2021 Top 25 Winners – Start-up changemakers

“Don’t worry about being successful but work towards being significant and the success will naturally follow.” – Oprah Winfrey

Youth startup changemakers are next as we continue to highlight the incredible stories and work of this year’s Top 25 Environmentalists Under 25. All four of these winners bring innovative ideas and creative passion to everything they do! From increasing the sustainability of the tennis industry to financial literacy, these 2021 Top 25’s build their community and their businesses with a sustainable future in mind. This year’s startup changemakers are: 

  • Marium Vahed, 22, Ontario
  • Blake Bunting, 22, Ontario
  • Cooper Waisberg, 19, Ontario
  • Keerat Dhami, 23, Ontario

Marium Vahed, 22

Location: Ontario

Traditional Territory: The Treaty Lands and Territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit

Marium Vahed would like to position the green movement to invite even greater collaboration across diverse communities and sectors to build a robust, equitable, and sustainable future. In 2019, Marium co-founded Green Ummah, a non-profit that raises awareness amongst Canadian Muslims of the Islamic environmental teachings and to empower them to become leaders in the green movement. As Chair, she led the non-profit to run the first ever Muslim-led conference on the environment in Canada, which engaged over 150+ experts, community members, and faith leaders in a passionate and instructive discourse about how Muslims could take on leadership roles in the environemntal  movement. 

Green Ummah emerged from a lively conversation over a dining room table between friends about how Marium and the group could use our experience and skills to bring forward action on the environment from Canadian Muslim communities. With over one million Muslims in Canada, she knew that there was power in faith-based organizing on an issue. Knowing that in Islam, there were many lessons about how to exist in a balanced and positive relationship with nature that were not widely known. Her team wanted to close that gap, between a skilled and passionate Muslim communities in Canada, and the vital need for the world to address the climate and biodiversity crises 

She is currently leading the effort to develop the Greening Our Communities Toolkit, which raises the capacity of the community by developing professional tools for secondary school teachers to engage Muslim youth to become environmental leaders. The stories that have emerged about students undertaking this curriculum have been so powerful. At its heart, this work is important to her because of its tangible impact on over a hundred students, who have found a passion for the environment. She firmly believes the lessons she taught will carry with them throughout their life, on their journey to becoming environmental change makers.

Marium is currently a candidate for a Master of Science in Digital Management at Ivey Business School and envisions bringing best practices of innovation and entrepreneurship to her community work to scale up the positive impact she wishes to have on the environment.

Her advice for future environmentalists is that, with the looming climate and biodiversity crisis, and interconnectedness of our world, it is vital for us to think about sustainability across diverse fields. “Whether you are interested in politics, journalism, energy, teaching, art, or whatever else, I encourage you to think about where sustainability intersects with your interests. You don’t have to have a single focus on sustainability and the climate movement to make an impact on building a more balanced, sustainable world!”

Blake Bunting, 22

Location: Ontario

Traditional Territory: Traditional territory of the Attawandaron, Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee, and Lunaapeewak

Blake Bunting has spent the past two years bridging his passion for climate action with his engineering and computer science background. This past year, Blake and his partners co-founded GoParity Canada. GoParity Canada is Canada’s impact investing platform, with a vision to provide access to alternative financing to companies with a positive effect on the people and the planet. Offering visible financial, social, and environmental returns, GoParity Canada seeks to support businesses in transition, sustainable energy, social economy, advance the green and blue economy, and accelerate the SDGs.

GoParity Canada’s founders include Elliot Warner, Emily Mercy, and Blake. They began scratching the surface of investing our money and the different options on the market for a young person. They wanted to understand the intimidating and complex world of investing and learn how the savings could be used for good. While being excited by terms like ESG and socially responsible investing, the excitement began to wear off with the realization that almost every option was misleading, had no clear impact measure or was entirely out of the price range with huge investment minimums. Not only are governments, big corporations, and high-net worth investors failing to set and meet climate targets, but there is no clear path for Canadians and others like us to invest in a sustainable future.

Blake and his team reached out to GoParity, the European sustainable finance platform, and started to turn GoParity Canada into a reality. The European founders believed in their mission and relationship stemmed from their mutual belief that change is possible in this space and has the potential to create a global impact. The partnership between GoParity and their Canadian team was instrumental in advancing their Canada platform. 

Throughout the initial start-up phase, Blake and his team knew it was essential to prioritize reducing barriers to investment so that young Canadians, and Canadians without access to investment education, had a place to learn about investing – specifically impact investing. GoParity ensures this by offering free educational content about the basics of investing, the connection between the energy transition and energy finance, and how each SDG can be supported by impact investing. Since traditional investment options, like banks, often use funds to support the fossil fuel industry, Blake is working to ensure all Canadians have the opportunity to invest in a sustainable future while seeing a return on their triple bottom line.

One of Blake’s most prominent assets as an environmental leader is that he is consistently curious. He is avidly interested and hungry to learn more about energy space and climate action. Blake is grateful to chat with anyone willing to share their perspective or expertise, and truly embodies what it means to be a supportive leader and community member. He has a sense of optimism and eagerness to learn from others that is contagious and inspires those around him.

Blake is currently participating in the Student Energy Leaders Fellowship, seeking out new learning opportunities and growing his community of young climate leaders. In January 2021, he was one of the How to Change the World Program winners. 

His advice for young environmentalists is to learn from and listen to everyone. With GoParity, his team is taking full advantage of listening to everyone we can to build our outlook. “Our founders have a rule; we each must reach out to two new people per week. They don’t have to be experts in finance, climate, or sustainable development but the continuous feedback and advice on GoParity allows us to refine our model and our goals more than we ever could internally.” 

Cooper Waisberg, 19

Location: Ontario

Traditional Territory: Traditional Territory of Wendake-Nionwentsïo Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation Ho-de-no-sau-nee-ga (Haudenosaunee) Anishinabewaki

Cooper is a second year university student who is passionate about volunteering, giving back to the community, playing sports such as tennis, and respecting the environment. As an avid tennis player, Cooper noticed how players open and discard a new can of balls each time they play and that perfectly good balls with a variety of other uses are discarded and end up in landfills taking hundreds of years to decompose. Therefore, his brother Ethan and him came up with the idea of Balls 4 Eyeballs to help solve the problem of discarded tennis balls and help fund eye research. Their passion for tennis and his brother Ethan’s passion for research, love of volunteering and giving back to the community, and their desire to help those suffering from vision loss, such as their grandmother were other important reasons why they found Balls 4 Eyeballs.

Balls 4 Eyeballs places collection bins at no charge in tennis clubs in Toronto and other cities in Ontario to collect used balls, which are then sold and the proceeds donated to Canadian eye charities. They are on a mission to help save the environment while funding eye research.

Last year, Cooper was recognized as one of the “Heroes of the Pandemic” by The National Post for his volunteer efforts with the blind. His organization has collected over 40,000 tennis balls to-date that would otherwise have ended up in landfill. Previously, in high school he started an eye glasses drive in my community where he collected hundreds of used prescription eyeglasses and donated them to a charity, Medical Ministry International, for use on their global eye health missions. He also volunteered with another eye charity that our organization supports, Orbis International, at their plane pull event for charity in Toronto. With his passion for advocating for the disabled, he has volunteered with and helped to run the social media for a blind advocacy organization, AEBC Toronto Chapter. He hopes to inspire other youth to be concerned about the environment and get involved with Balls 4 Eyeballs to make a meaningful impact to help fight climate change.

When asked for his advice for young environmentalists, he suggests finding something you love and think about how you could make it more ‘green’. Don’t be afraid to come up with unique ideas and to think outside of the box. Small ideas can add up to big change and make an impact. Have fun with it and get others involved. There are many opportunities in sports and other areas to lead by example for better sustainability. 

Keerat Dhami, 23

Location: Ontario

Traditional Territory: The Treaty Territory of the Mississauga’s of the Credit a First Nation

Keerat has half a decade of experience organizing communities comprising the Greater Toronto Area around climate action. Her community-centred organizing includes co-authoring a report outlining the Government of Canada’s obligations to protect Canadian children from future climate change impacts, partaking in the incorporation of Peel Region’s first climate council, and creating Our Climate Café, a (cyber) community of practice centring environmental conversations on ecological emotions and human experiences.

As the founder of Our Climate Café, she creates and promotes a safe and supportive cyberspace for communities to congregate and chat about climate change and its connection to the human experience and how to navigate the current climate crisis. She hosts community offerings where she facilitates conversations on ecological emotions, communal care, and collective dreaming. Her cafes, which started as a local community project, have made a global impact and have had participants from across the globe attend, including participants from the Middle East, India, Mexico, and Europe. 

Beyond creating Our Climate Cafe, Keerat is also heavily involved in the Community Climate Council. She is a driving force in ensuring the organization’s work remains community and justice-centred. Keerat has been with the Community Climate Council since the very beginning and has helped with the development of youth-led climate projects through her volunteerism as a project coordinator.

Keerat is also a recent graduate of the University of Toronto’s Geography and Planning Department, where she graduated with a degree in environmental geography and a double minor in human geography and diaspora and transnational studies. While working as the Future Ground Network’s Organizing 101 Training Coordinator, she designed and delivered the Organizing 101 Training that assisted community organizers in their community-led groups or actions at the local level. She also administered an anti-oppression framework to all program components, including cohort communication, materials preparation, webinar, and workshop performance.

Keerat is an absolutely incredible community organizer, activist, and local thought leader in ecological emotions and community care. Her work is profoundly impactful and influential, and the intersectional and trauma-informed approach she takes is genuinely the future of environmentalism that we need.

“It’s not about ideas. It’s about making ideas happen.” Don’t be afraid to take the first step to pursue your passion or dream business. Building a startup from scratch can be intimidating, but this journey of finding like-minded peers to collaborate on a sustainable and impactful goal will eventually lead you to success!

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