The founder and CEO of Thirst, Mina Guli is a global leader, entrepreneur and adventurer, passionate and committed to making a difference in the world. Following a 15-year career as a world leader in climate change that started with law, but progressed quickly to the World Bank and to co-founding boutique investment firm Peony Capital, Mina established Thirst – a non-profit that is solving the water crisis by changing the way we think about water.
To highlight the global water crisis, in 2016 Mina completed the 7 Deserts Run — running the equivalent of 40 marathons across 7 deserts on 7 continents in 7 weeks. A self-confessed “non-runner”, Mina told the stories of some of those affected by the crisis during the run. The success of the expedition encouraged Mina to undertake the 6 River Run in support of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6. She ran 40 marathons in 40 days down 6 of the world’s great rivers on 6 continents. With media coverage around the world, including on CNN, BBC, ITV, ABC and CCTV, Mina’s messages about water have reached more than 4 billion people, inspiring a generation of water heroes.
Mina has been recognised for her leadership: she has been named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, one of Australia’s most influential women, and by Fortune Magazine in 2016 alongside Angela Merkel, Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook and the Pope as one of the 50 greatest leaders in the world.
How did the Run Blue campaign come into existence – and how has it impacted your life?
The Run Blue Campaign came about because I wanted to raise awareness for the global water crisis, I wanted to show the urgency of the problem we are facing and I wanted to drive action to solve it. Action from governments who have the capacity to set the agenda. Action from companies who represent almost 90% of global fresh water use either directly or indirectly. And ultimately action from all of us as individuals; we have the capacity to drive and deliver change either as voters, as shareholders, as consumers or just as ordinary everyday citizens in the way that we use and consume water every single day.
Why did I want to go to the frontlines of the water crisis? Because I have seen the challenge we are facing and I wanted others to have an opportunity to see it too. I wanted to go to the frontlines to lift up the voices of the people who are there, either suffering from the consequences of this water catastrophe or helping to solve it. I think it’s really important that we take those voices from the frontlines into the boardrooms and into the places where people are actually making decisions. For example, in the corridors of power politically.
So that’s why I created and built and did this Run Blue Campaign.
It has impacted my life by making me even more convinced that we have a major water catastrophe. When I set out, I thought that we had a problem, but nothing prepared me for the nature, scale and enormity of this crisis we are facing. So it has both cemented in me the need for us to act as well as my determination to ensure that we solve this crisis as soon as possible – definitely in my lifetime, but preferably well before that. It has inspired me to believe in and witness the power of people stepping up together to make change. I have often talked about the power of people and the power of community; when I set out I was one person but now we have a community of over 200 countries and territories around the world who have stepped up to share their water stories and lift up their own voices and share their steps to build this movement for water.
If you had a theme song, what would it be?
We actually do have a theme song! The team at WWF wrote a song for us so we are super excited and super honoured. They made a music video for us so I am really proud. When people do things to support our campaign and support this project it is incredibly rewarding and terribly inspiring just to see this outpouring of support for water and a real honour to be a part of that.
What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
I guess giving up everything to step up and say this may be a big, bold goal to save the global water crisis. Everybody told me that my goal should be to work to solve it or that it should be to help to solve it, but I am like no, this water crisis is far too big and far too great to helping with or working towards. We have to actually fix this problem and so my goal is to get out and solve this thing. Obviously it is not something I can do on my own, so a big part of what I am doing is amassing a community of people, not only a community of individuals but also governments and companies and others to say we need to put aside our past differences and our silo approaches and we need to come together and engage in a series of collective actions in different river basins and different places around the world to work together to solve this crisis. So I guess the biggest risk was stepping away from my corporate life, stepping away from everything that I had previously held dear that was my life. I now don’t live in one place, I live in many places around the world. I am firmly committed to solving this problem, and that of course means giving up a lot of other things. I guess that the biggest risk I have taken is to take a step into the unknown, to make a commitment to do something you don’t know if you can do, but you just believe in your purpose so much that you think no matter what I will figure a way through this.
If Mars were liveable, would you accept a one way ticket there?
No I would not, because I think that we need to solve the crises that we have created here on our planet Earth. I saw when we were out walking today a sign saying it is going to be pretty hard to find another planet like this one and it’s true. I think there is no planet B, we need to solve the water crisis here on this planet rather than escape to somewhere that might hold other options. My role is here, so my answer is I definitely would not take a ticket to Mars!
If you were given one thousand acres of land what would you do with it?
Great question as it depends on where the land is. Is it a wetland, is it a desert, is it acreage that we till and create agriculture to feed people, can we use it as a demonstration farm where we can show people better ways to create more crops per drop, what is on the land? So I guess I would ask a lot of questions before working out what I would do with it.
Are you more of a hunter or a gatherer?
I think I am both a hunter and a gatherer. I am a hunter of solutions and a gatherer of people.
How many pairs of shoes do you own?
When I ran Run Blue I went through about 20 pairs of shoes. Basically, I had two pairs of shoes that I would alternate between each marathon I ran each day so that each pair had a break in-between. I switched the two pairs after every 20 marathons and donated or gave them away as did not want to waste the shoes.
How did you celebrate after arriving at the UN Headquarters on 22 March?
I gave everybody on my team a massive hug, including my mum who was there at the end to greet me (which was really awesome), and then high fived everyone in the water community that was around. Our celebration was the United Nations Water Summit coming together amongst all the water community more broadly to discuss what it is going to take to actually solve this crisis and make a series of commitments to do that. The truth is that the finishing of the 200 marathons was an incredible goal and incredible achievement. I am so proud of the team that got me through this, because this kind of campaign cannot be done by one person and definitely not be done by me on my own. It was done by a community of people working together. I am incredibly grateful for the team and the community coming together to run this campaign. This was a massive leap forward for our project to solve the water crisis – that is our purpose and our mission! So yes, we celebrated and it was amazing, but the truth is we will only really celebrate when we have actually solved this water crisis – we still have a lot of work to do. I think of this as marathon number 201 which is about getting companies and governments to step up to make a change and actually make a commitment to solving this water problem.
If we came to your house for dinner, what would you prepare for us?
As I am vegan, and I don’t eat onion, garlic and gluten, and there are a bunch of foods that my stomach cannot digest very well – you would probably have a very interesting meal. I think I would prepare a vegan lasagne which is environmentally friendly and absolutely delicious and one of my favourite dinners.
How would people communicate in a perfect world?
They would listen more and speak less. They would speak the same language and if not they would spend the time to understand one another better.
When you have 30 minutes of free time – how do you pass it?
I very rarely have 30 minutes of free time. If I ever had 30 minutes of free time I would be reaching out to companies or coming up with strategies about how to mobilise more people to help with the water crisis, or thinking about the next campaign. But if the question is how do I relax I would read a book, and or have a cup of tea which is like a hug in a cup for me (I absolutely love it). Anyone who knows me knows that I am a big tea drinker especially when things get tough or especially when things get stressful, I resort to my hug in a cup, my cup of tea.
If you woke up to 300 unread emails, how would you prioritise which ones to answer?
I often wake to up 300 unread emails and what normally happens is that the people who need to reach me know to reach out to me directly, to WhatsApp me or to reach out in a way that they know I can respond to. The challenge when you are on the road like I am a lot of the time, is that emails get batched so they come through in all weird ways, sometimes not in the correct order or several days late so the email system is a very imperfect thing. So how do I prioritise – I know what I am looking for and know who I am waiting to hear from and those that need to reach me, usually reach out over socials or WhatsApp. We also have a great team, so if there is a need to reach me the people can do so via one of the team. I firmly believe that this is not about me, it is about our community and about our team coming together so we all have a role to play in communication.
Where do you go and what do you do to find peace and recharge?
The greatest peace that I can find is out with local communities in the fields and the forests and the deserts and the waterways and the glaciers of our amazing planet that we call home. For me, the ability to be out in those places speaking to people and just experiencing what they are going through and figuring out how to tell that story in a way that will help to leverage the change that they are asking for – that is my moment of peace and recharging. I find a lot of solace in water, which is not surprising, whether it is the oceans or the rivers or the glaciers, any places where there is water, I find great peace. But I also find great peace where there is no water, in the deserts. The deserts are an amazing place to just expand the mind and expand the soul and just replenish and refresh. For me I suppose it’s just being in nature and letting nature help to recharge my soul.
If you could know the absolute answer to one question, what question would you ask?
I would ask what is it really going to take to solve this global water crisis and I would want an answer that we could then action and then make it happen!
If you could write one new law that everybody had to obey, what would it be?
This is a good one – the law would be that it doesn’t matter what you run in your life, your company, your household, your daily decisions you have to run it blue and put water front of mind.
What, if anything, have you ever re-gifted?
I really treasure most of my gifts, so I am not a re-gifter. I am just so grateful when I receive a gift, that someone thought of me and then gifted that to me, it makes me feel so honoured. It’s not about the gift for me, it really is about the thought behind it.
What is the most interesting thing you have seen or read this week?
Tough one – too many things to mention. I had an opportunity over the last week to spend a lot of time with farmers and innovators at a big food and beverage company out of the United States and it was incredible to see the passion with which they were approaching the environment and their communities to try and promote and use things more efficiently. And one of the things that really intrigued me was using recycled cups for coffee that were made out of recycled materials as a way of getting rid of single use coffee cups that so many of us use and then discard into a landfill and which end up living on this planet for longer than any of us are alive. It’s awesome to see the commitment and energy that has gone into trying to rethink this issue.
What skill or craft would you like to master?
Sometime I would like to master the art of patience because sometimes I am not very patient. I want to see change now or yesterday and not tomorrow, although I am learning that change tomorrow is better than no change at all.
If you could dedicate your life to solving one problem, what would it be?
The Water Crisis!