What started out in 2014 as a nascent idea in a college dorm room by Daniela V. Fernandez, is today a global organization with over 5,100+ youth leaders spanning 165 countries all on a mission to protect and regenerate the largest ecosystem on our planet, the ocean. Sustainable Ocean Alliance (SOA), a nonprofit, moves beyond the typical charitable methodology and incorporates entrepreneurs and leaders, along with activists, to solve some of the largest oceanic quandaries of our time.
“I realized that there was no place to foster and grow solution-oriented organizations that solve critical ocean issues. Or a place for personal development for those who want to dedicate their lives to restoring our planet. And with that, SOA was born!” she explains.
Bringing leaders, entrepreneurs, advocates, mentors and partners together to be the solution for the largest challenges facing our ocean, SOA’s goal is to see the ocean rebuilt to a state of strength in our lifetime by envisioning an ocean ecosystem sustained by new solutions, international policies and conscious leaders. Leaders who understand that a balance is needed—because ocean health is human health.
“We see a future world that’s interconnected, sustainable and thriving,” says Daniela. “We see those future-focused ocean stewards standing up to own what comes next for our ocean, planet and humankind. “
Since its inception, SOA has become the world’s largest network of ocean leaders, entrepreneurs and solutions. Fernandez illustrates in her role as Founder and CEO that regardless of age or gender, we all have the ability to work together to innovate, create, and execute solutions that will shift the current climate trajectory.
What did you study in school? Did you always know you wanted to undertake work in the non-profit sector, environmental, and/or oceanic field?
Georgetown University was my dream. I knew that if I could walk through the halls of such a great institution, I would figure out what my contribution to this world would be. That was something extremely important to me from a young age—giving back and living for something bigger than myself. I didn’t know what was in store my freshman year of college, but I did know one thing: I wanted to save our ocean.
I also knew walking into Georgetown that I wasn’t alone. I knew there were many others like me who were driven by impact. That believed in the power of ocean sustainability and preservation. You can imagine my surprise when I got on campus and realized there was no place for me to bring my love of the ocean to life through business creation or leadership development. Such a critical topic with such life altering challenges to tackle—but nothing I could sink my teeth into to reverse the damage done as a college student. That’s what inspired the creation of SOA.
I studied Government & Economics while at Georgetown. I wanted to have a seat at the table with decision makers deciding the fate of our ocean. I wanted to learn how to talk to policy makers, big donors, executives and diplomats to have my vision heard. To me, my major was the way into the inner sanctum and it proved to work.
SOA offers two programs: the Accelerator Program and the Leadership Program. Can you tell us a little bit more about these, how they came to fruition, and why they’re each unique in protecting and defending the ocean?
When it comes to protecting and defending the ocean, we give people the opportunity to participate in a way they haven’t been able to before. We inspire youth to make the ocean their livelihood—equal parts their life’s work and personal passion. We aren’t just asking people to donate to the cause. We are giving them frameworks, support and the network to build their for-profit or non-for-profit solutions successfully. At SOA, we get to the root of our ocean problem and tackle it head on. We simply need more people to spend their time solving these critical issues. We make this a reality via our Accelerator and Leadership programs.
Our Ocean Solutions Leadership Program supports ocean stewards with a non-for-profit solution that improves the health of our ocean through policy making and change. There are two entry points into the program for those looking to drive action in their communities. The first our Regional Hub offering, where leaders can create an extension of the Alliance in their region. The second is our Microgrant offering, providing funding for big ideas that have the power to drive measurable ocean change. This was the first program we developed back in 2014 when it was just an idea budding in my dorm room. It’s the heart and soul of SOA.
Our Ocean Solutions Accelerator Program supports founders with a for-profit solution that improves the health of our ocean. Throughout the month-long, virtual program, cohorts gain access to world-class mentorship, guidance and resources to make their vision a reality. Upon program completion, entrepreneurs will receive ongoing access to our global network, tools and funding. We review applications on a rolling basis and accept for two cohorts per year. Our 2021 program application is now open for our 4th and 5th Cohorts. Early-stage and later-stage founders can apply now through to April 12th.
All of this came to fruition when I realized that there wasn’t a place to develop ocean solutions for our youth. There wasn’t a place where people with exceptional ideas could break through quickly. You historically had to be positioned perfectly to get into the ocean non-for-profit sector or you needed a significant inroad elsewhere to realize your for-profit business. We’re breaking down the walls and making it so much easier to bring visions to life through our programmatic work at SOA.
We’ve heard the term “blue economy” referenced frequently in regards to ocean sustainability. Can you explain what the blue economy is?
To us, the Blue Economy means that we are sustainably using the ocean for healthy growth. That means economic and ecosystem growth. Blue Economy is meant to say that we can live healthy and happy lives while using and supporting the ocean simultaneously. Without damaging our natural world, we can work in harmony with the ocean to thrive together. Ocean solutions that address the healing of the ocean as a whole are the ones we bring into the Accelerator and Leadership programs. We welcome all ideas that have the ability to scale, have strong leadership teams, have a proven track record of success and have measurable impact.
What does your day-to-day look like? Has that changed much in light of COVID? What do you, personally, spend most of your time on with SOA?
My day-to-day is a blend of self-care, mentorship and steering SOA. It’s just as important to take care of yourself—sleeping well, eating healthy and exercising—as it is to run an impact organization. But what matters to me most in a given day is interacting with our alumni and ocean leaders, helping them throughout their journeys. That’s what inspires me and gives me the fire to keep going. My days involve strategy and defining the future of SOA, working with the dream team at SOA to do the best work of their careers and helping our amazing network make their dreams a reality. We are an entirely remote team with the capability to connect virtually anywhere. The biggest change for us was shifting our programs from in-person to virtual—but it’s been a huge success and I give credit to the team entirely for making that shift happen seamlessly!
What has been the most unexpected difficulty to overcome in your journey, and what has been the most uplifting?
You would think the biggest challenge would be my age. I have been the youngest person in the room many times over discussing ocean policy and change with people who are three times my senior. But, that surprising hasn’t been the hardest part. It’s been accepting that what we need to see our ocean thriving cannot happen overnight. I move quickly, and so does my team. But sometimes, feeling like we’re running out of time is paralyzing. How do we combat this? Being very open and honest about how we feel; working together to deliver on our impact goals; and recruiting more people to the Alliance so they can join in on the work we are doing. And with that, you have the most uplifting aspect of the journey. The people. Our Alliance is one-of-a-kind and growing at a rapid pace. The amount of engagement and interest generated by our youth network is incredible and reminds us why we are in this every single day. Each day cannot be perfect—but I rest well at night knowing that this is the start of something powerful and we have the ability to change the course of our ocean the more people join together.
It’s easy to think, “I’m only one person, what can I really do to help protect this environment?” What is your response to those of us overwhelmed by the problem? What can we do to truly move the needle towards protecting our oceans?
Everyone has a role to play in protecting our ocean. But that role looks different for each person. We are not all going to follow the same path. We all have unique skills, talents, passions, experiences that we can bring to the sustainability table to use for good. However, what it will take to move the needle is all of us finding our seat at that table—regardless if you’re a leader, founder, or just someone who wants to support and contribute. In my opinion, it’s going to take all of us thinking about this, living this, and contributing to this in order to see real change. Not just a few. We need the leaders; the advocates; the scientists; the non-for-profit builders; the clean-up crews; the marketers, technologists, analysts and more. We need to make this our life’s work AND our lifestyle. It’s equal parts about changing policy all the way down to changing our purchasing decisions. What we buy, eat, consume.
For those of us overwhelmed by the problem—you’re not alone. This is what fuels our fire at SOA. But, we believe in embracing a mindset of possibility. A mindset of optimism and hope, grit and tenacity. A mindset of never giving up on our ocean, planet and humankind. A mindset that connects us—no matter where in the world we are. And a mindset that acknowledges the time is now for reversing the damage that has been done to our ocean and natural world.
If you are feeling stuck, or unsure of how to get involved—this is exactly why I created SOA. This is a home for everyone who wants to do something about this global crisis. SOA is for those who want to take action and use your skills for good in this race to get our ocean back to thriving.
Despite all the harm humans have caused to our oceans, how do you continually remain positive and believe we can change the current trajectory we are on?
I’ve seen people do incredible things to fix the damage that has been done. I’m surrounded by innovation, creativity, transparency when it comes to our ocean. Those who make up the Alliance remind me why we have to keep going. It’s what powers the mindset I mentioned before—the mindset of possibility. There’s so much good out there. There’s so many people willing and ready to contribute, motivated by the potential of changing the world. Times have changed and people are valuing giving back even more than monetary gain. A new generation of ocean stewards is emerging and they are what give me hope. We are human—we make mistakes. Being human also means to have deep empathy and the ability to right our wrongs. I believe, more than ever, that the time is now to make these changes and that the ocean movement is only just getting started.
To learn more about Daniela V. Fernandez, follow her on Instagram @dvfernandez or visit soalliance.org. In light of International Women’s Day on March 8th, Women in Regeneration is a content series celebrating females focused on climate solutions and transformational practices with both the natural world and the systems that interact and support it.