When I tell people that I grew up under high voltage power lines in Australia, they usually shake their heads and tell me that it explains a lot! But as a child I was grateful for those cables above my head. They made it possible for us to have a big piece of land to grow things, and to play games on.
Despite the big open space, I was never a sporty kid. I couldn’t figure out how to make my body do what I wanted it to, and I quickly withdrew to the things I knew – intellectual pursuits like schoolwork. I dreaded the selection of sports teams because for sure I would be one of the last to be picked.
"I became adept at avoiding sport."
As I got older, I also got smarter. I figured out ways to avoid sport. Miraculously, music rehearsals were scheduled at the same time as my sports classes, and doctors' appointments always coincided with my school P.E. At the same time, I had started to figure out my future. I was set on becoming a doctor and going to Africa to spend time looking after sick children. For me at that stage in my life, it was all mapped out and I knew with certainty that that’s what I was going to do. So, I put my heart and soul into my study.
When I got my final year results, however, my world fell down around me. I'd missed the grade to study medicine. I couldn’t believe it. Instead I accepted a place to study Science at Monash University (whose campus is built on old disused farmland outside Melbourne) and adapted quickly to undergraduate life. I threw myself into my work, and into participating in University activities. I'd gone from the school-kid with plaits to starting to take leadership roles in activities, clubs and the student union (where I would later become president).
"The doctors told me I would never be able to run again."
In the middle of this, I had another setback: an accident that would change the course of the rest of my life. Pushed into a swimming pool in a prank gone wrong, I hurt my back so badly that doctors told me I'd never be able to run again. Given my lifelong antipathy towards sport, I could have shrugged my shoulders and used this diagnosis as my excuse to sit on the sofa and eat pizza! Instead, I decided to make this an opportunity – one that would allow me to redefine my own limits.
So I started swimming. On Day One, my lungs burned and two laps of the pool felt like crossing an ocean. But swimming led to biking, and eventually to running as I pushed to prove to myself that I could defy my odds. At the same time, my career began to move forward. I finished university and accepted a position as a lawyer at a Melbourne firm. I kept swimming, biking and running in my spare time, but in daylight hours I began work on privatisations and infrastructure investment.
"I fell into climate change by accident."
I fell into the world of climate change by accident. A project opportunity arose when I was working at the Sydney Futures Exchange. Nobody else wanted to take it, and as the newest member of the team, it fell into my lap. I embraced the challenge to learn about the subject, and managed to become known as an expert. OK, so this was mainly because it was so early that nobody else was working on it!
I took an opportunity at the World Bank and moved to Washington DC. From there, I moved to London, and then to Beijing where together with Tim Clissold (the investor and author who was to become one of my closest friends) I co-founded Peony Capital, an investment company focused on developing climate-friendly projects.
From my work at Peony, I got the chance to be nominated to join the World Economic Forum's community of Young Global Leaders (YGLs). This introduced me to a group of incredible young achievers committed to changing the world. It was through this community that I was introduced to the problem of 'invisible water' - the shocking amount of water needed to make everyday items like clothing and food - and its link to a global water crisis unfolding across the world.
My life changed at that moment. I would go on to make it my life's work to help solve the water crisis.
There’s really nothing like being surrounded by a phenomenal group of people who believe they can achieve anything, so thank you to the YGL movement for inspiring me to think big!
"Thirst recently celebrated it’s 500,000th graduate from its education programs."
I launched the non-profit Thirst in March 2012. What started as a crazy idea sketched on a whiteboard became a movement that would stretch across China. We have reached hundreds of thousands of kids, parents, teachers and government officials.
When I realised that I needed to do more, I took on a challenge issued by me to the YGL community to create a stunt that would capture the world’s media attention and help to spread the message. My ultra-running campaign for water was born.
In March 2016 I finished running 40 marathons across seven deserts on seven continents in seven weeks. It was a world first. I was honoured and amazed to be named on Fortune's list of the 50 greatest leaders in the world. It was a strange feeling to see my name alongside the Pope, Angela Merkel and Jeff Bezos, but there I was at no 45! In April 2017 I completed my second 40-marathon challenge, this time in just 40 days. I'm now preparing for the challenge of my life - watch this space...
When I was little, growing up on that big block of land, digging holes for trees and running under sprinklers, I never would have imagined I would be living in Asia, supporting an incredible non-profit, and working to bring inspirational stories from the front lines of the water crisis to people around the world. I now believe that every single one of us can make a difference.