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China’s Changemakers: Antarctic Explorer Songqiao Yao

Meet the female explorer and educator teaching Unilever and others a thing or two about sustainability and fighting to inspire China's youth one child at a time

by Sarah Keenlyside
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Songqiao Yao Chinese Antarctic Explorer

When we catch up with Songqiao Yao she is in Cambridge, fresh from the Skoll World Forum in Oxford and heading to London for yet more meetings and to see more friends. The truth is, even the most intrepid Chinese entrepreneurs have been grounded for the last three years – victims of China’s extremely strict zero Covid policy – and now, finally, things can get moving.

And it’s no exaggeration to say that, in the case of Yao being allowed to travel, the world will quite literally be better off.

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“Coming back this time is quite nostalgic for me” she says when asked whether she has a long history with the UK. From the moment she was handed an Oxford English textbook as a schoolchild, to studying geography at Cambridge “because it has a long tradition”, to finding inspiration in its Scott Polar Research Institute, the country should be flattered that it’s one of the first places Yao is visiting now she has the chance.

Yao is a pioneer in every sense of the word. Not only did she join 76 scientists on the largest ever all-female expedition to Antarctica in 2016, but the trip was so impactful that she wanted others to share her experience.

“I was the only Chinese in the first cohort and for the second cohort I helped fundraise so that more Chinese could go. Now we have around 20 women who have been on this journey,” she explains.

The trip was, unsurprisingly, life changing for Yao. She stayed on afterwards, acting as an expedition guide on cruise ships going to Antarctica and said she noticed that people were “completely transformed” when they made the journey, but that they were mostly older: “They would want to do something for the environment after their experience but usually they were quite late in their careers. I felt there weren’t enough young people appreciating and learning about these things, so I saw a huge need for that, especially in China.”

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And this is where Yao differs from many of her contemporaries when it comes to taking action on the environment. Rather than allowing it to be an abstraction in most people’s lives, she knows that the key to real, lasting change is to get people to form a deep respect for nature from a young age, and for them to be keenly aware of their ability to make a difference.

So she founded WildBound, a company that initially set about creating learning journeys for school kids to Antarctica, Greenland, the Himalayas, Nepal, Qinghai and Bhutan, creating curriculums for them before they left and giving them projects to do in their communities when they returned. Paid for by a combination of parents’ money and scholarships, such trips weren’t cheap, with the Antarctica journey in particular costing north of $15,000 per child. And then came the pandemic. Like many businesses forced to pivot and refine their business models at the time, the changes for WildBound have also been long lasting.

“We sent lots of kids on these journeys but the feedback we would get was that once they were back in their classroom, back in their homes, everything was the same. They have these amazing life-changing experiences but they didn’t know what to do in their own communities or how to get people to share the passion they have, so now we work more on a systemic level.”

The goal was not necessarily to send more and more people to Antarctica, says Yao, but to inspire the next generation to care and take action for nature. The main pandemic switch her team made? Working directly with schools in a more holistic way to transform curriculums and engage in teacher and parents training.

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“We help Chinese schools think about climate issues from many different perspectives – from campus operations to culture, the community that they’re engaged with, the messaging they give kids, teacher training programmes and information on energy use and school gardens, that kind of thing. Because we want to change the environments that young people are in. They need to be able to create change in their own environments.”

What’s impressive is that WildBound’s efforts are getting real world results. Older alumni have gone on to do environmental studies, climate change research projects and make documentaries on the subject, while the younger children do things like starting Meatless Mondays, or hold local supermarkets to account for poor environmental practices.

And if you think we’ll be waiting a while to see the results of this drive toward action that benefits the environment, you’d be wrong. The beauty of WildBound’s work is that it can touch people in unexpected ways.

“We actually helped a Chinese company in the luggage and bags business,” says Yao. “We helped them completely change their strategy. They closed hundreds of shops after the pandemic and the group instead adopted a sustainability strategy, launching new products made of recycled materials and totally overhauling their operations.”

The founder of the bag business? A parent who went on two of WildBound’s trips to Greenland and Antarctica with her son. “She already knew about sustainability before she left, but these trips were so meaningful for her that after the pandemic and through further collaboration with us, her and the whole team shifted towards a sustainable strategy.”

Songqiao Yao Chinese Antarctic Explorer

Multinationals including Unilever have also worked with WildBound to educate its staff, and Yao says it’s important that businesses aren’t engaging in greenwashing, which is all too easy to do. “I honestly think a lot of businesses have to change in a very fundamental way and we also probably will need new businesses to emerge or new ways of working [to really see a difference],” she reflects.

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“We think education is the missing piece in all these solutions, because nowadays everyone just wants an electric car or some other rapid way to reduce emissions. And of course those are all very important, but you need to change people’s mindsets. Education is a long term and very powerful tool that often gets neglected in a lot of the policy conversations…”

And what of collaboration with the West on these issues going forward? Does Yao think China can rebuild such relationships post pandemic, or is all the mudslinging from both sides getting in the way of progress?

“It’s making it harder because of the noise it creates. When we’re facing these global challenges we really need collaboration and we don’t just need one player to solve all the problems.”

This reminds me of something she brings up earlier in our conversation – a book she gathered stories for in 2021. Although the book (in Chinese and titled The Self We Choose) was about leadership, it featured the voices of all 20 of the women who had made the journey to Antarctica, all of whom are now in climate or nature-related jobs.

“That’s very rare in leadership books. Usually they’re about one story or one person’s success, and how they’ve monetised that. You know, like Bill Gates or Ray Dalio – it’s never about a collective.

“I think it’s quite special to think about the power of community, and to know that we don’t need to create the same kind of lone heroes that the male dominated model argues for. The individual explorer; the one superhero who’s gonna save everything…it takes a lot more. It takes community, soft skills, communication, emotional intelligence…”

It seems both businesses and governments have something to learn from Songqiao Yao. Now she’s able to meet with their stakeholders face to face, let’s just hope they’re listening.

Call +44 (0)20 7802 2000 or email enquiries@cbbc.org now to find out how CBBC’s Launchpad service gets your company boots on the ground in China quickly and cost effectively.

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