5 Minutes With. . . Melissa Lee


Since she founded The GREEN Program in 2009, Melissa Lee has redefined what it means to study abroad. Melissa’s top priority is to bring purposeful, hands-on industry exposure and experience to students. Through The GREEN Program, Melissa has helped students from 470 universities and 70 countries around the world find careers at companies like General Electric, SpaceX, Tesla and NASA.

Melissa was named by the National Association of Women Business Owners as their Environmental Advocate of the Year, and was also on the 2018 Forbes 30 Under 30 list in Education. She is also a U.S. Global Schools Ambassador for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network – Youth, and the 2018 Heinz Distinguished Lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh. This environmental leader has shared the lessons she’s learned as an entrepreneur, and has given the best advice for others looking to do the same.

Why did you decide to launch The GREEN Program?

While the traditional university setting provides strong, foundational skills for students, there are other competencies and character qualities that also need to be taught and trained in order for our workforce to be equipped for the 21st-century. The GREEN Program is a new way to foster competencies like problem-solving skills, critical thinking, creativity, leadership, and interdisciplinary communication for students who care about our world and sustainability. Personally, my learning method is kinesthetic, or hands-on. I learn best through experience, and “doing” so when I was faced with lectures every day during my undergrad I knew there had to be more education than what was offered within the walls of campus. It turns out that there are thousands of students around the world who are seeking the same sort of unique, hands-on, experience to complement their traditional academic backgrounds.

What is the most effective/important way employers can work towards being more sustainable?

Treat sustainability as a core value and philosophy, not as a side project, “CSR”, or separate department. Like most effective change, it will need to come from an organization’s leadership. Sustainability only works when you lead by example and lead with your actions. An example of this is this: The GREEN Program invests at least $1,000,000 annually in the local economies of our program destinations. Unlike the traditional company model, we operate on a triple bottom line business model: to grow people, planet, profit. We also admit that we emit so we offset our collective carbon emissions from our students’ flights every year. Our alumni vote for a sustainability offsetting project every year that they would like us to contribute to. If anyone reading this is interested in doing this for their personal or work travel, we work with CarbonFund.org and they have been a great help to make our offsetting a smooth, easy, and effective process. Taking small, intentional steps like this are relatively easy and anyone can do it. If you are a decision maker in your organization or company, I challenge you to start acting on sustainability efforts and embedding the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into your organization’s core values. There are great resources out there for companies to integrate the SDGs into their business models. In Europe, sustainability is already core part of most companies and the law requires every company to report on its sustainability initiatives annually. What most companies don’t realize is that the SDGs are actually designed and tailored for businesses to integrate the SDGs into their business plans.

Do you think higher education is necessary for success?

It depends. What is “success” to you? If your goal in life requires you to have a degree, then yes, you should probably get one if you want to stand a chance in the application process. With that said, I do not think higher education is for everyone. There are many people, like myself, who learn better through other forms of education. I personally found a lot of value outside of the classroom in the university setting and it has opened doors to leadership and great networking opportunities. Regardless, education is absolutely necessary but it is important that people realize their most effective learning styles earlier than later. This understanding of yourself will be carried through your whole life and is a necessary element to help you find your “success”.

You were named Forbes 30 Under 30. What do you think makes young entrepreneurs, like yourself, so successful?

Hard work is definitely a big part of it but more than anything, I see entrepreneurs as problem solvers who find a thrill in chasing challenges. It could be solving a global issue or developing a new app that helps make someone smile with just a swipe or “like”. Overall, entrepreneurs want to help others and provide a value to the world that has not existed before. The Millennial generation is known to be the generation of entrepreneurs, with 60% of Millennials identifying as an entrepreneur. Can you blame us though? We grew up in and are living in a time where there are too many world problems that need to be solved, so I’m proud of my generation for stepping up to the challenges.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your travels around the world?

We can learn so much more from other countries and people from other cultures. I’ve also learned that it’s important to disconnect in order to connect with yourself and your surroundings. Travel teaches you to live in the moment, be spontaneous, problem-solve, roll with the punches that life throws your way, and embrace them. Like anything else in life, travel is what you make it. If you choose to stay in a resort and your hotel room the whole time, I guarantee you that there is more to explore, learn, eat, and discover in the area – go adventure! There are things to do and amazing people to meet all around us. Travel has helped my students find direction, a sense of purpose, and enforced them to stay curious – a fundamental element of enhancing education and enjoying life!

What advice do you have for women who want to become entrepreneurs?

Mentorship from people who have your best interest in mind is critical. The path of entrepreneurship has really high, highs and really low, lows. Having a community and network to be your soundboard is more helpful than you will realize. With that said, be stubborn on your mission but flexible with how you get there. There have been so many unique opportunities that have come our way just from saying yes and going for it. On the other hand, when you feel like you’ve been saying yes too much, start getting good at saying “no”. It will help you clear the clutter and stay focused. Last thing- Understand the “Three P’s”: Perfection, Passion, Process. These are three elements that help you grow and become good at what you do, but at moments when you feel stuck, oftentimes it is coming from one of the “Three P’s” as well. Don’t let perfection, passion, or the process stifle your progress to move forward.