Hult Alumni Magazine 2020: Jacob Cherian
Jacob features in (and is a cover star) of Hult Alumni Magazine 2020: read the full publication online now.
A Life Less Linear
Jacob Cherian didn’t expect to find his calling in a forest. Having started a business in social media, managing creative campaigns with a charitable edge, his work revolved around tweets, reach, and hashtags. A move to the remote wilderness of Kodaikanal, in the south of India, unexpectedly opened his eyes to the war against plastic, kickstarting a new career combining smart product development and environmental activism.
“This story started up on the mountain,” says Jacob, who still resides in Kodaikanal, a 90-minute trek from the nearest road. “It’s pretty wild, but we have internet and electricity, so I’d been working up there. One day I found a pile of trash in the forest. I started cleaning it up, continued to clean it up. Last March, as a joke, I threw a party around picking up the trash. 35 people joined on day one, and it’s been 4000+ since.”
What Jacob’s actions had unknowingly tapped into was the concept of “plogging”, a term conceived in Sweden for communities coming together to tackle the planet’s ongoing waste problem. He has gone on to mobilize over 40 cleanup parties across ten cities in the last year, building a template that engages local business sponsors and volunteers alike.
“It’s always transparent, inclusive, accountable, and quantifiable,” says Jacob. “Our business sponsors are typically aspirant environmentalists—take restaurants, for example. They can’t be puritans, working at zero waste just yet, because the ecosystem doesn’t allow it. But we can give them fun, simple ways to participate so that they become active businesses. We can offer trade-offs to offset the damage they are doing. Just understanding the damage is important. I believe our sponsors are coming to terms with their trade-off by sponsoring these events.”
Amplifying the message to both businesses and volunteers has put Jacob’s previous experience in social media marketing to task, too. “Plogging was very trendy, we hijacked that as a marketing idea—hijack is a cruel word, but when you look at people’s free time then really weekends are all they have, and that’s where we need them. Now that it [sustainability] has become social, the sense of community is the driver. The #trashtag challenge has been great, as has plogging, and before-and-after formats. We’ll continue to make use of fads, ride the trends so we stay relevant, so that people always have something new and bitesize to tell each other.”
Employing the root cause analysis taught as part of his business degree, Jacob has translated the data gathered from cleanups to inform his next venture, TerreGeneration. The company is currently developing reusable products to replace the most used plastics across 12 “buckets” of life: from bathroom to kitchen, commute to office, laddering up to large-scale industrial change. “When you look at plastic as a whole, it’s a big intimidating problem,” says Jacob. “But it’s really not, when you break it down into little problems.” His first product, MyDr0p (seen in development in the image below) combines water bottle, coffee mug, cutlery, straw, and tote in one neat, 400g package. Combining expert knowledge from the worlds of science and design, it aims to eliminate what Jacob calls the “big five” plastics of the daily commute.
The goal? More products, to fulfill each of the “buckets”, and ever greater amplification. Jacob’s social media savvy has been key in turning out tactical campaigns at a time of increased activism—both armchair and traditional. He has also been buoyed by the passion and intent of Generation Z. “Every generation has its responsibilities, and ours is to regenerate our planet. It’s too late just to be sustainable. We can do this through business, through activism, with product, but it all needs to work together. Through activities like plogging we can distribute the load, act with empathy, and spread the word.”
Read more from Jacob and the alumni community in Hult Alumni Magazine 2020.