Zem Joaquin is business women, entrepreneur and founder of the Near Future Summit, a visionary event that seeks to scale solutions to the world’s most pressing problems, driven by leading tech founders, investors, inventors, and influencers. Prior to Near Future, she founded ecofabulous.com which became part of Huffington Post in 2015 and remains the reigning authority on stylish sustainability. During her 11 years running ecofabulous, she also contributed to House and Garden, Domino, Architectural Digest and 7×7 magazine. Zem helped create, and is still an active board member of the Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute. She executed the Dwell on Design show-houses for six years in a row, and is also an advisor. Additionally, she founded (alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Petersen) and chaired the Gorgeous and Green Gala for Global Green for 10 years.

Zem has been an active advisor to NRG, eBay, Obvious Ventures and many other forward-thinking, inspirational organizations. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and two children and is an avid horseback rider and lifelong learner.  

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

The greatest gift I got living on a commune as a child was the gift of confidence. No one ever told me I couldn’t do something or be someone I aspired to be. Living there instilled in me a respect for community and the fragile ecosystem we share. My mother was the first person I ever saw bring her own bags and reusable water bottles… everywhere. I remember thinking it was annoying when I was a child but it clearly influenced me (my friends and colleagues often refer to me as the eco-police). Living most of my life in California made me passionate about protecting nature and living the other portion in Europe gave me a deep reverence for different cultures and aesthetics, as well as leadership styles.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Near Future Summit?

I haven’t had significant “employment” in traditional terms. My environmental design work at ecofabulous, Global Green and Cradle to Cradle gave me a “green lens” that guides my current search for solutions. Co-hosting the Upcycle conference in Iceland with my mentor William McDonough and being a host over the years for the TED conference, as well as designing the showhouses for Dwell on Design taught me how to manage tight timelines and production. After a decade of co-chairing the Gorgeous & Green Gala and eco-fashion show, I felt prepared to deliver something extraordinary to people I value and have profound respect for, but it was really the relationships I developed through my many careers that have made Near Future possible. 

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Near Future Summit?

Some of the highlights are getting the opportunity to spend the majority of my time researching and meeting bleeding edge technologies and leaders in numerous categories. It allows me to bring together many disparate worlds and see what magic develops. From biotech to mindfulness and criminal justice to transportation, I am always trendspotting in the solutions space, agnostic of category, which is insanely stimulating.

As for challenges, the main one is time. I have so many ways that I would like to contribute and explore the world. Near Future is demanding, I have to turn down opportunities that could be rewarding or lucrative. But at this point, there is nothing I’d rather be doing!

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

My advice is for women in any industry. Go after what you want with abandon, but always be kind and never forget the people who gave you a leg up on your climb. Also, having girlfriends that have your back is our best insurance policy. I have so many inspirational ladies in my life that pick me up when I am I’m down.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?

I have to be honest that when young people tell me they just want a work/life balance, I usually tell them that they haven’t earned it yet. It can sound harsh, but when I was building Splendora with my closest friend Gina Pell, we often slept at the office and worked dozens of days in a row to finish a deadline. That time was precious and I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. I know this isn’t a popular stance, but I believe a couple years of narrow focus builds character. Now I make sure to eat healthy (usually), do yoga (a couple times per week), travel with my husband and kids and see friends while still kicking ass at work (most of the time).

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

Since I have had children, I’ve made career choices that allow me maximum flexibility. In order to show up for school and life events, I often finish projects later in the evening. It certainly helps that I am married to someone who understands and appreciates my choices. I think that is key.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

I think the biggest issue has been the lack of female archetypes in most industries. I feel incredibly supported by the women in my life and would never have gotten where I am without having them as an example and unwavering guidance. Also, in many cases there is a lack of respect for women, which must change.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

I cannot even describe how impactful mentorship has been. My godmother Jil was my first mentor and her guidance is what gave me the confidence to follow my love of design, art, food, travel combined with respect for the land. Gina Pell, who convinced me to move back to the Bay Area from Italy to help her start an internet company in ‘99, and I have had a reciprocal mentorship that continues to influence me in every day. Arianna Huffington and Dominique Browning were my muses in the media world. They have both always been there to lend guidance. When I wanted to do a deep dive on food systems, Christiana Wyly lovingly walked me through all of the nuances and has been an outstanding curator for Near Future. Dean Kamen, Lee Stein and Marc Hodosh have consistently provided me with guidance in all things medical or technical. And, without question William McDonough has been my North Star when it comes to my environmental pursuits. Well over a decade ago I set out to meet Bill, hoping to help and learn. I never could have imagined how generous of a spirit he would be. This McDonough quote serves as guidance for my life’s work. “We need to love all children of all creatures for all time.”

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

So many! Arianna Huffington, Gina Pell (founder of Splendora & theWhat), Lyn Lear (co-founder of the EMAs), Di-Ann Eisnor (Head of Waze), Joanne Bradford (CMO of Sofi), Tina Sharkey (co-founder of iVillage and Brandless), Caterina Fake (co-founder of Flickr), Jennifer Newsom (founder of MissRepresentation), Desiree Gruber (co-founder of Project Runway) and Lily Kanter (co-founder of Serena & Lily and CEO of BoonSupply) are unapologetically tough, yet feminine. They are badass builders of businesses and movements who are compassionate and principled. And somehow they all find time to show up for friends, family and mentees.

What do you want Near Future to accomplish in the next year?

I want to continue to build a community of world positive doers who show up with gratitude and generosity. My goal is to scale solutions to systemic problems, so finding a way to share them with the rest of the world is next on the agenda.


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