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Tikkun Olam Live Stories: Solomon Olshin Interview [2019 Awardee]

Solomon Olshin: Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards Instagram Live Interview Series

Welcome to the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards Instagram Live Interview Series! In this inaugural interview, Solomon Olshin, founder of Shine, shares howhis project has evolved and expanded since he won the award, his plans for the future, and his views on tikkun olam and service-based leadership.

Solomon was interviewed by Erica Aren, Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards Program Director, on February 27. For updates and more interviews, follow our Instagram account @dillerteenawards.

Transcript [edited for clarity]

Erica Aren: Welcome, everyone. Today, we’ll be chatting a bit with Solomon Olshin, a 2019 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awardee. Solomon won an Award last year for his project called Shine. Solomon, would you give us the big overview of your project and what you’ve been doing with Shine over the last several years?

Solomon Olshin: Shine is a project I’ve been working on with some friends and peers of mine through the last three years to create solar-powered electrical systems that meet the basic needs of people recovering from homelessness and natural disasters. We’ve been working on custom-built electrical systems that go into providing just the most basic amount of light, electricity, heat, and communication access to people who wouldn’t otherwise have it or would be relying on gasoline-powered generators and other pollutive and noisy and inefficient and expensive-to-maintain sources of electricity.

EA: Can you tell us how you grew something from a concept to a powerful program that helps a lot of people?

SO: It’s been a great learning experience, to say the least, and certainly a long road, but it has also been an exciting one. Shine started as an idea for our flagship product that is called the “Juice Box,” which is a solar-powered electrical system designed for a single person or for a couple to use in an off-grid tiny house where people are transitioning out of homelessness. These tiny houses are becoming increasingly common where I’m from, Portland, Oregon, and in other cities especially on the west coast of the US. 

We visited one of these tiny house communities as part of my bar mitzvah project which was delivering soup made from scratch and packaged in compostable containers to minimize the trash build-up from these kind of communities and the 10 villages that continue to be really widespread in Portland, San Francisco, and other areas of the country that have a lot of people experiencing homelessness in them. 

We recognized that they didn’t have electricity and we realized that because we went in winter and we were there by five o’clock and by 5:15pm the sun was down and it was dark. We realized that we could get back in the car, drive back home, and have lights and computers and be able to do our school work, but a lot of the people that live in these communities, unless they burn fossil fuels and power generators and spend their minimal income on gasoline instead of other things like food and health care, that they aren’t able to easily transition out of the situation that they were in. 

It was really important to us, and remains really important to me, to help people transition out of very debilitating circumstances and to help them have opportunities that they deserve and they are eager to work for. It was about bridging that gap between what people were able to accomplish with the resources they had and what they wanted to accomplish. 

Over the last three years, we have been building a team. I’m currently a freshman at Pomona College in Claremont, California, which is right at the edge of Los Angeles County. We are growing our team here which has been another exciting experience for me to try to mobilize another group of people in a very intense academic environment where everyone is super busy. It’s been an amazing learning experience and an honor to work with my peers and to connect with the Diller organization and to learn from my fellow Awardees and previous Awardees – who were part of the Diller experience we had last August.

EA: Have you been able to establish any new Shine community folks in the Pomona area, and are you able to work with tiny houses? What’s the status of things where you are now?

SO: We started off by reaching out to as many people as we possibly could and spreading some information about Shine via email and Facebook. We had some success with that. We had about 65 people sign up for our mailing list, and of those people who indicated their interest, we had about 10 to 15 who were actively participating in club proceeding, coming to meetings, and it was an exciting start for us, being a brand new organization on campus.

We applied last fall in December for a grant from the US Department of Energy at the recommendation of a faculty member here in Pomona. The grant was from the Department of Energy and it focused on solar innovation in the United States. They were looking for ideas that could have the potential, if supported by this kind of grant funding, to change the way that the solar industry functions in the US. We applied to the program, we pitched them the idea for our newest version for Shine’s flagship “Juice Box” product that targets, not only for people experiencing homelessness but also people recovering from natural disasters. 

We wanted to provide resources, other than gasoline generators, for communities who don’t have access to power, for example, during Hurricane Maria, a few years ago, parts of Puerto Rico were without power for years. Some of them are just now having their power restored and a lot of what the federal government did and what other nonprofits and government organizations did to help try to provide power was ship gasoline and gasoline generators onto the island and then around the island to address their destroyed infrastructures. It was incredibly expensive, it took forever, and it was also not great for the environment. 

Our proposal is to use solar power as what it’s inherently designed to be, sustainable. It doesn’t require refueling, it doesn’t require the shipment of fuel in addition to just the original device. Regardless of your stands on whether or not global warming exists, or whether or not it’s important to avoid using fossil fuels, there is a purely economic incentive and that is one of the things that we pushed to the Department of Energy because we recognized that not everyone has the same political leanings and ideologies that a lot of the members of our team do.

That was an interesting and exciting experience. We found out a week ago that we won $50,000 from the Department of Energy in the first round. It’s incredible and exciting and we are very honored by this recognition. I’m humbled by this opportunity to continue with the development of the product and to continue building our team. It’s a really exciting opportunity and a dream come true.

Right now we are developing our team a little more, getting some faculty support from the five undergraduate colleges here on this campus, and launching the next round of this American made solar competition for an additional $170,000 in funding.

EA: Congratulations on the first $50,000 from the government! Is it going to be used to develop the second phase of the Juice Boxes? And do you and your team physically build them or do you usea factory? How do they actually get made and end up where they are meant to be?

SO: We’ll be physically prototyping them and our goal is to be working with the first nonprofit solar panel factory in the U.S. which is located right in our backyard in Pomona, California. They are using really special solar panel technology to make panels that are more efficient than any other panels in the market and that are also very cost-effective. We are hoping to partner with them to manufacture our self-enclosed system which will include multiple components that are able to combine together in this modular system that can be easily distributed to populations attacked by natural disasters. 

The whole system is designed to be about the size of a laptop, a bit thicker, it’s goingbe about 3-4 inches thick, but something that would be able to fit into a backpack. Whereas, a gasoline generator and all of its fuel and oil and all its maintenance supply and tools would not be able to fit into a backpack. It would require a much larger space.

We’re really excited to be hopefully partnering with an outside organization. We have gotten involved with one of the local consulting teams here at the Claremont colleges and they will be developing some market research work for us, which we are really excited about. It’s a great opportunity.

EA: Is the hope that you will be able to provide these at either low or no cost to communities in need?

SO: The goal is to have the federal government, or local nonprofits, local emergency management organizations, insurance companies that insure a large portion of the population in potentially impacted areas, and utility companies that provide power under normal circumstances (but their power would be disconnected in these cases), to stockpile these systems. We’re designing them not to only function as individual systems, but to be stored and maintained at a very large scale by the people who would be our clients or the organizations who would be our clients, who are basically large institutions that have an interest in paying upfront for something that would be useful for their residents.

EA: And while you’re doing all of this, you’re studying a Pomona. What have you been learning lately, what classes are you taking, and what have you been doing on campus?

SO: I’m taking chemistry, economics, and a philosophy of science and technology class that’s about understanding how knowledge is made and what it means to do science, and I’m taking, of course, some English and some karate classes, which is a first for me, but it’s been great. It’s definitely been busy, but it’s been a really fun first semester and start to the second semester.

EA: Solomon, do you have any advice that you could give to teens who currently have some crazy idea like solving natural disasters or other big ideas that they could be chipping away piece by piece at some of these issues? What advice would you give to someone who wants to step into leadership  and they haven’t quite gotten as far as you, but they’re doing their best and they’re eager. What kind of advice or suggestions might you offer?

SO: I think my number one piece of advice is to find a niche and pursue it. I’ve been incredibly inspired by some of the work done by the other Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awardees. They have done amazing things to engage with huge numbers of people, to make a real impact in communities. There were several Awardees working with refugees, another working with people diagnosed with autism. There have been so many very specific projects, that I think in general, our projects have been successful because they have been specific and because of that specificity we’ve been able to reach out to people who have expertise, to get mentorship, to look for funding not just from general tikkun olam community service foundation folks, but from very specific partners like the Department of Energy, and that’s been a great part of what has made this possible.

Another piece of advice is to think about finding people on your team who are pointy people, and that goes for not just nonprofit work, but finding people who have talents and perspectives that make them really unique. It’s something that has helped me build a more effective team, something I’m still learning a lot about, but I think working with people who are really special, not just because they are really excited about some project, but because they bring a really unique experience to the table, is something that can be really a huge boon to the experience.

EA: My last question for you, is there anything that we in the Jewish community, or in the teen community, or anything that adults can do to help teen leaders thrive and meet their goals? How can we best support the leadership efforts of teens and young people? 

SO: One of the things that I’ve truly appreciated through the work I’ve been doing with friends and peers so far has been the opportunity to have mentorship from experts in the field and I think that young people, in general, do a good job of having a fresh look at problems in the world, about understanding new technological ways to approaching those problems, but there is so much expertise and so many people who have a lot of specific knowledge about different fields of academia, about compiling teams, about engaging with media, promoting yourself and your website, raising money, and legal structures of organizations and I’ve learned so much from engaging with people who are a lot older than me and have much more experience than me and maybe aren’t thinking in the same way my peers and I are, but bring a lot to the table.

I think if there was one thing I wish existed in a very solid way, it would be a platform where more senior experienced people in their fields could put themselves out there to young people who are eager to learn and eager to make a change. Provide opportunities for those young people to connect with people with more experience and learn from their mistakes and their successes, and to make whatever they are working on even more impactful and even more successful.

Learn More About the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards

Each year the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards honor 15 Jewish teen changemakers. Learn more about the Awards and the outstanding teen leadership Awards recipients.