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Boyan Slat’s Quest

The founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup went from studying aerospace engineering to becoming a cleaner. His main aspiration? To go out of business.

  • May 2023

Leading through action versus leading through organizational titles. Connecting with our purpose/inner drive and focusing on how we spend our time are key actions that can help each of us contribute to the transformation we need in our organizations and societies to meet the challenges of the climate emergency. We should be conscious that our current choices and actions can bring us closer or further away from our desired outcome for the world and act with that in mind. 

I recently had the opportunity to interview Boyan Slat during Egon Zehnder’s Think Big, Bold, and Brave event in Amsterdam. Our conversation was a strong reminder that leading is an active choice, not necessarily a role or title.

Slat founded The Ocean Cleanup a decade ago at the age of 18 from his home in Delft, Netherlands. The organization aims to take itself out of business once it reaches the goal of removing 90 percent of floating ocean plastic by 2040. The CEO doesn’t want to label himself as either an inventor or an entrepreneur.

“I go where the quest to solve this problem takes me.”

Beyond cleaning the oceans, Slat aims to ignite that spark in others to embrace their personal drive and work towards creating a better world for all. 
Read on for the highlights of our conversation: 

You've been an innovator and a leader since you were a teenager. As a younger voice trying to defy the status quo, what are some key lessons you’ve learned? 

A key lesson is that you can be wrong so many times about so many different things. But as long as you're persistent, have a clear goal, and keep looking for ways to get there, things will ultimately happen. The world looks a certain way for a reason, it's the stable equilibrium. It just takes a lot of hard work and persistence to make stuff move. 

How do you see yourself as a leader? 

I’m somebody with clear objectives to do whatever it takes to get there. I never intended to be a CEO or manager or leader or any of those things. I just wanted to identify this problem in the world, and I wanted to see that solved. 

In the early days, I was spending time in a workshop with a spanner and drill, building a measurement tool to measure the concentrations of plastic in the ocean. This would usually not be in the CEO job description, but there was nobody else to do it. It turns out that in order to scale something, you need a team, to be an entrepreneur, to raise funding and all these kinds of things. I go where the quest to solve this problem takes me. 

What are the leadership traits and behaviors that you value in your team and organization?

What we're doing is pretty difficult and it's a giant puzzle. We want people to reduce the number of puzzle pieces rather than increase it. People who give those around them energy rather than take it. People who simplify things rather than complicate things, who are logical and clear-thinking. It’s also important that people are really here for the right reasons, share this dream, and are willing to work very hard to make it happen.

You're leading a disruptive organization. In a world full of distractions and complexities, what guides your decision-making to keep you on track on your mission?

Focus is critical. Having this super clear, self-explanatory mission does a lot of the work for me because that's self-focusing. Then what I invite the team to do, with every decision they make, is think: 

“How will this get us closer to our goal of cleaning up ocean plastic pollution?”

If somebody comes along and asks us to clean the river, not just plastic, but other pollutants, it's very simple. Is that helping us with the oceans of plastic? No, so we shouldn't do it. It’s asking that simple question over and over again. 

As a CEO, there are so many things you can do. You can feel very busy and satisfied, but that just doesn't get you any closer to reaching your goal. 

You have already done a lot to drive change. Do you have a role in instilling that sense of urgency and need for change in others? 

There are two sides to what we do: identify the problem, share the knowledge, and implement a solution. We've invested many millions in scientific research to understand the problem. This does not only empower us to tackle the issue but empowers others by making data widely available. Our research discovered that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is three times the size of France. Our scientific team also found that there are a thousand rivers emitting plastic to the oceans and that fishing gear is a key contributor to the problem. Research isn’t our primary objective, but it’s something we do with a positive side effect.

More than anything else, we need positive stories that inspire people to do something. When you think about the broader issue of sustainability, there has been a lot of emphasis on the problem. Many environmentalists believe fear inspires people to act, and I think it does the opposite to most people. What inspires people to act is to see action.

Action inspires action, and that’s something I hope we can do with The Ocean Cleanup: Ask other people to change through leading by example and solving problems through the things that humans are good at. 

What advice would you give to people who aspire to enact change but work in traditional organizations?

Individuals can do more than they think to make a change. Of course, they can donate money to others to do something useful. But if you think about your expertise, ask yourself: ‘With what I'm doing right now, am I contributing to the direction I want the future to go, or am I moving us further away from it?’ 

Our jobs take about 80,000 hours of time, on average. The biggest leverage you have over the future is the way you spend time.

You inspire so many people. Who inspires you?

I draw a lot of inspiration from reading books by historical figures and learning about individuals who have significantly influenced history by having this inspiring vision and acting on it: Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, Nikola Tesla. 

I also draw inspiration from big engineering mega projects of the 20th century, such as the Panama Canal and the Apollo Project. I'm very conscious of the fact that we live in this manmade world. As Stripe Co-founder John Collison tweeted, he sees the world as the “museum of passion projects” which I thought was beautifully phrased. 

Meeting Boyan, I was inspired by a leader who did not wait for an invitation to lead, he did not benchmark other people’s actions to judge whether he should proceed with his “passion project.”  He has a mission and brings others along to solve the problem of plastic waste in the Ocean. In our daily work how can we find our own “passion projects” to enable us to unlock and unleash our best leadership – to make the most of the time we have and contribute towards the future we want to see for ourselves and next generations.

Learn more about The Ocean Cleanup.

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