By Rena Kawasaki, Winner of the 2022 International Children’s Peace Prize 

Growing up with news of corruption cases and the declining state of our climate and society as the backdrop, mistrust of the older generations and leadership was ingrained in my viewpoint of society. But my perspective started to change in 2020, when I was presented with a unique opportunity.

I was encouraged to apply for the position of Chief Future Officer at Euglena, a Japanese biotech startup focused on environmental challenges. This paid executive position, the first of its kind, was only open to someone under the age of 18 and had been created and filled for the first time just a year earlier. The idea of the position was to integrate the opinions of youth into the business, through proposing and implementing policies that would help the company do better in its mission to prioritize sustainability.

At first, I was skeptical about applying. As a then 15-year-old environmental activist, leading the national chapter of the NPO Earth Guardians, who had researched and created a video essay attacking corporate greenwashing, I didn’t want to find myself the face of a tokenistic “youth washing” exercise. The role just seemed too good to be true.

So, I put this fear at the core of my application, making clear that if I did get the job, I would challenge traditional power structures and call attention to any gray areas in the company’s policies or behavior.

I found myself impressed when, rather than skirting my questions, Euglena’s two top executives, Mitsuru Izumo and Akihiko Nagata, provided in-depth answers and made it clear that this was exactly what they were hoping for when they created the position. The company’s first Chief Future Officer had called on the firm to stop using plastic in 100 percent of its products and packaging — and they had done so, despite the significant cost. They promised the company was ready to take significant financial risks to deliver improvements, especially in the areas of diversity and sustainability. I was convinced.

To ensure the position had real influence, the Chief Future Officer was an official member of the company board, with direct access to the CEO. It helped that the other members of the company board were relatively young and open-minded, especially by Japanese standards. The role included leading the firm’s Future Summit, a group of other under-18-year-old hires. We had the right to ask for immediate meetings with anyone, as well as access to any company documents. All this was supported by a team of senior staff who advised me. Such a flexible, open structure was very different from the typical Japanese corporate culture and unusual even for a dynamic, young company like Euglena.

After over a year of researching and proposing, the company responded by launching a series of initiatives under the banner of “Well-Being Innovation.” These included something we called the “Parents Policy.” In this program each new recruit got assigned two older colleagues who serve as mentors during their first few months. The mentors help them take specific requests to the right person in the corporate hierarchy and help them feel generally more at-home. Over a year after its implementation, the program has made it much easier for young recruits to express their ideas and concerns.

But my Future Summit colleagues and I did more than change internal policies. As the result of an idea contest we launched, the company changed its articles of incorporation to include a commitment to pursue the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. In addition, we persuaded Euglena to partner with a local ramen chain to set up a shop in Tokyo to showcase microorganisms that the company makes as nutritious food supplements and to sell Fair Trade drinks. We also hired employees from minority communities in Japan and proposed policies to help make the company a safe and healthy working environment for them.

By the time my term as Chief Future Officer ended in June 2021, these initiatives had helped reshape the corporate culture at Euglena, making it significantly less top-down. 

Today’s youth typically want to work in environments where innovation is constant, where ideas flow from bottom to top instead of just from top to bottom.

By making that more of a reality, we increased the trust younger employees had in the fast-growing company, which now employs around 1,000 people.

While we have had many requests from other companies for us to run workshops on how to drive sustainable innovation by listening to youth voices, so far none of these companies have opted to appoint their own Chief Future Officer or do what it takes to institutionalize the changes we made. I don’t claim Euglena is perfect, but I am confident that it got one thing absolutely right: Top management was willing to be open about the company’s issues and challenges. Too often corporations are unwilling to be vulnerable about their flaws and struggles and encourage young people to genuinely share what they think. This ongoing failure represents a big missed opportunity, not just for Japan, but for the world.

My work as Chief Future Officer also prompted the city government of Tokyo to get in touch. It too wanted to tap into the voices of young people who mistrust the political system even more than they do the corporate world. The average age of Japanese politicians is one of the highest in the world, so it’s no wonder that my peers in Gen Z feel ignored and irrelevant.

My team and I proposed to the head of the Government of Tokyo that they should not just focus on older youth, such as college students, but also seek out the voices of even younger generations, such as Generation Alpha (those born in 2010 or after). Together, we came up with ways to make government seem less intimidating through crowdsourcing techniques that used gamification to surface policy choices. The government embraced these quickly, to my amazement, and used some of the ideas generated by young people in the design of a new development in the Tokyo Bay Area. Later, working with the government of the city of Niihama, we implemented a crowdsourcing approach built on a QR code to help citizens propose ideas for city policy more easily. This QR code system helped shape large-scale policy changes such as a new environmental policy for the city.

Local governments are especially well-placed to foster trust through engagement because of their proximity to the community, especially its younger members. The key is to ensure that when they do engage, young people have positive experiences -- especially opportunities to challenge the status quo and not find themselves dismissed or brushed off.

My positive experiences with both governments and the company have certainly increased my own trust in the possibility of effective intergenerational cooperation. Previously, I never thought anyone older would want to listen to a 15-year-old ranting about sustainability, but when adults whom I respected took my criticisms and ideas seriously, I was motivated to build more and deeper connections and work with other institutions to find solutions.

In 2022, I was honored for this work by being awarded the International Children’s Peace Prize, following in the footsteps of previous winners including Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg. Although I greatly admire both of them, my approach is different from theirs. I am focused on building cooperation between youth and government to bridge the trust gap by fostering genuine engagement between generations.

There are real differences between Gen Z and those who have preceded us. If we can work together effectively and give older and younger generations a positive experience engaging with each other, then distrust can be replaced by trust.



Fighting Climate Change

Marina Grossi, President, Brazilian Business Council for Sustainable Development