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Climate Innovation Challenge: Building A Unique Interdisciplinary Global Program For Climate Education and Innovation

"We are so fortunate, because the three of us believe in the word quality. And we take this seriously." So says Wenda Gumulya, one of the co-founders of the Climate Innovation Challenge (CIC), a unique interdisciplinary education and innovation program that brings together students from around the world to learn about and develop solutions for the climate crisis. Founded along with her two co-founders, Wahid Hossain from Bangladesh and Sherry Xue, a Chinese student based in the US, the CIC has become a pioneering model for climate education and innovation on a global scale.

For the uninitiated, CIC is a six-week virtual climate education and innovation program bringing together diverse young people, project partners, mentors, and stakeholders from across the globe to tackle growing climate change challenges. 

Participants learn from each other through peer feedback sessions and group work, attend workshops on professional and climate skills, and collaborate with organizations developing sustainable solutions and mentors to devise answers to critical ecological problems, gaining hands-on experience.

Earlier this year, from January 4th to February 3rd, CIC concluded its third cohort, with 30 students from 14 countries and 21 esteemed educational institutions. Throughout the program, students engaged in virtual workshops on climate change and critical professional skills and capacity-building sessions conducted by experts from leading institutions such as the UNDP Bangladesh Accelerator Lab and Columbia Climate School

They worked with four promising climate-focused organizations from Bangladesh, America, and Germany, operating in sectors like plastic recycling, carbon-trading marketplaces, sustainable e-commerce, and AI-based waste segregation. 

Working collaboratively with dedicated mentors and fellow participants, they developed real-world solutions, deepening their understanding of climate change while gaining valuable professional skills and building lasting connections.

The Origins

The seeds of the CIC were planted in 2020 when Wahid Hossain, a Bangladeshi social entrepreneur working on sustainable fashion, felt a "new motivation to impact Bangladeshi youth" in the wake of COVID-19. He launched several educational programs in collaboration with the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka, including one called "BeyondGrades" which worked with thousands of Bangladeshi students. 

However, Wahid felt the need to connect students not just locally but internationally to accelerate their learning and raise their ambition. "I realized an opportunity for Bangladeshi students to connect with the international community," he says.

In late 2021, he founded PathFinder, a program facilitating cross-cultural exchange and mentorship opportunities. It was through PathFinder that he met Wenda, an Australia-based sustainability practice director at Deloitte who became a mentor. Having worked internationally on social impact focused on education, skills development, ESG, and climate, Wenda saw a gap that needed filling. "I can see from my experience that young people will need to develop more awareness about sustainability, build critical thinking skills, and good business acumen to actually drive positive changes in the future," she says.

Sherry Xue, the founder of Explorate, which empowers individuals to realize their agency and capacity to make a tangible difference in global challenges through making international volunteering more accessible, joined the group around this time. Sherry met Wahid at a Watson Institute event where Wahid, a Watson Institute alum, attended as a speaker. When Wahid shared the idea with Sherry, she was immediately piqued considering her passion for quality education and climate change. 

The trio began discussing and developing an ambitious idea: an immersive, virtual program that would bring students together from across the globe to innovate climate solutions while learning crucial interdisciplinary and cross-cultural skills.

The Thesis

"We haven't seen a program like that so far at that time, that actually married things together like that," explains Wenda. By combining climate education with skills like leadership, design thinking, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to collaborate across cultures and viewpoints, the CIC's thesis was to create a new generation of climate leaders. 

As Wahid describes it, "The initial thought was connecting students and giving them a career choice with the knowledge and experience about climate, agriculture and food security." This was a rare interdisciplinary approach. 

The CIC wanted to overcome the limitation of traditional models where climate knowledge was siloed into environmental science degrees. The CIC team started with a radically interdisciplinary vision, reflecting how the real-world challenges of climate change will require collaborative, innovative solutions across every sector and discipline.

Similarly, the program didn’t want to be a mere classroom experience. Instead, CIC founders sought to create a program that provides experiential education and teaches real-life collaborative problem-solving. CIC achieved this goal by tying in a new component they call project partners. Project partners are sustainability-focused organizations that want to collaborate with students as external consultants and can benefit from such collaborations. 

The model allows students to work with an organization, solve real-world climate change challenges, and gain experiential learning. And for organizations, it is free of cost expertise and contribution that often leads to unforeseen breakthroughs. 

"We see a gap in youth skills," says Wenda. "To actually see real projects, real solutions through the project partners. And this project partner piece is very important.” CIC creates small groups of different students, from different countries, in one group. “We match them with a project partner which is a social enterprise, or a startup or a company who's already doing climate solutions," Wenda adds.  

CIC also has a mentorship component where students work with a dedicated mentor throughout the program who guides them in the process of developing solutions and working as a team. 

The Evolution

From these initial conversations in late 2021, the CIC team wasted no time in launching their first cohort. 

The first prototype cohort began in December 2022 with just 34 students from Bangladesh, the Philippines, Zambia, India, and Sweden. Two more cohorts followed quickly by March and September 2023, with each iteration seeing the program evolve and improve based on lessons learned.

This path to launching the program's first cohort, however, was arduous and didn’t happen at one go. By the time the inaugural cohort materialized, Wahid had attempted and failed thrice to get the program off the ground.  

"After developing the initial concept, we tried to engage a few organizations," Wahid recounts. "The initial model involved students doing direct internships, but those attempts did not pan out. We could not secure any meaningful backing." Following this initial setback, efforts stalled by December 2020. However, Wahid was relentless. The next phase started in September 2021. "I realized the concept was unique and difficult for many Bangladeshi stakeholders to grasp," he says. "So we decided to create a prototype." Around this time, Wahid met Wenda at an Unleash Plus program where she mentored him. They launched their first prototype in December 2022, followed by another program in March. However, they remained unsatisfied with the outcomes. "We were giving students inspirations to do good," he notes, "but they were not acquiring any concrete skills—hard or soft—that they could apply in their lives."

After the first cohort, they went back to the drawing board and spoke with several mentors and advisors. After much deliberation, they eventually decided to narrow down the focus of the program and decided to build a program exclusively on climate. 

"What we had in the first program was really different from what we had in the third program," says Sherry. "We incorporated student feedback, we hopped on calls with experienced people across domains and got their thoughts." 

The curriculum expanded from an initial four workshops to include six core modules by the third cohort, with partnerships formed with institutions like Columbia University's Climate School to deepen the climate education component.

From being limited to working with local Bangladeshi and American startups as project partners initially, the CIC now collaborates with organizations across the globe. It has also shifted its focus exclusively to university students rather than mixing high school and university cohorts that it initially experimented with. 

"We began with limited resources, but our individual experiences prior to forming CIC provided a strong foundation. Each of us brings a wealth of knowledge gained through years of individual endeavors, making our presence here today possible," reflects Wenda.

The Model

At its core, the CIC takes a model-flipping approach compared to typical university courses. Broadly speaking, the program stands out on two accounts. On the macro level, it is a bold model that understands the gravity of the challenges at hand. Many people call climate change a ‘wicked problem’ because it doesn’t respond well to traditional remedies. CIC recognizes this and proposes that the most potent weapons against complex challenges lie in embracing fresh perspectives and out-of-the-box interdisciplinary thinking. It does this by bringing together people and organizations from across boundaries and backgrounds and creating a conducive environment for them to collaborate, learn, and solve. 

On the micro level, the delivery of each component of the program—curriculum and classes—is designed in such a manner that it maximizes the learning outcome for students. Everything is participatory, collaborative, and experiential with a deep appreciation for reflective learning. 

As Wahid explains, "We created the workshops and curriculum with many small activities so that students are encouraged and have the chance to do something themselves and explain it to others. So they feel I'm not attending a mere class, I'm co-creating this class."

The six-week program is a series of intensive virtual workshops and project-based collaborative work. Students from diverse backgrounds across the world are placed into small groups matched with real organizations working on climate solutions as project partners. The students then serve as consultants, applying skills from the workshops like system thinking, design thinking, climate basics, and project management to provide insights and recommendations to these partner organizations. 

Each group of students also works with a dedicated mentor, receiving critical feedback and suggestions in the process of creating collaborative solutions. 

A key aspect that makes the CIC unique is its emphasis on interdisciplinary and cross-cultural collaboration. "Climate is not the only aspect you learn and discuss at CIC. Participating in CIC is not the same as taking a subject in university," notes Wenda. "But at CIC, you work with students from different countries, different backgrounds, different fields, to create solutions. There's this element of cultural intelligence which is huge because when you talk about global issues, you need global solutions."

This deliberate crafting of diversity within the small student team, coupled with a focus on skills like communication, leadership, critical thinking, and cultural understanding, makes CIC a potentially transformative experience. "I've seen so many different programs, but CIC delivers quality work and positive impact for the students because we share the same values," says Wenda.

The Future

From those initial 34 students just over a year ago, the CIC has grown rapidly to engage nearly 100 alumni after three cohorts. But for its ambitious co-founders, this is just the beginning. The vision is to build the CIC into a globally renowned program that can have a lasting impact on climate education and innovation.

"My vision is to see this program have a large-scale impact, touching five continents, scaling up students little by little," says Wenda. "To see this curriculum solidified and standardized so we can teach other organizations and climate educators that this framework works." 

Expanding the program's reach isn't just about numbers, but ensuring the CIC model can create reinforcing cycles of impact. "We want to continue building up that impact, whether within the participants or working directly with organizations," adds Sherry. "The ultimate goal is to contribute towards climate change through those organizational lenses and local context."

Part of this involves strengthening the CIC's alumni network and nurturing an engaged community of graduates. The program already has a strong alumni and partner network. Past students speak highly of the program and widely recommend it. But CIC aims to take that engagement even further. 

"We've had three cohorts so far, roughly 90 alumni, so we are thinking about how we can engage with them, and how we can take this community forward," says Sherry. 

CIC has largely been a voluntary initiative. All three CIC founders work for free. The program doesn’t pay anything to any of its stakeholders. However, the rapid growth of the program over the last three cohorts is now forcing the founders to find a sustainable model for the initiative so that they can scale the program and reach more people. 

Thus the growth plans are ambitious but strategic. As Wahid acknowledges, "We understand that the way we are growing, we need professional support. We are working with financial models on how to do this because this model worked for our last cohort, but after that we need support staff as it goes to a larger audience." 

Ultimately, the CIC co-founders don't just want to create a successful education program but to have a catalytic impact on climate innovation itself. "We can also teach large businesses how to develop their employee pool to be more sustainable, how to equip their team with the mindset and skills to maximize impact with innovative ideas," says Wahid.  

The Lessons

Of course, launching an ambitious initiative like the CIC across cultures and continents hasn't been easy. Reflecting on the journey so far, CIC founders have learned valuable lessons about entrepreneurship, building ambitious programs, and pushing boundaries.

"The first thing is continuous learning," says Wenda. "The resilience which actually makes us be here today. When we started we had mistakes, but we continuously learned and remained resilient."

The relentless resilience of the CIC team and commitment to quality have been crucial differentiators for CIC in an increasingly crowded landscape of online education programs. "Global partners are actually paying attention, they see this quality and the seriousness of effort," adds Wenda. "That's why they partner with CIC because they know there is mutual benefit."

For Wahid, one of the most inspiring lessons has been seeing student participants go through powerful personal growth and transformation. "There are students who feel demotivated initially, not able to contribute. But when we inspire them and provide direction, we start seeing rapid improvements," he says. "The students who were hardly speaking at the beginning of the program, by the end of the program they speak so much we have to stop them."

He asserts that true leadership isn't about dominance, but creating an empowering environment for others to step up and CIC has been successful in helping build a sense of true leadership in its students. "Those who had a natural ability to lead realized that leadership is also about how we empower someone else to take it," he reflects. "For the sake of group success, they decided to let go of ego."

Sherry's key takeaway has been the importance of taking action and iterating, even amid uncertainty. "Part of prototyping requires you to put something not 100% perfect out there and learn from it," she says. "I can get stuck in my own thoughts, but this team culture and working with Wahid and Wenda has allowed me to act and not be afraid to put something imperfect out there."

For aspiring entrepreneurs, CIC is an interesting case study. From iterating the program after each cohort, trying again and again after initial setbacks to attracting global partners like Columbia University through sheer tenacity and commitment, the CIC's journey is a powerful lesson in entrepreneurial grit. It takes time and hard work to make things happen. But if you continue pushing and pursuing high standards, things are bound to happen. 

A Better Tomorrow is Possible 

As the pillage of climate change increasingly upends lives across the world, from Bangladeshi farmers devastated by flooding and salinity to Australian coastal communities threatened by rising seas, the need for innovative solutions has never been greater. As the climate challenge accelerates in an increasingly interconnected yet fractured world, we need a new group of culturally attuned systems thinkers and innovators. 

The CIC's model of global, cross-cultural, and interdisciplinary collaboration to empower a new generation of climate leaders is perhaps an excellent example of the type of boundary-breaking thinking that we will need to face this existential crisis. An intrinsically ambitious program backed by resourceful, and driven founders who believe in quality and commitment over marketing.

The fight against climate change's wicked threats demands bold new models of climate education and innovation that many traditional institutions have so far failed to offer. 

If this trio, representing a diverse blend of backgrounds and perspectives, can realize their vision to scale globally and solidify their unique model of virtual, collaborative, and interdisciplinary climate education and innovation program, the Climate Innovation Challenge could become an inspiring model for tackling the climate crisis as well as many more wicked challenges our world faces today.  

Cover photo: From top-left, clockwise, Sherry Xue, Wahid Hossain, Wenda Gumulya, three founders of CIC, and Ruhul Kader, Author of this piece.

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2022 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at ruhul@futurestartup.com

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