Young People Lead the Way on Sustainable Development

For most of my life, I've specialized in working really hard without getting paid. This specialty seems inherent to many young people who seek to create social or environmental change; we spend countless hours fighting for the causes we love for little or no compensation and the rest of our time working restaurant-type jobs to pay the bills. Or we eat a lot of ramen. Or both.

But then we grow up and realize that creating social change is cute when you're young but passion doesn't feed a family. At least, that's what everyone told me would happen.

A few months ago, I was offered a job in financial consulting that would have more than doubled the "ramen salary" that my solar startup could pay me. It would have enabled me to finally move out of my parent's house and set up a savings account that didn't hit zero every time I went on vacation.

I took a deep breath and turned it down. Many of my friends faced a similar decision right before graduation when Wall Street showed up to recruit: change the world or change to a six-figure income. It isn't an easy decision to make, hence why we have so many of America's brightest manipulating derivatives instead of innovating around how to provide for seven billion people with finite natural resources.

Today, I'm thrilled to announce that I made the right decision. My company, Solar Mosaic, has just raised $2.5M from venture capital investors and received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to build an online marketplace for ordinary people to create and fund solar projects.

This means that I now have enough money to move into a lovely new apartment and am getting one step closer to this mystical adulthood. I know this because my mother no longer does my laundry.

Fortunately for the laundry-folders of the world, I'm not the only millennial who has figured out how to be both a "changemaker" and a"change-earner." I just spent the past three days in Rio de Janeiro with SustainUS, meeting with youth from all over the world in preparation for a United Nations conference on sustainable development, called Rio+20. Not only had nearly every young people there figured out a way to finagle various adults into financing their trip to Brazil, many of the older youth have managed to turn their activism into a profession that pays the bills.

While most of the media and politicians seem to be drumbeating the imminent doom of sustainable development should Rio+20 fail to produce a significantly weighty policy document, I'm not worried. Though it'd be nice to have the governments of the world on our side, we have already found innovative ways to integrate economic, social and environmental progress in our communities and our lives.

I have no doubt that we'll be running things soon, and when we do, we'll prove that sustainable development is more than a UN buzz word, it's the only type of development worth doing. Until then, you can find us dancing to the beat of our own drum in the halls of the UN, the garages of the future Facebooks for social change and in lots, and lots, of unpaid internships.