Inspiring Stories of Our Owners
Q&A with The Soapbox Project Founder Nivi Achanta
Nivi Achanta knows that the world is burning. But what are we all going to do about it?
That's the problem she hopes to address with The Soapbox Project, her newsletter-driven community that provides bite-sized action plans to tackle one aspect of climate change each month. Recently, Soapbox has dedicated programming to Bitcoin, fast fashion, food waste, fracking, and beyond. The idea is to deconstruct each topic into easy-to-understand parts and encourage readers to take immediate, impactful, and local action — all while (hopefully) having a good time.
"A lot of people don't have close friends in their life who they can talk to seriously about social issues," says the Soapbox founder and CEO, who comes from a background in consulting. "Our community is a great place to actually share what you're thinking and what you're reading and what you're listening to — and then do something about it within your community."
Hello Alice called up Achanta to discuss making social activism fun, classifying her Headspace subscription as a business expense, and building a virtual community that fosters real-world change. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How did you choose your name?
The connotation of a soapbox is that someone 'gets on their soapbox' and rants about whatever. But something has always stood out to me about that. People usually say, I'm sorry, I'll step off my soapbox now — but only after they have said something very important! So I wondered, what if you can give everyone a soapbox to amplify their own voices? It was this idea of having a platform that would allow other people to step up and say their piece and have an audience that would listen to them.
What first motivated you to start The Soapbox Project?
In college I pursued econ and stats because my dad was like, 'You should go to school for econ and stats.' I wasn't passionate about anything, so I just did what he told me. Then my senior year at UC Davis, I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, as one does, and I decided to start this chapter of an international nonprofit called Net Impact. To be honest, I wanted to flex and just say I started something. It seemed like all of my friends around the Bay Area were starting things and doing all these entrepreneurship things. I didn't really want to become an entrepreneur, but I also wanted to do something different than just go to class. Basically, we had a bunch of members join who were really interested in very specific environmental causes, like water management and waste management. That was the first time where I sort of just laid this empty canvas out for people and let them define the vision and the goals of an organization. That was so cool to see how good I was at providing structure and then other people coming in with their own talents and their own knowledge to shape an organization. I also realized how much work is needed in the environmental and social impact space.
When it came time to find a job, I was really looking for something that would pay me money. [laughs] That's when I joined as a consultant with Accenture. One of the things that appealed to me about them was that they were like, 'You can join our company and change the world!' That sounds awesome, but it was sort of a misleading proposition. I realized that most of my time was spent on very typical corporate tasks. It was a very jarring shift going from this spirit of solutions with Net Impact to following the rules and checking the boxes. I was also getting increasingly aware of other issues beyond climate. When you live in San Francisco, which I was at the time, it is very obvious that inequality is rampant and staring you in the face. One side of Market Street would be the skyscraper where I was working, and on the other side, there would be tents and very obvious drug problems. I went to work very frustrated at how I had the resources and knowledge and intention to do something positive in the world, but I really wasn't doing it. All I was doing was talking about how I wanted to do it!
Then the 2018 wildfires happened, and my partner's home in Paradise burned down. That was one of the turning points for me where I was like, 'We actually really have to stop saying that we're going to do something positive and actually do it.' Soon after that, I started writing climate action newsletters. I wanted them to be bite-sized and fun and approachable for busy people because my biggest challenge was that I just felt like I didn't know what to do and where I would have the most impact. I wanted to solve that problem for other people who are like me.
Did you have a model of what it would become or want to create something new?
A little bit of both. Over time, it became increasingly clear to me that it's not that we don't have enough information. This world has more than enough information! Rather, it's about how to create a journey that takes people from information to action in ways that are sustainable over the long term.
How do you sustain action as part of who you are? There are some models that were pretty easy to draw from, like change.org and even something like GoFundMe. Those are the types of links that you'd see when something bad is going on in the world that's very obvious and people can take action off of it. But the thing that I wanted to create is something to help us stop reacting all the time to news events. I want to help build this as a habit in your life. So the other thing that I noticed is a lot of products and services similar to Soapbox have been created. Like, there's a lot of websites that ask you where you live, what you're interested in, and they will match you with an opportunity or an event. For whatever reason, those have mostly died out. I think a lot of them have been started as side projects, and it's really easy to give up on something because it's not solvable overnight by a tech algorithm, and you really have to do the work to put people first and connect people to make it scale.
The reason that I haven't given up yet is that I am not very interested in easy tech solutions. Technology is really important in enabling the solutions that I want to see, but I'm recognizing every day how hard it is to create a platform that makes social impact easy for busy people.
The newsletter has a very set structure where each monthly topic is broken down into four weekly activities: Read, Listen, Act, Reflect. How did you arrive on that design?
This structure has existed since November 2019. Off the bat, I realized that there were two types of reasons that I was getting lost with other activist-oriented stuff. The first is that the information was way too dense. The second was kind of the opposite end of the spectrum where they would tell me to compost or recycle, and then I would be like, why does this matter? I couldn't find a middle ground that helped me retain the information that I was learning while not confusing the hell out of me. For me, I needed to have an action plan but know why I was taking those actions.
So I signed up for a couple of other environmental newsletters. What I noticed is that they will have only the actions, like donate or sign this petition. I wouldn't do it because it just didn't seem personal enough. I cared that the world was burning, but I didn't understand how it was relevant to me or where my money was going. Then I remembered it takes 30 days to build a habit. That was my inspiration behind choosing a monthly topic and knowing that people need these reminders weekly because there's so much information in the world. So it was a combination of the knowledge of habit building along with what I personally like.
You use a lot of puns and jokes in the newsletter. Why is it so important to center fun as a part of your tone, sensibility, and visual brand?
I find it very hard to care about stuff that's not fun. Maybe this is the avocado toast generation of selfish millennials, but whatever you want to call it, it is what it is, and we are in a world where people won't do things unless they are convenient or appealing in some way. I try to be a good person, but if it requires walking 10 miles and volunteering at some remote place, I just won't do it. I've realized how reframing topics in my own personal life has been really important.
For instance, I'm very proud of how my apartment is set up. Everything is secondhand, and before a year or two ago, I thought buying secondhand was the biggest drag in the world. Once I realized how much fun these types of sustainability actions can be, I'm looking for creative ways to set up my home, finding new recipes, and making friends. Those are the things that make me want to keep doing this work.
It is not inspiring to me that the world is burning and we have to act now — that's scary, but that doesn't motivate me! If you look at the habits and the practices that people keep in their life, it's the stuff that will bring them joy and give them some amount of pleasure instead of just being depressing and scary. Which climate change is! But there's a balance to be found.
How are you making this more than a side project for yourself and turning it into something that's going to scale as a business?
At first, this project was very vibes-based. I was thinking that there must be a billion people like me going through the same set of struggles. A lot of that validation came from talking to people when I was at Accenture working in the office. I probably talked to 100 or 200 people at a similar career level because there are so many people that work there. I had pretty easy user research questions that I could bake into casual conversations. Very quickly, I figured out that a lot of people were in this boat. Then a couple of months ago, I stumbled upon something that was a more scientific validation of what I had been thinking all along. Basically, Deloitte put out a survey of millennials and Gen Z from 43 countries around the world. According to their survey, 75% of millennials care about climate change. Then another question asked, 'What action are you actually taking?' What I learned from that survey is only 25% of millennials were actually taking action. So then I look at the billion people in my similar age range that care deeply, have the intentions, but aren't acting upon it. That's a lot of people!
That's when I realized this could be more than a content platform. Especially with COVID, people are really realizing the implications of not taking action. It's becoming clear to a lot of people that you can't wait for someone else to become part of the solution. That made me realize that this could be a business. As I mentioned, no one else is doing this. The most comparable group is the Sunrise Movement, which is an incredible movement, but again, I think that there's not enough hand-holding for people who don't know where to get started or feel like it's not their place. I know a lot of people feel intimidated to join an environmental group. I don't want to undervalue them at all, but I also think that there are not enough pathways to connect you to actions that work for you. Once I saw that the quality of actions can be improved and the quantity of people that are demanding this is huge, I realized this could be more than just a newsletter.
What are some of your costs and how have you funded your business so far?
A main source of funding has been savings. I actually got laid off in September, so I didn't have to make a difficult decision of like, am I going to quit? By that time I'd saved up a good amount of money, where I knew like I could live in San Francisco for four to six months. Then we moved to Seattle, and now I'm feeling much less stressed out. After I went full-time with Soapbox, we launched sponsorships for the newsletter, and then in January of this year, we actually started doing events. Then in March, we launched a membership community.
I've started thinking of this as a social justice funnel: You can access the newsletter for free; if you want to get a little more engaged, you can go to an event, see if you like it and have some fun, meet some people, make some friends, take action; and then when you become a member of our community, you get access to that kind of constant engagement. Those sponsorships, events, and our membership fees are the three revenue streams. The fourth one is some one-off corporate events I've been testing.
As for costs, I use Bench for accounting. It's great, but it's expensive. That 100–200 bucks is our biggest expense. Then we use Circle for the community, which is 80 bucks a month. We have some other minor software costs, but the more you grow, the more expensive those software tools get!
The other costs that I try to look at as business-related costs are personal — things like my Headspace subscription for mindfulness. I was going bouldering for a bit, which is how I broke my ankle. I'm trying to consider physical and mental health as a necessary cost for my business, even though it's technically a personal cost.
How are you channeling that virtual connection within your community into real-world action?
A lot of people don't have close friends in their life who they can talk to seriously about social issues. Our community is a great place to actually share what you're thinking and what you're reading and what you're listening to — and then do something about it within your community. If you actually want to make a difference, look to local transit, local housing policy, and other places where it's a matter of 100 votes, not millions of votes or campaign dollars. One of the biggest goals within our membership is to build resilient communities through local actions. Every time five people from a specific geography join our membership community, I'll spin up a local channel for them.
The Seattle one right now is the most active, because I'm there. We've been having monthly in-person meetups. Last month, we did a pizza party and talked about what people are interested in to get a better sense of whether we want to volunteer at a food bank or something else. One of the coolest things that's come out of that is our community members feeling more like people who can rely on each other. For our August meetup, we're actually going on a tour with an organization called Weld Seattle that's partnering with contractors to build halfway homes and group homes for people that have just been released from prison. This idea of local action channels is what a lot of people have been looking for through the newsletter. It's the human connection that you can't really get anywhere else.
What's your ultimate vision for the business?
I want to create a space on the internet and in real life where anyone can take action on something that's meaningful to them in a way that works for them. I find it hard to articulate what this looks like because I really think that it is going to be shaped by the people who are joining our community. Community-led efforts are the future. My hope is that I find people that are on the ground in various geographies and giving them ownership of these local action channels. I want to give them resources to actually achieve the goals that they've been probably working on for years before I had even started this project.
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Aug 5, 2021 • 10 min read