By Rachel Major
‘Accepted.’ That’s what the e-mail about my research proposal said. It had the classic NASA logo underneath. It felt like the most unbelievable moment of my life, but nothing that’s happened since has felt remotely real.
I’ve traveled to over a dozen countries and rubbed elbows with government officials and presidents of corporations and next-gen startups alike. Last week I presented in front of thousands. Once too shy to speak up now I wrestle daily with the responsibility of leadership.
NuLeaf is the catalyst, a bit of my soul shared with the world in what has become my coming of age story. And it all started with a good team and a belief in an adventurous spirit.
Before NuLeaf, I was at a low point in my life. I was an ecologist that watched too much Star Trek and believed humanity’s technology could - in fact should - be fundamentally different with biomimicry.
In Silicon Valley, the land of microchips and CS apps and health tech, most people thought I was naive and crazy. Not to mention the sexism I experienced coupled with depression, anxiety, and getting out of an abusive relationship. It’s safe to say my confidence wasn’t great.
I share this because when I say NuLeaf chose me, it’s because only a slightly stupid, stubborn kind of love would make me do what I did next.
Through Foothill College, and with encouragement from one of my mentors, Robert Cormia, I submitted a research proposal combining biomimicry and clean tech to NASA. Shortly after my inbox was blowing up with hundreds of e-mails from people wanting to contribute.
Let’s be clear - I had zero managerial experience whatsoever. Given everything that led up to that point, taking charge of a group of peers (and some well beyond me) was laughable.
As I started to meet the applicants, though, I saw an unexpected fire burning. Most were incredibly hard-working people from all walks of life, but because they were at a community college they didn’t have access to much research.
We were all misfits but misfits that wanted to create their own a call to adventure. Who was I to walk away from helping them? Didn’t I believe in forging a path to a bio-inspired world?
Turned out I believed we need every drop of climate action, now, and the only way we build a naturally better world is by building each other up too.
From this belief to build with intelligence, necessity, and a helping hand, NuLeaf became a DIY group. We were makers crazy enough to believe that nature was on our side and we could transform the world for the better.
And I was met with hours of tedious managerial labor, way less tech than I wanted, challenges I had no idea how to solve, and countless sleepless nights. But I could see the fire burning, the kindling starting to catch, in myself as much as others.
Over a year later people were still asking why we weren’t a startup. Besides feeling like greed, not positive change, drove most businesses, the world idolized the Steve Jobs of Apple, the Jeff Bezos of Amazon, the Elon Musk of SpaceX.
I was not that type of leader, but frankly, my own insecurities held us back. If NuLeaf was to build a business, it wasn’t going to fit the normal mold. So much so I finally asked the team outright, partially in frustration, if they wanted to be a startup. They said yes. Here we are today.
This shouldn’t be confused with a lack of ambition or commitment. Within 3 months I was living in a new country and exploring a whole other side of the world through RebelBio and all the while trying to be the CEO NuLeaf deserves.
Unfortunately, as I learned there and still learn today, a good idea is only a sliver of good business. Incalculable challenges pelt us every step of the way. My mental health didn’t miraculously heal, sexism is still rampant, I’m up to my eyeballs in e-mails, and I haven’t touched a power tool in months. I still struggle to manage myself while being a better leader to others.
Yet somehow a whisper of "do it anyway" always makes it through. This type of strength, a slightly stupid kind of love, is something you can only give yourself, but that voice gets a lot louder when you have a team behind you and a vision of a better world ahead of you.
This is the foundation of our Heroes series. Out of the topics of water scarcity, cities, poverty, food & energy, the common theme was that we have made the world what it is today - the good and the bad. But we all have the ability to change it, to rise to the challenges each day, and to find to our surprise that we blossom beyond our wildest dreams.
This is also why we modeled the series after the hero’s journey, from the call to adventure to the ordeal of scarcity to the unapologetically hopeful belief that the world will be healed one day. For our last piece in the series, I wanted to share NuLeaf’s (and my own) journey because we aren’t just passing on this advice - we live it.
In a dark and uncertain world, and now with a 12-year ticking clock, I hope our story serves as a light. Sometimes all you really need to find your inner hero is to believe it’s there in the first place. Unleash it and work like hell to make sure that everyone else does too because the only way we’re getting out of this mess is together. May it be your greatest adventure.