Interview with Founder & CEO of Thirst Project: Seth Maxwell
Founder & CEO of Thirst Project
Interested in Acting, Seth moved from Indiana to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an actor. His direction eventually changed when he became inspired to start his own non-profit to end the global water crisis. He started gathering 7 of his closest college friends together, purchased over 1,000 water bottles, and went to the streets of Hollywood to spread awareness. Fast forward, not only was Seth featured on Forbes 30 Under 30, including other special achievements, Seth is just as normal as you and I, with a big heart that motivated him to take action.
R: You have accomplished so much through the Thirst Project, what prompted you to start the organization?
S: I was 19 when I first learned about the water crisis through a friend of mine who was a photo journalist. She was the first person to expose me to this issue and at that point, I never knew that people around the world didn't have access to safe water. Over 10 years ago 1.1 billion people didn't have access to clean water and today it's over 600,000,000 people, but learning about what that meant in a practical way and what impacted that was that in most cases in communities across the world, women and children would walk from their homes to wherever water was available: rivers, ponds, swamps, and as a result of drinking from these open unprotected sources, people would easily contract water born diseases. I just couldn't not do something about it. It just seemed so crazy that at that point basically 1-8 of us on the planet did not have safe water and it was something that was never talked about at school, home, or work, and I was so blown away that this issue had such sweeping impact on so many different parts of life and I had never really heard about it.
R: What is one of your favorite highlights or moments after seeing the result of a well being built?
S: It's hard to pick just one because we've done over 3,000 projects now. But for me I think individual stories stick out. So for example, about 2 years ago in November 2015, I was in Swaziland with some of my friends and we were documenting completed projects to report back to the donors that funded them. We were in one community in particular where we went walking with these two women who were showing us their old water source while walking this difficult path going down hill and one of the women was probably 5 years older than me and had a baby strapped to her back as she was doing this. We get to the water source (which by the way, the country was in the midst of a drought so this riverbed was basically a dried up riverbed) and we see there is literally two dead cows decomposing in this water. Then they get these buckets where they are digging for water in the sand as she shows us where they used to go. The craziest part is that she had this baby on her back who was now 6 months old, and she told us that when she was pregnant she went into labor while on her way to get water from this water source to get water. She said, "for me, we've never had clean water in our community before so to know that my daughter won't ever have to do this walk that I used to do is amazing."
There are so many stories where that's just one. It's knowing literally the generational impact and how water touches so many different parts of life whether its education, access to food security, agricultural development; water does change everything.
R: Did you have any doubts or fears when you started the Thirst Project and how did you overcome that fear?
S: Yeah, definitely. So many doubts, so many fears. It sounds cheesy but you often hear people say, "if your'e doing something within the boundaries of what you know you could do or accomplish, it's probably not going to be super meaningful." It's when you're doing something that you're like, "I don't know how we're going to make this happen, but I know we're supposed to do it." It's in those spaces where you get stretched and grow. It is well beyond the economic capacity of a bunch of college students and 20 something's to end the water crises in Swaziland but yet we're doing it. It's way beyond my own skill set; I have a degree in theater and on paper I really have no business running a charity, so for me there were so many things early on where I thought, "I shouldn't be doing this, someone else should be doing this", and yet it's in those spaces when you find other people who are gifted in things that you're not who come together and believe in the vision and give and sow and that's where you're like, "okay, this really isn't about me at all" and the things I think that we often feel are deficits are often times our greatest strengths. For us, we work with a lot of young people and they are really the ones who make most of the operations happen. We see so many times the fact that they are young is the reason that they are able to do what they do.
R: How important has it been for you to learn key leadership responsibilities and implement them into your organization?
S: Super critical. I have become something of like a leadership fanatic. I love learning about leadership and I'm a lifelong student of it. There's a leader that I love who often says, "Everybody wins when a leader gets better". It's the idea that we need to constantly be growing as people who have been entrusted with other people to steward and grow. So for me, we take our team at least once a year to a leadership development conference with everyone on our staff. We really go through books together and it's not something we do to make ourselves look good for HR but it's something that really changes the performance of the team and the experience for everyone involved so everyone wins. I can't say enough how important it is to continue to learn about this subject and grow.
R: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received on leading a successful organization?
S: For me, I have a few key mentors in my life but then I also have people who are mentors who don't realize they're my mentors, like Oprah doesn't really know she's my mentor. I was at a conference once listening to my favorite author & speaker, Patrick Lencioni, say "as long as you know the many, many, things that you are not good at and find people who are great at those things and convince them to come around the table, that will change everything." So what I know to be true is when you get the right people in the right place and at the right time, that's when success happens. So much of it is getting those people together who are DNA carriers of what it is you are trying to build and coming together to a place of where you agree you're going to be at together.
R: What is the best way for youth and young adults to get involved with the Thirst Project?
S: First or easiest thing to do is bring us to your school if we haven't already spoken at yours. Our school tour is free, the goal is of course to get students to fundraise but we have 4 teams of two speakers every semester that travel and do road trips across the country. So any given day we do no fewer than 4-10 schools a day across the country. Bring us to your school and get involved. Whatever you're good at that's what you should do. So if you love to dance, have a "dance for water", if you love basketball, have a basketball tournament for water, if you love walking, have a "walk for water". Whatever it is that you feel most strongly about, that's what you should use to help.
R: What advice can you give to a young adult wanting to start a non-profit?
S: One strong piece of advice is, "don't". Nancy Lublin, who was the CEO of Do Something, and is now the Founder of Crisis Text Line, once said to me and a group of people she was coaching, say, "If your organization or project isn't going to be one of these 5 things: the first, the only, better, faster, or cheaper, then why would you start something new? Align with someone whose already making an impact in the space that you want to make and amplify it." So for us when we started, there really wasn't anyone who was activating young people in the global water crises in the way that we do. There's a lot of great organizations, but no one who exclusively focuses on activating and educating young people around this issue. For us, that was our thing and that's where we knew we would fit in this space where we would be building a socially conscious and active generation of young people who are working to end the global water crisis.
R: It has been over a decade since you started the Thirst Project when you were just 19 years old. What is your biggest goal for the next 10 years?
S: We want to see every single person in the country of Swaziland have safe water. Ideally not in the next decade, but in the next 5-6 years. It's aggressive, its ambitious, but we're running towards that really hard. However, not just Swaziland for the sake of Swaziland, but the idea that it is a case study that we can use to replicate anywhere.
R: What do you hope people take away from hearing about the Thirst Project and the global water crisis?
S: Two things: the first being that I believe that the water crisis in particular is the single most pressing and important issue that we can address as a global community because if you care about education, you care about water. You can't educate a community if all your kids are out walking for 6-8 hours a day just to get water or they get sick with water born diseases. If you hear about food security to combat hunger, you care about water, because you can't develop an agricultural initiative without water, so water really does impact any single major humanitarian or development issue that you care about. I hope that people see that just like me who didn't realize this was an issue, will want to do something and recognize that it's so solvable, just $25 gives one person clean water for life. I really hope people step into that space.
Young people are the most powerful agents for social change in our world. Not just because it sounds good, but really we believe it and we see it. I hope that people see the work that we're doing and not think that I'm the Thirst Project, but that the Thirst Project is 300,060 teenagers every year who make our work possible. It is an army of people giving up their Birthday's and doing marathons; those people are the Thirst Project and I hope that when others see it they see those people's stories and get inspired.
R: Other than changing the world, what are some of your favorite hobbies?
S: I love scuba diving and I love sharks so I try to go diving with sharks once or twice a year. I love traveling and I also love to just hang out at home with friends, have dinners and play the piano.