“The digital age has given young people unprecedented influence”

21 year-old “Helena”-founder Henry Elkus has built a one-of-a-kind organization of world leaders aimed towards significant global change. Yet half of his members are under 25 years old. Elkus spoke to Alexander Görlach on power in the 21st century and the youth’s burden to address the critical global issues of our time. 

Tell us: what is Helena?

Helena is an organization that convenes world leaders from different generations and fields, and implements some of the resulting ideas in an effort to create positive change in the world. Each year, Helena adds a class of 30 members. Half of these members are under 25 years old, half are over, and each is a leader from a separate field. The result is a close-knit community of leaders that might not have otherwise met. Their discussions reflect this, and produce a mixture of ideas that rarely converge. We’ve been fortunate enough to fill Helena with some amazing people: Fortune 500 executives, actors, technologists, explorers, geopoliticians, a Nobel Laureate, and more.

We don’t host conferences or public speeches. Instead, the members meet frequently, privately, and in small combinations. We work extremely hard to be not only a talking shop between our members, but to truly act on some of the ideas that are incubated inside the group. We are currently pursuing two significant projects.

Our first project is in partnership with KTK-BELT. We are helping to build “The Vertical University,” a carbon neutral, 160 mile and 27.000 vertical foot university in Eastern Nepal that will teach up to 6.000 students. An important feature of the University is connectivity: through “super-towers” set up across the campus, we plan to deliver internet to the region for the first time. Our second project is “The Helena Prize,” a search for the individual 30 years of age or younger with the most promising technology to reduce greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere.

How did the idea for Helena come about?

We wanted to create a group that equally featured leaders from different generations, we wanted to create a group that combined leaders with expertise in different areas, and we wanted to create a group that didn’t force members to discuss one topic over another.

All of these ideas came from daily life, but I think the most important is the inclusion of the youth in global decision making. Being 21, I’ve simply grown up in a world where the scales of influence are tilting younger and younger, and including the leaders who are pioneering policy, technology, activism, and science at the table seemed obvious.

The digital age has allowed young people to gain unprecedented influence in our society, and in many fields. You are beginning to see 20-year-old leaders at the forefront of major global trends. The digital age has reduced the barriers of age to a leader’s ability to amass a following and alter behavior at a large scale; we are seeing 19 and 20 year old actors and entertainers deliver ideas to tens of millions of people with one keystroke. In science, you have people like Divya Nag playing a significant role in the development of pluripotent stem cell research, and women like Yeonmi Park and Alaa Murabit conducting international activism and influencing policy.

Usually networks are for, let’s say, the more matured, older generation. Helena on the contrary aims for the younger generation. What makes you believe, people under 25 are particularly good at coming up with solutions?

I think that because half of Helena’s members are under the age of 25, there is an immediate reaction that we are prioritizing younger leaders over older leaders. That’s not really the case.

Helena’s structure is simply a statement that better ideas and better solutions can result from the inclusion of multiple generations, since both the under-25 and over 25 generations hold significant influence in the world. It would be illogical not to include young leaders in the conversation, both because the under-25 demographic takes up nearly half the world population, and because leaders under 25 have independently established themselves.

With that said, I do think there are grounds to argue that younger leaders are able to contribute different types of solutions than their older counterparts, simply due to the environment they grew up in. While I think that terms like “digital natives” are becoming a bit overused, there is truth to the concept they describe: that young people are better positioned to leverage the digital age, because they were introduced to it as children. A great example is Timothy Hwang, who has applied artificial intelligence and natural language processing to government legislation with FiscalNote. 24 year olds don’t typically have an easy time forging influence in the public sector, but Tim has done that using technologies native to the younger generation.

European societies may not understand your approach as they are aging communities. Many of the current conflicts, such as the refugee crisis or Brexit, are by some interpreted as symptoms for this. Can Helena save us from the stubbornness of the old?

I think that all generations show stubbornness, especially toward each other. One of the simplest fixes is simply to create dialogue between young and old where the playing field is completely level. If that dialogue is not weighted to favor one generation over another, we [Helena] think that it can yield positive results.

At many institutions, however, there is an encouragement of one-sided mentorship – that unity comes from the older generation teaching the younger generation. But this in some ways can create more of a rift. Helena’s argument is that mentorship and the exchange of ideas should be mutual, since each generation has a contributions to make, because of their different perspectives and experiences.

But you do bring up Brexit, which is an important point to cover. Regardless of how you fall politically, there was a failure on the part of young people to educate themselves on the surrounding circumstances, and turn out to vote. In contrast, 90% of the 65 and over demographic voted in the referendum. The youth’s attitude towards the referendum vote was the kind of harmful stubbornness and inaction that I hope an organization like Helena could play even a small part in correcting. In this case it was the young, not the old, that failed to adequately have their say in an pivotal global event, and severely cost them.

Helena is an ancient deity, said to be the most beautiful amongst her peers. If you attracting influencers of today for tomorrow how do you work on diversity issues? How do you make sure to have the best female and male minds around?

I’ll be the first to tell you that we do not have the levels of diversity that we should, but we are proud of the first Helena class that we have put together. In drafting our current membership, we went for the best leaders we could find, and of course a significant portion of them happen to be women. I think it’s obvious why: women make up half of the globe, and are leaders in every vertical.

In order to incubate and implement the best ideas, you can’t just have a bunch of straight white guys sitting around the table. That just isn’t representative of the global population and society as a whole. The inclusion of different identities in a community means you are able to tap into the different experiences your members have as human beings, and that translates to improved ideas. So we see do see diversity as a central component of our group.

What are the topics that you want to tackle with the Helena network?

Even though we don’t limit the group to any topic, there are certain issues we have recently become involved in.

The intersection of education, environmentalism, and the Internet was a topic that the members have grappled with quite a lot, and that led to one of the biggest projects Helena is currently undertaking. Alongside an incredible organization called KTK-BELT, we are helping to build “The Vertical University,” which is a carbon-neutral, nearly 6,000 student University in Eastern Nepal. We are hoping that the project can be a case study in sustainable education, where we are able to provide the building blocks for a model that doesn’t exploit the local population and allows them to educate each other autonomously, while protecting their natural ecology and preventing deforestation.

Helena has also hosted of a multitude of discussions regarding the future of governance as it pertains to the rose of global decentralization. Governments have derived power from controlling physical assets for thousands of years (cars, houses, financial systems, communication systems, physical data), but these assets are now becoming decentralized, privatized and non-physical (Uber, Airbnb, Bitcoin, email, cloud computing).

How much you want to engage with the public? Similar endeavors like Helena often face criticism to be elitist adventures that work to say the least not in favor of those who would need it most.

I think it’s a fair point. Creating a group the size of ours (30 members in each class, rather than thousands) can invite the criticism of elitism. And creating an environment of privacy in our meetings, where our group’s discussions are not publically broadcast or heavily reported on the media, can invite criticism as well.

We’ve chosen to do both of these things for very different reasons, however.

There are two types of conversations that can happen during meetings, conferences, and summits. The first, usually delivered in the form of speeches, are conversations where individuals deliver an idea to the public in an effort to disseminate ideas, promote an interest, or recapitulate a story. There are many effective organizations that specialize in these types of conversations, and we are certainly fans of them.

Yet, in these conversations there is rarely rebuttal or engaged debate. And further, speakers are usually discouraged to be vulnerable, discuss projects they are currently working on, or flesh out ideas that they are unsure of. We want to focus on those types of conversations, because we believe they are the most raw, and the conversations that can lead to significant action and change. When an idea does result from one of Helena’s meetings, it often becomes a public project, such as The Helena Prize. But we don’t see a justification in inviting heavy scrutiny in the ideation phase. We want to encourage members to subject themselves to opposing views, to disagree with one another, and to build relationships with one another, without a third party being involved.

We have 30 members a year for a simple reason: we want the members to actually collaborate. To us there is little use in a network with thousands of participants, if the goal of the network is to build consistent relationships between all of its members.

When you talk about your belief in improving the world, claiming that all our problems are solvable, one may be reminded of Singularity, a technology-friendly, slightly utopian philosophical view, developed in Silicon Valley. Is this the school, the theory you subscribe to or how would you describe the school of thought Helena wants to develop and stand for?

I don’t know if all of our problems are solvable, or if Helena will be able to fundamentally solve global issues. But I do think that assembling leaders that could collectively affect change is a worthwhile pursuit.

In creating Helena, we didn’t subscribe to any philosophy or world-view. Instead, we began on the other end, thinking mechanically about how an organization should function in order to yield results. Our philosophy is that the creation and implementation of ideas can happen best in an environment that includes leaders from multiple viewpoints. That is quite complex as is, but there is also a larger point here. It may very well be that there is no school of thought that can be universally applied to global issues. It may be that there is a school of thought that can, but it hasn’t been created yet. If we were to “play God,” or promote a singular philosophy that distracts from the creative process of our members, it would be at odds with our core mission.

It’s not to say that we aren’t personally inspired by the work of technology entrepreneurs and the Silicon Valley community. Singularity University, and the larger philosophy that Peter and Ray have contributed to, is a brilliant one. The mindset that exists there has been one of the chief drivers for innovation in the 21st century. Helena has members that represent that community, but it has members from a host of other fields as well.

It’s been fascinating to see how they intersect. The practicality and procedural philosophies from the political and geopolitical segments of our group that have been heavily challenged by the “best-idea-wins” philosophy of the entrepreneurial members of Helena. But both sides have contributed ideas to each other that are rarely taken into account.

Is there a business model associated with your work or is it a purely philanthropic, non-profit?

Helena Group is a non-profit foundation, and we don’t monetize anything about our networking group. We, I think, go very far out of our way to do this, because we want to create an environment that is as pure as possible, where our members have as few barriers to entry as possible. We charge no initiation fees, we charge no membership dues, and we only partner with outside organizations that directly work with Helena on its projects and ideas.

There is an important point to make here, however. The private sector, and increasingly the for-profit private sector, is demonstrating a powerful ability to create positive change in the world. Impact investing across financial disciplines, B-Corporations, and other for-profit vehicles have done good for the world, and we recognize their importance. However, Helena’s core engine, which is simply an intimate networking group of leaders, doesn’t need a huge amount of capital to operate.

How you deal with criticism that aims at you personally, saying you were too young to succeed with such an ambitious idea?

It’s not something I really care about. Plenty of people younger than I have done far more ambitious things – we’re lucky enough to have several of them in Helena.

Where do you want to develop Helena to? Who are your competitors and what would you in five years time call a success with this thriving endeavor of you and your team?

I think that’s a great question, and a hard one to answer. When we continue to build classes of 30 members over a long period of time, the group is going to scale to quite a large level. Preserving the group’s agility and culture over time is the first priority, because that is the engine that leads to the creation of ideas, and the implementation of our ideas into the world. We’ll be very focused on maintaining an environment where third parties collaborate with us, but do not unduly influence our decision-making.

The ability to in five years to ten years, develop a solution through Helena that a significant portion of our members naturally put their weight behind: is certainly a dream of ours. How that would occur, by definition, is not something we can predict. But it is certainly something to work towards.

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