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Interview: CEO of Impactr, Johannah Maher on Building Apps That Change The World
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Interview: CEO of Impactr, Johannah Maher on Building Apps That Change The World

Angelica Silva

Angelica Silva

26/03/2021 • 17 minute read

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Turning social media into social change

When I was nine years old, my answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” changed almost every month. I remember at school, I would walk up to the bookshelf, not having to take a second guess at what book I was going to read. Every time, my eyes would be drawn to the astronomy section. As I flipped through the glossy pages of planets, I decided I wanted to be an astronaut. 

Probably a month later, that changed to zoologist. Passionate about wildlife conservation from a young age, I fell in love with the idea of studying the way animals interact with humans and nature. Then, at ten years old, I wanted to be a marine biologist. Having discovered the horrors of whaling at a young age, I remember telling myself, I was going to study everything about these mammals to help save them from extinction. 

Now in my early 20s, my decision to become a journalist could not be clearer. It’s given me the opportunity to be in the shoes of some of the most fascinating individuals – environmentalists, lawyers, dermatologists, entrepreneurs and so many more. It’s as if my answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” really hasn’t changed all that much. Between all my years as a kid and teenager, I wanted to do everything, to be everything. So through storytelling, that’s what I get to do now. Even over a decade later, I still find myself deconstructing this question. Instead of asking “What do you want to be,” shouldn’t we be asking “What problems do you want to solve?” 

At just eleven years old, Johannah Maher asked this very question, and plenty more. Contrasting my whale trivia knowledge, Johannah was drawing rockets and spaceships across her notebook pages. At this same age, she was asked by The Children with High Intellectual Potential (CHIP) to repeat a long string of numbers in a row, backwards. She did it flawlessly.  

Now the CEO and Co-founder of impact-tech company, Impactr, and currently in the process of launching its app, I had the chance to talk to Johannah about how Impactr is striving to be a powerful voice in the decisions being made about our planet. Check out what she had to say about going from a wind turbine engineer to impact-entrepreneur, inspiring millions to do small actions for sustainability, social justice, and climate change. 

Q&A With Johannah Maher

Q: How did you co-found Impactr? Where were you at in your life when you got the idea?

Although I was grateful to have established myself as an expert in wind turbine engineering, I grew increasingly frustrated at the fact that the company I was with wasn’t doing as much as they could for the climate and sustainability agenda. Not to mention, I was also hellbent on being a businessman in this industry. I had spent my entire professional career keeping my personal life and same-sex relationship to myself so that I wouldn’t be putting my high-profile job at risk. This wasn’t the life I wanted to live.

I had two very transformative experiences which popped me out of my corporate bubble. The first was when I went to a Women In Energy conference. I’ll admit, my initial reaction was, “What’s all this about?” I developed this shameful feeling because I had just never been around women at any point in my career. But for the very first time, I found myself in a room of 25 female executives in the energy industry. The level of conversation in this all-female setting, the intensity, the passion, the curiosity and genuine engagement of the women there, completely blew me away.

'In the ten years of my career, I had never sat in a conversation of this calibre. It was epic.'

So I went back to the office, absolutely filled with inspiration, and began making suggestion after suggestion to my colleagues about how we could get the climate agenda going even faster. And then, I got fired. Let me put it this way, my newfound leadership wasn’t appreciated by my direct boss. So they showed me the door. It was rough, especially after working in this company for a decade. However, the reality behind it all was that it took me getting fired to see that I was becoming quite ill because of how hard I was pushing myself for this company.  

After some time, I decided to attend more Women in Energy and Women in Technology events, but I did something I had never done before – print out Johannah Maher on new business cards and take them with me. It was when I was attending all of these events where I realised, maybe I could do something to help all of these amazing women? 

So one day I decided, if I can’t find a company I want to work for, I’m going to make the company. That’s how Impactr was born.  

Q: What exactly is Impactr and your vision behind it?

Firstly, Impactr is a youth-led community network. With more young people driving drastic change than ever before, the world’s youth are really what is leading us into the future. So that’s why I really push Impactr being a community of youth experts front and centre before anything. 

Secondly, Impactr is an impact-tech company. Essentially, it’s using technology for good for social change and sustainability. I’ve never been a fan of companies that present sustainability as this heavy, unapproachable, doomsday topic. Destructive storms and fires, devastating species extinctions, flooding coastlines yes this is all happening, I’m not denying that. But repeatedly presenting sustainability in this dark, apocalyptic light doesn’t make people engage with it or make them feel positive about making change. In its simplest terms, it’s apocalypse fatigue. 

'I’ve never been a fan of companies that present sustainability as this heavy, unapproachable, doomsday topic.'

This is exactly why Impactr is different from these companies. Our branding is approachable. It’s vibrant, hopeful, fun, and honestly, magic. We want people to engage with sustainability in a way that makes them excited and happy to enact change, big or small. We don’t want to use fear-mongering tactics as a means to “wake up” younger people. Young people are already awake. We don’t need to constantly remind them the world is ending and that we’re on a ticking time bomb to get people to make sustainable choices in their lifestyle.   

Q: Tell me about what the app will look like. What will people be able to do on it?

Impactr is a social video-based app that allows people to create short videos up to a minute. Anyone who makes a video can link an action to it. Each video is a call to action, where people motivate others to take action through their videos. For example, someone could make a video about inspiring you to change your energy provider to a greener one, or show you how to switch your bank to one that doesn’t invest in fossil fuels. Even a video showing off a compostable toothbrush and where it can be purchased is something so helpful. These are just simple everyday actions. It can be absolutely anything to anyone – sustainability is perceived and achieved in different ways to each person. So, Impactr is allowing people to come together in one space and share and exchange ideas and tips. 

What I’m most excited about is seeing all of the unique and creative ways people are going to come up with actions to inspire and motivate others to take action. We are already seeing these little actions emerging on some of the bigger platforms out there. 

What makes Impactr different is that it’s a two-way street – it’s the person creating and the person viewing. It’s becoming active rather than passive. The top three actions on the app all revolve around money – switching your super, your bank, and your electricity provider.

People’s individual actions add up, but there are still a lot of people who believe theirs alone do not. All we need is for people to make just one different choice out of the hundreds they make in a day. We don’t need everyone to do it perfectly. 

Here’s an example I always like to give. So many people still don’t realise the bank and super they are with is financing climate change right now. We’ve got 10 million super accounts in Australia. Out of those millions, there’s maybe a few thousand that are with companies that don’t invest in fossil fuel companies. It’s a fraction. A great insight from Future Super, which I’m with, is that only 7% of super money could finance a change over to renewable energy. So in reality, you don’t even need everyone to switch. If 7% of Australians changed their financial institutions, we’re there. Everything will change.

'If 7% of Australians changed their financial institutions, we’re there. Everything will change.'

Q: Whether it’s fashion or lifestyle products, sustainable shopping can often cost more than some are willing to pay, which deters many people from making the switch. How do you think Impactr will change this mindset?

The perception of sustainable and ethical products always being too expensive is flawed. We continue to believe we need to “buy cheap, buy twice”, choosing cheapness over quality and longevity. Yes, certain brands are more expensive, often because their products are made with higher quality fabrics. It means the clothing will last longer and wear better. So really, when we purchase these higher quality products that are going to last longer, they save us money in the long run. 

In terms of how Impactr is changing this mindset, I believe that education is not necessarily the strongest form of behavioural drivers. Of course, it is absolutely required for context and history of an issue or topic. However, it does not make every single person take action. Some of the other stronger drivers are social comparison, imitation and trends. Our brains are triggered by observing and knowing what other people are doing, wearing, even saying. It’s in our nature to want to fit in with the crowd and do what everyone else is doing.  

Sustainability is trendy – this shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. In many situations, we are seeing it’s considered uncool to have the lesser sustainable options. Be it showing up to work with a plastic water bottle, not having a keep-cup when you go to your local cafe, or purchasing a brand new wardrobe every month. People’s reactions to these things are not how they used to be. We’re more observant of what people do, what products they use, what they wear – we are more critical than ever. That’s why I truly believe not everyone needs to be a sustainability expert. We shouldn’t be freaking everyone out. Instead, we need to let people engage in their own way.  

'That’s why I truly believe not everyone needs to be a sustainability expert. We shouldn’t be freaking everyone out. Instead, we need to let people engage in their own way. '

Q: You have a significant presence in STEM – industries which are among the most high-paying. What drives you to keep building Impactr, over working in a high-profile job?

I reached the limits of the change I could make within one company. When you have this high-profile, high-paying job where you get to sit at the executive table in a publicly listed company, you’re only really answering to two groups: shareholders and customers. So as a person who was trying to bring in a sustainable development agenda, my efforts were received with remarks of “why are you talking about this?” It just wasn’t a place where I saw change was possible anymore. 

I’m going to be honest, my aerospace engineering I call it an antique. I don’t want to discourage anyone from pursuing this, or any career in STEM. Personally, it just got to a point where during such a time of creativity, I felt like I was banging my head against my textbooks, regurgitating all of this information and not being able to express my passions or thoughts to people that would accept them and offer similar ones. At the end of the day, it’s not about memorizing what a book said 50 years ago. We need to bring in the real world problems as well, and that’s the issue with academia. It’s as if you get in these highly specialized test tubes and you’re no longer your own person. You’re not even allowed to take in the broader view of what’s going on around you. I meant it when I said all those years ago that if I couldn’t find a company whose mission and employees aligned with my own values and passions, I was going to build my own.

Q: Referred to as the much-maligned smashed-avo-eating generations, Millennials and Gen Zs continue to face the stigma of being lazy, careless and even more now, reckless. How is the Impactr community proving this wrong?

We actually created this campaign called, Boomer Don’t Kill My Vibe. But it doesn’t mean what you’re thinking. It’s not “Okay, Boomer”. It’s the next chapter to that. It’s “Come on Boomer, let’s do this together.” Gen Z is now the biggest influencer of household decisions. On the surface level, many of us think our parents don’t care about climate change, social justice or sustainability, or that it’s too hard to convince them. So of course, we raise our voices, start protesting more and doing anything we can to make ourselves heard. However, in my own experience, the loudest voices in a room were not the ones that made the biggest impact. It really does come down to younger generations ditching the blame game, because it’s not getting any of us anywhere. Instead of having this young versus old mentality against older generations, we need to change this to coexist with them, even collaborate. 

'The loudest voices in a room were not the ones that made the biggest impact.'

You can get older generations to flick the switch for many reasons, whether it’s their bank, super or energy provider. As their children, you play a vital role in shaping and changing their decisions, no matter how much time it may take to see that change. This is why as part of Impactr, we’ve set up Flick The Switch a platform that gives you the most trusted energy providers to switch to, not just in Australia but in over a dozen countries. It’s something you can show your parents, family members or friends to get them to look into what exactly their energy provider is funding and whether it’s ethical. And if it’s not ethical? Well, that’s why we’ve compiled a list of the most trusted companies which you can encourage them to make the switch to. This is what I mean by younger and older generations working collectively to enact change. I’ve seen it happen with my own parents, and while I am fully aware my situation is not the same for everyone, I do believe that in order for younger generations to bury the stigmas against them, they don’t always need to be the loudest in the room. 

Q: With Australia’s young people now experiencing their first recession due to the coronavirus pandemic, they are the least prepared. What advice would you give to young people who may view their money as futile?

In the words of American student and activist, Naomi Wadler, “As Gen Z rises, soon the world will know how we can see and do what adults cannot”. I have always believed in flipping the hierarchy on its head, or rather, getting rid of it altogether. This means turning to the experts to help lead us into the future. But what if all those experts were young people? What if those experts trained other young people to be experts too? What if all those young experts could move the world to take small actions and ignite drastic change? Yes, the differences between today’s older generations and young people are enormous. But Millenials and Gen Zers are acutely aware of the world’s problems and the challenges that lie ahead.

Making the decision to build Impactr with my team is grounded in pushing forward more of these youth experts that our world needs. This platform is not a video app alone, it combines trusted sustainable-impact actions with game design, social engines and behavioural psychology all of this to empower a youth-activated movement that will bridge the increasing generation gaps and bring us together under a common goal. 

People want to live more sustainable lifestyles, but say they don’t know how or that it’s too expensive. This is a gap where support is needed, and this is where Impactr comes in. At the end of the day, people’s money is powerful and we should be spending it in places and with brands that do no harm and help create a fair, equal and thriving future for us all. 

 

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Feeling inspired to change your bank, super or energy provider to a greener one?

Check out these helpful resources Johannah has kindly provided for Oiyo!

MarketForces – Helping Aussies hold institutions accountable by providing data on the banks, superfunds, insurance companies, and others that are financing environmentally destructive projects. 

Energy

Flick The Switch – A list of trusted, 100% green power accredited electricity providers.

Super

FutureSuper – Invests responsibly and sustainably. FutureSuper build funds with zero exposure to fossil fuels, negative carbon footprints and direct investments in clean energy projects.

Banking

Bank of Australia – Profits are returned to customers through better rates and fees and our investments are used to create positive social and environmental change.


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Angelica Silva

Written by Angelica Silva

Angelica Silva is a contributing writer for Oiyo. Over the years, Angelica has worked as a journalist for a range of publications with her work appearing in SBS, Business Insider, and Brown Girl Magazine. She has a Bachelor of Journalism and Arts from the University of Queensland.

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