Lewis Rowe is a lot of things: an innovator, a designer, a strategist, a father. But above all, Lewis is a changemaker – in everything he does, he looks for opportunities to not only succeed in the present, but to lay the groundwork for a more sustainable future.
Lewis began his career by founding and running his own design studio in the UK, where he learned how to develop and launch new technology innovations for clients like Panasonic, Motorola, Pfizer, and Microsoft to market at scale. 10 years after he started the company from nothing, it was acquired and he moved his family to California to decide what his next adventure would be.
He tested a few different opportunities, mostly consulting with tech startups & investment funds in Silicon Valley. But he quickly realized that he wanted to contribute to something more meaningful than solely financial gain. Shortly thereafter, he was introduced to The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, which uses Nature’s design principles to develop new innovations for healthcare, energy, architecture, robotics, and a more sustainable world.
Seeing the potential to combine his entrepreneurship, design, science, and technology background for the greater good, he was invited to help design & commercialize the radical human Organs-on-Chips technology – a new living tech platform for understanding human biology, that is now being used accelerate the development of medicines for uncured diseases including Covid-19.
The technology was the first healthcare product to be awarded the prestigious Design of the Year by London’s Design Museum, was named as a top-10 emerging technology by the World Economic Forum, and was featured on the cover of National Geographic as ‘the Future of Medicine’.
Lewis worked his way up to the position of Chief Strategist for the spin-out startup from Harvard, and spent 5-years guiding the vision, operations, fundraising, product development, and organization’s growth. It was a grueling venture-capital funded startup environment, and he threw himself into the work – including the long hours and monthly travel between Los Angeles and Boston. It was on one of these cross-country flights back to Los Angeles, tired and worn out, that Lewis experienced a health scare that changed the trajectory of his life.
Lewis explained, “At the end of 2018, after flying back from a board meeting in Boston, I had a major blood clot form in my heart. I spent a while in the hospital, followed by many months of recovery to get myself healthy enough to be up and walking around again. My doctors attributed the blood clot to stress, and told me it was a one in a million chance that I was still alive. I cared about the work I was doing, and felt connected to the mission of accelerating new medicines for uncured diseases, but experiencing my own health issue as a result of my environment was a major wake-up call. I realized it was time to make a change both for myself and for my kids.”
Lewis knew he wanted something different, and something more meaningful – there’s nothing like a near-death experience to put things into perspective. He just wasn’t sure exactly what that was yet. He remembers that “My experience with the Harvard spin-out venture had whetted my appetite for purposeful work that leveraged tech for good, so I knew I wanted to further explore that but this time outside of the high-pressure venture-capital environment.”
Making the Most of a Career Gap Year
To give himself the time and space to think, Lewis decided to take a year off from work to explore his options – beginning 2020 with a fresh path. He shared, “I had two main areas that I wanted to explore during that time. The first was strategy & design thinking – I had always practiced these areas, but wanted to update my toolset with the latest frameworks. I was encouraged to apply to an Executive Education program living & collaborating on campus at Harvard Business School to study these areas in depth with great MBA professors and like-minded CEOs. The second was business as a force for good, and researching ways to explore that passion led me to connect with the MovingWorlds Institute.” Lewis was selected to participate in both programs right around the time that the pandemic hit, which led Lewis to double down on his commitment to evolve his career for greater social impact.
Reflecting on that time, Lewis shared, “The pandemic confirmed for me that there was no going back to ‘traditional’ business work – that is, working for a business focused solely on profits. I was all-in on making the transition to purpose-driven social impact work. That isn’t to say I didn’t have doubts – with two kids and a mortgage I certainly had a lot of fear – but I knew that if I fully committed myself to using this year to learn, reflect, and grow I would be able to come out the other side with a new professional home somewhere that fit with my desire for meaningful change.”
Taking a leap of faith, Lewis decided to participate in both programs, which he found to be “really complimentary of each other, touching on similar topics but with different applications.” The executive education course helped him add new skills to his repertoire, while the Global Fellowship helped him figure out where he wanted to apply those skills for maximum impact and personal fulfillment. Rather than being prescriptive, the Fellowship program gave Lewis the tools, resources, and connections he needed to make the most of his exploration year. He reflected, “I liked that the program did not force me down a particular path or way of thinking. I still couldn’t put my finger on exactly what I wanted to do next, but the program gave me the guidance to test multiple potential paths forward by taking what I’d learned about myself and the social impact space out of the classroom and into the real world.”
As part of the Global Fellowship program, every Fellow completes a social impact project that builds on their skills while challenging them to grow. With extra time to dedicate, Lewis took a hypothesis-driven design approach to validating his career assumptions by taking on multiple different projects. He shared, “I intentionally chose three totally different types of projects – each aligned to different United Nations SDGs – to see which type of social impact organization would be the best fit for me. That real-world element was crucial: I just got out there and started networking and working on projects – I am the type of person that learns by doing.” The three projects that Lewis worked on were:
- Serving as a strategic advisor to the team at the Seabin Project, an Australian social enterprise dedicated to cleaner oceans that has evolved from cleaning up plastic pollution into a global marine data, technology, and educational initiative driving behavioral & policy change.
- Serving as a strategic advisor to the team at Earth Heir, a Malaysian social enterprise creating sustainable livelihoods for refugees and traditional artisans by combining training, design, tools, manufacturing, and market access.
- Serving as a strategic advisor to the team at Lumkani, a South African social enterprise & humanitarian organization dedicated to improving community resilience, financial inclusion and disaster response for underserved people living in slums & informal settlements
These new experiences pushed Lewis well outside of his comfort zone, but as Lewis found that, “The Fellowship gave me the systems, tools, language and context to be able to confidently engage with the inspiring team members I met at Seabin Project, Earth Heir, and Lumaki. It gave me the opportunity to take a deep dive into truly understanding the social impact landscape and how these different types of organizations operate within it. The meaningful work being done by social enterprise and nonprofit environments were clearly the best fit for me moving forwards, giving me the direction I needed to take the next steps. What I also found is the people in this space are really great personalities and very genuine about achieving their mission for impact.”
The assessments, coaching, and group exercises that followed in the Fellowship program “allowed me to develop a really refined personal mission statement, set of values, and specific criteria for things I would (and wouldn’t) work on in future. I was able to narrow my focus down to the point where it hit home for me: fostering science and technology innovation for a sustainable & healthy world,” Lewis shared. He elaborated that, “What I realized is that before (working at the Harvard spin-out) I was helping to fix human health and disease that had potentially been caused by the environment we live in – new medicines are essential but they are only a patch, they do not fix the probable root cause of the disease. Human health is very much dependent on the health of our planet. So my career pivot would be a shift towards creating a more sustainable & healthy world in a new way.”
Launching a New Career at the Intersection of Technology and Social Good
Over the course of his projects, he developed meaningful relationships with all three teams, and with Seabin Project’s Founder and CEO Pete Ceglinski in particular. When his project concluded, Lewis shared that “I continued to work with them on a volunteer basis as part of their Advisory Board, just because I was so interested in the mission for cleaner oceans, and connected so much to the good people.” Before long, Pete offered Lewis a position with Seabin as their Global Chief Operating Officer. Reflecting on the experience as a whole, Lewis shared that “the combination of learning, networking, stretch experiences, and vulnerable introspection allowed me to come out of the Fellowship with both a new skill set and a new role.”
Learn more about the clean ocean technology being developed by the team at The Seabin Project in the video below, and check out their fundraising page to contribute directly!
Lewis’s new career is not only aligned with his personal mission of fostering new science and technology for a sustainable & healthy world, but it also is directly contributing to the development of the entire social impact ecosystem. Ultimately, Lewis shared that, “I found two roles, one with a social enterprise and one with a non-profit. I have a dual career now, and both roles are a direct result of the Fellowship program.”
His second role is with a well-established nonprofit based in Los Angeles called the Larta Institute – an accelerator for innovation & entrepreneurship, where he serves as the Entrepreneur-in-Residence. He explained, “Larta’s mission is to foster science & technology innovation for a sustainable planet – really aligned with my own values. Since 1993, they’ve helped over 6,000 startup founders translate their ideas into for-good ventures, raising over $5 billion in funds. They work with federal government agencies to support new ideas and have built a platform & ecosystem to translate ideas into sustainable enterprises aligned to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I’m getting to collaborate with progressive triple-bottom line ventures on everything from solutions for agriculture & food, cleatech & energy, to ocean & environment projects, to health & life sciences inventions.”
When Lewis met the Founder of Larta Institute back in October, Rohit Shukla – a well respected thought-leader on sustainable innovation, he remembered this “magic moment feeling” where the learnings from the Fellowship once again all clicked into place. He shared, “As with Pete, Rohit & I clicked almost immediately, and I was able to speak to the SDGs and nonprofit side of supporting entrepreneurs in a way that resonated. I had never had a first time professional conversation go so well – everything kind of gelled. I came into the Fellowship looking for a new professional home, and with Seabin and Larta, that’s exactly what I’ve found.”
Balancing two roles is a lot, to be sure, but Lewis has found them to “be both rewarding and complimentary. I split my time between social enterprise and nonprofit work, but both of them are focused on creating a more sustainable & healthy world, and allow me to channel my background in science and technology innovation into a positive impact for people and the planet.”
We’re grateful to Lewis for sharing his inspiring story with us, and are honored to be part of his social impact journey. Looking to develop your skills, confidence, and network to make your own for-purpose career transition? Apply to the MovingWorlds Institute!