UvA Alumni Portrait: Founder of Sea Going Green - Aleksandra Dragozet
Alumni Portraits, where we interview UvA alumni who are pursuing sustainable careers to inspire you to do the same!
Graduated in 2016 with a Master’s degree in Aquatic Biology/Limnology at the UvA, Aleksandra founded at the age of 23, Sea Going Green, an environmental consultancy enterprise advocating for ocean protection. Its main mission is to alleviate the negative impacts of tourism on the marine environment by providing consulting services and “Green Transition Strategies”. Aleksandra is also a part of the Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe 2019 as a top social entrepreneur.
In this interview, Aleksandra Dragozet explains how she got into the aquatic environment, how she successfully combined her career and passions together - the oceans and travelling- while making a positive impact, her journey on founding the Sea Going Green and its missions and its challenges. In the end, she also gives us some career advice.
If you want to find out more, read the whole interview!
Chelsea (Interviewer): Could you briefly introduce yourself, please?
Yeah sure, I am Aleksandra Dragozet and I'm the founder and CEO of Sea Going Green!
Chelsea: Could you talk to us about what Sea Going Green does? And what does your job entail?
Just to backtrack a little bit, I am a marine and freshwater biologist working in the tourism industry. So, I really combined my two passions of marine biology and tourism together and that’s how Sea Going Green was born.
We are a sustainable tourism consultancy and we have two wings, the first wing is really focusing on the private sector. Our big mission is to alleviate the negative impacts of tourism on the marine environment and the environment as a whole. We started directly working with the private sector. Our clients are, for example, river cruises or hotels. What we do is measure our clients’ carbon footprint, see where their biggest impacts are, and then make strategies for how they can actually reduce their footprints. We help to matchmake our clients with other sustainable products, services, and any other providers. We also help them with communicating about sustainability, through training, and capacity building, but also externally with campaigns and cleanups, etc.
The second wing of the company is all about the public sector. We directly work with, for example, destinations, ministries of tourism, and governments and we also develop strategies for sustainable tourism in these sectors. Most of our work in the public sector is on small island developing states because there are so many we can make a lot of impacts there.
Chelsea: How did you become interested in sustainability and especially aquatic biology?
That kind of goes way back. I'm Serbian and Croatian. I was raised in Toronto, Canada. Then I moved to Amsterdam eight years ago. But before that, I lived in about six countries before the age of 21. So, travelling was really always a part of my DNA. My parents were also in the airline industry and it has always been something that we've had a lot of.
In Croatia, I am from this really small beach town and I really fell in love with the oceans there. Croatia wasn't the most popular destination when I was younger, but now it's one of the hottest destinations in the world. Year by year, as I was growing up and going to Croatia, I realized a lot of the negative consequences that tourism would have on the environment. For example, in the small beach town that I was from, you can really see that the water quality was going down. There was less marine life, there was less fish, and there were sewage issues and trash that you always had to pick up after the tourists. Local communities were happy, on one hand, because they could live off of that for the rest of the year. But at the same time, they were complaining about how they had to clean up after the tourists and all these things.
I think that's really kind of where my passion for protecting the marine environment came from. This experience also made me interested in the relationship between local communities and tourism and how sustainability really is important.
Chelsea: Why not pursue a career as a scientist or researcher but instead you chose to go into a more business related career?
I did my master's at UvA in oceanography. In the first year, it was mainly research but then in our second year, we also had to do a lot of internships where I got real life experiences.
During my time at WWF in the Netherlands, which was really a consulting role, I really liked that you were able to actually implement academic research into practical projects. I was able to see what kind of work my managers were doing which was, interacting with stakeholders, and community engagement. I was really able to see what type of impact they had. So then literally when I graduated, I knew I wanted to do consulting.
But I didn't really find anything that would pop up when looking for job opportunities. When I did research, the United Nations World Travel Organization named 2017 “The Year of Sustainable Tourism” and they had this whole research article about how environmental sustainability is really important in tourism. I think that was the first time I put those two worlds together. I started Googling, sustainable tourism consultancy and I couldn't find anything quite as niche as what SeeGoingGreen is doing. Of course, now, we have a lot more competitors.
Rebecca: What was the process of creating your own company like?
I don't know if I'm the best person to ask. I really just went knee deep into it. But in the Netherlands, it is quite simple. You just go register at the Chamber of Commerce and then kind of go from there. I was lucky enough as I've worked before in the tourism industry and I already had a network in the industry. I just started asking: What does sustainability mean? What are the biggest environmental challenges you're having? How can we solve this? And that's really through these kinds of conversations that we got our first client.
I think it took me about four months into founding the company until I joined an accelerator program called ACE Incubator. ACE has a big partnership between the VU and UvA and they offer programs for scientists and also for bachelor's, masters and PhD students who want to start their own business. ACE Incubator realized that all of these academic students want to work in business, but they don't know how to bridge this gap. So they made this amazing accelerator program specifically for academics to start their businesses. I would call like a mini MBA program. To be honest, it was such a boot camp for knowledge. For me, coming from an academic background and especially in the sciences, I had no idea about business planning, forecasting and all of that. They brought us up to speed and then matched us with mentors to kind of fill that gap there.
Rebecca: Which tourism companies have you given advice to?
Most of our work is on islands but we also do work in the Netherlands. To give you one example, a river cruise company that we work with based in Amsterdam, runs carbon footprints with us. We are the first to do it with them, and now they've really been able to lower their carbon footprints depending on the bulk by between 20 and 50% in the last four years. So it's an amazing impact that we've been able to make with them.
Rebecca: Do you feel that your clients are cooperative?
Let's say we've been really lucky that a lot of our clients are very sustainability minded. Our clients really see that sustainability is the only way forward. It is the only way that they will survive in the next 5, 10, 15 years.
Rebecca: It sounds like the clients always come to you? Do you ever approach companies?
Yes, of course. To attract the private sector, we do a lot of speaking engagements, networking events and conferences. But with the public sector, it is different. The government puts out a request for proposals, then you apply for it and then they select you. So it's quite a different process for each.
Rebecca: What is the most challenging aspect of your job? What kind of new challenges have you had to face as an entrepreneur?
The most challenging is probably having to balance between the private and public sectors because the approach that we take as a consultancy varies drastically. In the private sector, clients come to us so they hire us. This means they know exactly what kind of results they want from us and the process moves quickly.
The public sector is very slow, with different engagement and different stakeholders. Governments move very slowly, you have to get their policy up to speed. There's a lot of bureaucracy behind it. So, it's just a balancing act that I think is quite challenging.
Rebecca: How do you personally travel sustainably? What tips do you offer to others?
I love living in Europe because you can almost travel anywhere by train. So, I really try to travel by train, especially until planes become more sustainable in terms of biofuels or electrification. Otherwise, offsetting or trying to really support local communities and projects. In that way, you are also having a sustainable impact.
Also, acting as you would at home at any kind of destination that you're visiting is important. This can be simple switches like making sure if the water is drinkable then there is no need for those plastic water bottles. Also, bringing your own cutlery is helpful. I really recommend doing your own research before travelling. I think a lot of people just kind of go in without realizing the local communities around the destination. Also, try smaller hotels where you know the money actually stays within the destination and not some large corporation.
Chelsea: What have you done before Sea Going Green so far in terms of your career? What is your background and experience?
I founded Sea Going Green when I was young, at 23 years old, so I don't have a huge career history before. I worked in the tourism industry as a tour operator and as a nation manager for a virtual company in Canada. Then I did consulting at WWF and some side jobs as well as lab internships.
Chelsea: Was the University of Amsterdam a step to help you get to where you are now? And in which way?
Absolutely, I think having the accessibility to do internships in my second year of my master's was a great learning curve. I learned what kind of career paths as a marine biologist there are, and I was able to find this consulting world through that, which was really interesting. Then, of course, ACE was definitely important for starting up Sea Going Green.
Rebecca: What future goals do you have for Sea Going Green?
Right now, we are just trying to work in as many destinations as possible. Mostly, we're really focused on small island developing states in the Caribbean. But we are also trying to expand further into Southeast Asia as well as North America.
Rebecca: Where do you see the sector of (sustainable) tourism going? Is it destined for growth or are there potential problems that you are concerned about?
Sustainable tourism has developed quite a lot recently. In the beginning, we talked about how sustainability and tourism were not seen as going hand in hand. Whereas now, that's common knowledge.
COVID has also put a very interesting twist on sustainable tourism. On the one hand, people are very excited to travel again. But at the same time, you're seeing consumers being more aware of why sustainable tourism is needed. When we saw the destinations close, we saw nature coming back. There were dolphins in areas that were never seen since we'd been around. Our local communities were happier. So I think everybody started to be aware of its impact. We are seeing from the public sector that more policies are coming in place to respect local communities. We are seeing the local environment putting a cap on how many tourists can enter an area for example. There are also not as many of these big all inclusive hotels, this is definitely changing.
But at the same time, the challenge is that because tourism was closed for so long during the pandemic, they want to reopen very quickly and accept as many tourists as possible. So I think the challenge is the balancing act between quality over quantity.
Rebecca: What advice would you give to students that want to have an impact on the environment, but maybe are not sure where to start?
We have some guides with practical tips that we make which are helpful. We ask people to start simple and think about their own impact. You don't have to go full force at this. If everyone makes a small impact and is mindful, that's how we all make the biggest impact. In terms of sustainability, look at where your foods come from, look where your transports come from and so on. Especially as students, there's a lot of vintage clothing available, clothing swapping, and things like that.
Rebecca: What advice would you give to students that want to become an entrepreneur like you? What is, according to you, important to succeed with your own company?
I think my biggest advice is to recognize that you will fail constantly but that's how you learn. So I would never take any of our little failings for granted and don't be afraid to fail and don't be afraid to ask questions.
Also, the startup community entrepreneurship community in Amsterdam is amazing, everyone is so supportive. There are a lot of like-minded people, everybody's really hustling together. We wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for our network, our partnerships, and all the help that we've gotten. So I definitely would say, don't be afraid to fail and don't be afraid to collaborate with people as well.
Rebecca: What advice for entering the sector of sustainability as a career can you offer?
A lot of companies now are becoming sustainability driven because the new generations of the workforce are demanding that. I think you, students, will have a lot of options. But it is important to remain critical, a lot of companies say they're sustainable but really investigate what they mean by that and see what is their actual impact. Even if you work for a bigger company in sustainability you can make some impact, but hearing stories, there are some boundaries. So, it's more small or medium-sized companies that really drive it forward.
I would really explore also what areas of sustainability you are interested in. It can be environmental, it can be community driven or scientifically driven. You can do some traineeships, or internships around that or visit sustainability and pitch events to see whether that would be something for you.
The Alumni Portraits Team would like to thank Aleksandra for her time and valuable insights.
By the Alumni Portraits team (Rebecca Cornelius and Chelsea Guidi).