Rocking the Boat in the Bronx with Forbes!

A great article by Bill Springer on Forbes.

Wendy Schmidt’s 11th Hour Racing Is “Racing” to Save The Planet (And A Few Other Things)

As a life-long sailor and long time yachting journalist, who’s just barely old enough to remember the longest winning streak in sports being broken when the New York Yacht Club’s 132-year strangle hold on the America’s Cup was lost in 1983, I came to New York earlier this month to witness America’s Cup history.

I came to see the Cup—the actual silver trophy that billionaires, tycoons, and even a few loud-mouth playboys have fought for since 1851. And I came to see America’s Cup racing—on some of the fastest and most technologically advanced racing yachts in the world—off lower Manhattan for the first time since 1920.

And while I’ll be the first to admit that the spectacle of seeing over 100,000 people line the Brookfield Place waterfront to watch the races, and seeing a long list of A-list celebrity crew members from Mark Ruffalo and Sir Richard Branson (both huge advocates of sustainability and innovative solutions to complex problems) to Stephen Colbert and Lindsey Vonn put sailing on the front pages of the mainstream media (and yes, the celebrity pages too), was exciting, the racing itself (due to tough weather conditions, a dubious race course, and a constricting TV schedule) was a bit…funky.

But, as I was motoring up the East River with businesswoman and philanthropist Wendy Schmidt (the co-founder of The Schmidt Family Foundation and 11th Hour Racing, seperate foundations that are committed to sponsoring and promoting organizations that are applying new knowledge and innovation and advancing original research in science, energy and the sustainability of the world’s biosphere), and Sir Ben Ainslie (the founder and skipper of Team Land Rover BAR that’s dedicated to winning the America’s Cup for Britain, and also sponsored by Schmidt’s 11th Hour Racing) the day after the event, I quickly realized that the well-hyped return of America’s Cup racing to NYC may have been cool, but helping underserved kids in the Bronx overcome poverty, violence, and educational challenges, and saving the planet from our own, dangerously outdated thinking is…critical.

As I learned, Wendy Schmidt is a businesswoman, sailor, and philanthropist who not only cares about the serious problems facing our planet. She’s also very smart, very connected, and with her husband, Eric Schmidt, the long serving CEO of Google who is now the Chairman of Alphabet Inc, she is committed to bringing significant resources to foster innovative ideas and advance sustainability efforts all over the world.

But saving the environment wasn’t the specific reason we were headed up the East River the day after the America’s Cup came to New York. In fact, Schmidt and Ainslie were headed to the South Bronx to visit Rocking The Boat, an organization that’s dedicated to saving kids in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx by teaching them how to build wooden boats and get out on the water the water in spite of living in the poorest Congressional District in the nation.

Program Executive Director Adam Green explained how Rocking The Boat helps kids overcome the realities of domestic and street violence, under-resourced schools and inadequate family support by teaching them traditional wooden boat building, sailing, and environmental science in a warm, welcoming, respectful, and safe place. And he also spoke about helping young people set and achieve goals and providing them with the tools, resources, and guidance they need to reach their goals.

Wendy and Ben went for a row in boats the kids built and saw in their eyes how their unique experience at Rocking the Boat could have a positive impact on the rest of their lives. The kids were in awe of Ben and I even saw how the theme of the Op Ed piece he published the next day about the difficult racing conditions was sparked when the kids asked “So, how was racing in NYC?”

And while there may not seem to be any similarities between inner city kids sailing and rowing homemade boats in the South Bronx, and the best sailors in the world racing the most technologically advanced boats in the world, Schmidt’s 11th Hour Racing supports Rock the Boat for the same reason it supports Team Land Rover BAR—both teams are working to make a significant impact on some of the world’s toughest challenges.

“The 11th Hour Project was started when we founded the foundation back in 2006,” Wendy tells me as we speed back down the East River after the Rock The Boat event. “It was dedicated originally to funding people working on climate and clean energy.

“But here we were in Silicon Valley thinking we’re all about solutions. So we were working on the environment and clean energy when we realized that you weren’t going to be able to solve the climate problem if you didn’t address agriculture.

“We are systems-thinkers,” she adds with a spark in her eye. “And that’s what we apply to everything we do. Within a few years of working in the agricultural space we realized human rights must be addressed here. There are people not being paid for the work they’re doing. There are people whose health is not being considered at all. There are a human rights at stake here.

“Within a couple of years the people I was spending my time with were fascinated by the systems idea and had a project and suggested that we create a branch of the whole business that was focused on the sailing community and maritime industries—some of the most natural advocates for the health of the oceans there is.

“That’s how it all (11th Hour Racing) got started. It began with sponsoring small teams. We provide grants that go out to different groups like Rocking the Boat and many others. We look at groups like this as very strategic players in reaching new audiences and spreading a new way of thinking.”

“And is ‘reaching new audiences and spreading a new way of thinking’ why you’re sponsoring Land Rover BAR?” I ask over the roar of the wind as we speed back down the river.

Bringing sustainability to sailing at this scale will cost more upfront in some respects and that’s where our sponsorship of Land Rover BAR comes in. They are not only trying to “raise awareness” but they are actually engaging the entire Land Rover BAR team [sailors, designers, industrial engineers etc.] so the team can be competitive AND reduce its carbon footprint. Schmidt also believes that corporations in many sectors will soon follow her lead in making sustainability a core element in their sports sponsorship programs.

“All the sailors we work with at 11th Hour Racing are incredibly enthusiastic about this,” she says. “I ended up supporting Ben Ainslie because I met him after the last America’s Cup. I was on the organizing committee in San Francisco and we ran the greenest event that the public had ever had in San Francisco. He told me what he wanted to do a sustainability based racing team. And could I come on as a sponsor?”

“And you knew he wasn’t sort of giving you a line?” I said. “You knew he meant it?”

“He’s the real thing,” Schmidt says with a sincere smile.

And so is she.

When he’s not sailing or pushing a baby stroller all over New England, Bill Springer covers superyachts, offshore adventure, luxury travel, and technology. Follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

This story appeared on: Forbes, May 18, 2016 .

Photos © Cory Silken.