Best Friends, Business Partners Tackle Climate Crisis
By August 14, 2023 0 1165•
Georgetown natives Katherine Ilkhani and Sophia Kianni are both 21 years old. Their peers are busy figuring themselves out, navigating early adulthood. Ilkhani and Kianni, however, are quite accomplished beyond their years.
The two first crossed paths in high school. Although they attended different schools, the pair ultimately connected through Sophia’s sister. “Our friendship blossomed, and during our late-night conversations and gossiping sessions, we found ourselves reminiscing about our individual experiences in Iran,” Ilkhani said. Both Ilkhani and Kianni are Iranian American.
Kianni had what Ilkhani called “a profound impact” on her when she shared her lifelong dream of creating a non-profit organization focusing on climate change education. “Her passion for this cause stemmed from an eye-opening experience she had during a visit to Iran in middle school,” Ilkhani said. “As she described her vision, I couldn’t help but share my more recent experiences and stories about climate change and pollution from my own time in Iran.”
The girls’ discussions soon became heartfelt exchanges where the two described the challenges they faced due to severe pollution. Environmental conditions in Iran made it difficult for many to breathe and often hampered their daily activities. “These conversations were my way of encouraging her to pursue her dream, knowing that together, we could make a difference in combating climate change and raising awareness about its impact on the world,” Ilkhani added.
During the pandemic, while Ilkhani and Kianni were both attending college virtually from their homes, one of their favorite shared activities was taking midnight walks together in Georgetown.
Fast forward three years. The duo are now business partners and still remain best friends. Kianni has since fulfilled her dream, founding Climate Cardinals, the largest youth-led climate non-profit in the world.
Ilkhani serves as deputy executive director of the organization. Over the last few years, the organization has grown to 100 college-aged directors and 10,000 volunteers in over 70 countries. In 2022, Climate Cardinals partnered with Google to pilot their new AI/ML tools to automate their translations. With their help, 1,500,000-plus words of resources were translated into over 100 languages for partners including the Yale Center for Climate Communications and United Nations Development Programme.
At just 18 years-old, Kianni was invited by the head of the United Nations, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, to represent the United States as the youngest member of the inaugural UN Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change.
“Accepting the opportunity has allowed me to have a voice in co-developing concrete policy solutions at the highest level possible within the UN,” Kianni said. “Over the two-and-a-half years in this role, I had the opportunity to attend meetings with senior UN officers and country ambassadors to drive global climate ambition and action.”
Ilkhani’s role in Climate Cardinals as deputy executive director is to work in program development, working closely with Kianni to ensure their initiatives align with their objectives, while creating measurable impact.
“Working with Sophia has been an extraordinary experience, one that I am immensely grateful for, especially because she is not just a colleague but also my best friend and a fellow Georgetown native,” Ilkhani said. “What makes our collaboration truly special is the way our contrasting qualities harmonize seamlessly — our differences act as catalysts for learning and personal growth, while our shared attributes forge a deep connection and cherished friendship.”
When it comes to climate change, Gen Z is best poised to use their strengths as digital natives to build social movements in business at the intersection of technology and social impact. Ilkhani and Kianni said the simplest thing anyone can do when it comes to climate change is talk about it, especially given that just a few years ago, 40 percent of adults in the world had never heard of climate change.
“We must rally the public — particularly young people — to vote for politicians who believe in climate change and are committed to passing progressive climate legislation aligned with scientists’ recommendations of ending all new fossil fuel development,” Ilkhani said. She is encouraging open discussions about climate change and calls herself “dedicated to inspiring her generation to take meaningful actions toward a more sustainable future for our planet.”
Kianni is hoping that she too can inspire others through Climate Cardinals, and her viral TED Talk — currently at 2.4 million views and counting — to believe they are capable of sparking a movement or starting an initiative.
As citizens and residents in the heart of the nation’s capital, Georgetowners possess a powerful voice for advocating for crucial climate policies. Ilkhani recommends engaging with local and state representatives to champion strong climate policies and endorsing measures targeting pollution (like emission regulations and efficient waste management practices).
“By staying well-informed about climate issues and disseminating this knowledge among friends, family, and community, Georgetowners can foster a ripple effect of awareness that fuels collective action toward a greener, cleaner future,” Ilkhani said.