Social Entrepreneur Mina Guli Shares Her Running Journey to Spotlight Water Scarcity
Mina Guli launched Thirst in 2012 on World Water Day to engage a generation of young people around issues of water scarcity. Guli initiated education workshops for thousands of students across the globe and began an expedition to run across seven deserts on seven continents in seven weeks. Next, she ran 40 marathons in 40 days down six of the world’s great rivers on six continents.
Guli has been widely recognized for her leadership: named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, one of Australia’s most influential women, and by Fortune Magazine as one of the 50 greatest leaders in the world.
Last month, YPO members joined 170,000 attendees at Dreamforce, Salesforce’s annual user conference. Guli, YPO’s 2019 Global Innovation Award Winner for Social Impact joined Jason Wild, Senior Vice President Strategic Innovation and Global Leader at Salesforce, to share stories and insights about her work and passion. Salesforce is the presenting partner for the 2019 Global Innovation Awards.
In late 2018, Guli started her Running Dry journey. Her goal was to run 100 marathons in 100 days. Guli was sidelined after day 62 with stress fractures, but “water heroes” picked up the baton, running marathons in more than 50 countries over the next 38 days. They shared their #RunningDry stories on social media, turning it into a worldwide movement.
Catch Guli’s inspiring 30-minute interview in the video below. Her fervor is infectious, and yes, she ran through the streets of San Francisco to the Dreamforce interview!
Here are some excerpts from her interview.
Why did you choose running to highlight water scarcity?
I’m not a naturally talented runner. Actually, I don’t like running. I came to running very, very late in life. I had a bad accident. The doctors told me I’d never be able to run and I think, “who is someone else to define the limits of what I can and can’t do?” So I set out to learn to run and I’m really bad at it, but it’s become a tool for me to be able to go to some of the most extreme places on the planet and allow people to tell their stories. And it’s a way for us to generate media attention and exposure and give people a platform.
What have you experienced in your journeys?
This time last year I was running through Uzbekistan. I started in a small port called Muynak. I wanted to go there because I had read about how the Aral Sea, which used to be one of the biggest inland oceans in the world, is now less than 10 percent of its size. I ran past the carcasses of old shipping boats that fisherman in the port used to take out. I met local women who begged me to solve the water problems that they were facing, begged me to help them to find alternative sources of income.
I ran through cities like Beaufort West, South Africa where the taps have been turned off and the kids stay home from school waiting for the water trucks to come. Because if you’re not there when the water truck comes, you lose your water. I saw teenagers running after the truck begging for water.
Books have been written about frugal innovation — how constraints can be a natural advantage to generate ideas. Does that play a role in solutions to water scarcity?
We often think that we have to orchestrate innovation, but sometimes innovation is there in front of us. What I’ve done is allow others to have a platform around a problem that they have innovated around.
There’s a guy who lives on the clifftops of the Atacama Desert. His name is Hugo and he has the best job title in the world, which is fog catcher. Hugo read about these crazy people who live in extreme environments and they erect nets to capture water that’s coming off the ocean or any kind of environment. So he’s erected these old fishing nets above the clifftops of the Atacama and he’s capturing small molecules of water, using it to grow fish and vegetables in an environment where some neighbors have never seen rain.
It’s a remarkable story about a kind of innovation that is not only on the cliff tops of the Atacama — there are a bunch of different companies that have created mechanisms or technology to draw water out of the atmosphere. Frugal innovation is everywhere.
A recent YPO impact study showed that trust is the top priority for leaders. Can you tell us about the importance of trust in your journey?
I had the opportunity to tell incredible stories about amazing people that I’d met, but at the same time I’d been dealing with a personal challenge, which was that my body was breaking down faster than I had expected or hoped. I was absolutely terrified about the consequences of this.
On day 63, I went to the hospital instead of going running and they did a scan. They found that I had a 15 centimeter fracture in my leg and I wouldn’t be able to run. My whole world at the time collapsed. All I could think of was I might’ve done 62, but there are 38 groups of people out there that have stories I haven’t told. I’ve let them down.
On day 63, while I sat in my wheelchair, my team went and ran my marathon. On day 64, people we didn’t even know from across Cape Town came and ran. On day 65, people from around the world started to run, By day 100, we hadn’t run a hundred marathons — we’d run more distance than from the North to the South pole.
When I sat in that wheelchair, the first thing my mentor and my team told me was, “You have to trust us and you have to trust the global community. You have to trust the power of others to create the change that you want to see in this world.”
How can we become better at finding purpose and passion?
I’ve done three big expeditions. In the first one, I always thought that it was something that I was just going to do and then I was going to go back and get a real job — whatever that is these days.
So, I stood on the bank of this river. Our support vehicles were stuck on a mud bank in the middle of the river on a barge. We’d been trying to float it across so we could run on the other side and I said to the local rangers, “Hey, is this normal? Is the river always so low?” And they said, “Mina, we have never ever seen the river so low in all our lives. It’s the first time it won’t actually reach the ocean. It’s killing our tourism business. It’s killing everything. We live off this river. What’s happened is that all these grape plantations on the other side of the river have been growing and expanding and they’re just draining the river for the production of grapes.”
And as I stood there on the bank of that river, I felt my life change and I thought, “There is no going back and getting a real job. This is my entire purpose, my passion, my everything in life. Without a water-secure future for our kids, our communities, our families, our economies, there is nothing else.” And I think that for all of us who are passionate, our purpose is inside us. We don’t want to listen to it because it’s inconvenient; it disrupts the path that we’re on.
When you live your full purpose, incredible, amazing things can happen. And you can achieve the impossible. I grew up as a kid in Australia. I’m not a runner. I’m not connected to people. I’m not anything special. My dad was an immigrant and we think, “who are we?” You don’t have to be anyone to be someone. Every single one of us is capable of greatness, but to be great, you really need to find that purpose and that passion and live it.
I’ve always believed that life begins outside of the comfort zone.
Salesforce is a YPO Global Strategic Partner, focused on helping YPO members become better leaders, drive business transformation and connect to their customers in new ways. Dreamforce took place 19-22 November.