works across three fronts: Reforestation, Standing Forest Conservation, and Forest Products. We are currently keeping forest standing by working with local landowners who face economic pressure to deforest. We are working with low-income landowners to reforest key river basin regions and improve climate change resilience in our community. We pilot actions in forest conservation and reforestation and are in the early stages of exploring sustainably harvested forest products.
We are working with low-income landowners to reforest key river basin regions and improve climate change resilience in our community.
OFS: What advice do you have for current students pursuing studies and careers in energy, environment, and sustainability?
SW: Find what your field needs by talking to experts—what skills are lacking? Find what interests you and become an expert, focus, make sure you are ready to bring something to the table if you get a seat. Always question your perspective, your assumptions, particularly if you are working abroad.
Find what interests you and become an expert, focus, make sure you are ready to bring something to the table if you get a seat.