Interview with Santiago Lefebvre, Founder and CEO of ChangeNOW
If change for sustainability is to be made a reality, there needs to be a place where the ideas people can connect with the investors, industry, the media, and the lawmakers. That place is ChangeNOW.
Thank you for meeting with us today, Mr Lefebvre! It’s a great honour to speak with you. ChangeNOW has grown rapidly over the past few years and has become a platform for showcasing innovative solutions for sustainability challenges. Can you tell us a little of the story of its foundation and your original vision for the company?
I always wanted to be an entrepreneur who would have a positive impact. But the fact was that I did not know where to start, how to meet my peers or investors. There was no clear place in the world where the people who wanted to develop solutions for a better world meet and find support.
I wanted to change that, because in 2015 I was convinced that it was time to do something, to seriously get the job done and try to collectively solve the most urgent issues of our planet.
I grew up as a kid hearing that “the next generation will have the responsibility to handle the sustainability crisis”. Then, when I turned 30, I realised that this “next generation” was ours, and that we do not have any more time to lose, so let’s get into it.
So we created the first ChangeNOW summit in 2017 to showcase the solutions and gather the international ecosystem of impact. In just three years, we went from 2,000 participants to 28,000 participants, and 1,000 solutions that we present every year from over 120 countries, turning it into the world’s largest event of solutions for the planet.
ChangeNOW is known for showcasing cutting-edge innovations and technologies that have the potential to drive change. How is your company helping to promote and support such initiatives?
We do that, that’s right, but not only. We actually go far beyond high tech, with much broader solutions, covering a large scope, from energy and resources, to mobility, food and agriculture, circular economy, inclusion and more.
Our mission is to help those projects grow to become new standards, by being an acceleration platform for them, by connecting them with the right investors, industrial partners, media, and even sometimes policy makers to trigger new laws that would allow them to go at scale.
For example, following their participation at ChangeNOW, the Slovenian startup PlanetCare, a microfibre filter solution, was invited by the French Minister for Ecological Transition to discuss the path to achieve zero plastic pollution in the oceans. The solution was included in the anti-waste law, forcing every new washing machine sold in France after January 2025 to be fitted with a microfibre filter to stop synthetic clothes from polluting waterways – a world first.
Sustainability and environmental issues are complex, and many people may not be aware of the extent of the challenges we face. What is the importance of education and awareness in driving sustainability? How are you working to raise awareness and educate people about these issues?
So far, humanity has evolved in a world that we thought was infinite. But today, we are realising the negative impact of our actions on the whole environment, and we can’t afford any more putting-aside of the negative externalities, as if they don’t matter. Awareness is the first step that triggers action and ultimately change.
ChangeNOW contributes to creating that awareness. People come, hear, and meet those who are building a better world. ChangeNOW is all about concrete action. And with action come hope and the desire to take part in the change. We reconcile people with a vision of the future that doesn’t scare them.
Known for showcasing the most high-tech, innovative solutions in relation to sustainability, ChangeNOW’s events are always a sight to behold. What are your views or insights on low-tech sustainability and how is your company promoting this concept?
We are indeed lucky to have many of the most incredible tech solutions in the world. But technology will not solve all problems. At ChangeNOW, we’re showcasing a wide diversity of solutions that have the greatest potential for the planet.
Our vision for low tech, though, is different from returning to a retrograde technology. We envision it as our ability to do more from less, using fewer technologies to get the best results. An example of a solution you can experience at ChangeNOW this year is Regenfab, with their regenBox that extends the life of single-use batteries up to 10 times. We strongly believe in this! The environmental impact it can have is huge.
With global warming and environmental degradation becoming increasingly urgent issues, it would be interesting to get a CEO’s take on where we stand in terms of progress towards sustainability goals. What are the biggest challenges we face, and what needs to happen for us to move towards a more sustainable future?
First, we must recognise that, despite an acceleration of decisions taken toward change, we continue to fall behind. While it is very likely that we will not reach 1.5°C, we may still be on track for 1.6° or 1.7°. In that sense, every tenth of a degree counts to limit the damage.
There is still hope, and our mission is to keep raising awareness widely and grow the global community of engaged citizens. In parallel, we must support the development of new economic segments until we reach a tipping point when change will drastically accelerate. Governance and the battle of ideas are today the main obstacles preventing us from reaching that tipping point.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the world, and it has highlighted the importance of sustainability in many ways. Can you share with us how this has personally impacted ChangeNOW and the broader sustainability movement? How is the event adapting to the changing landscape moving forward?
COP26, like many other key events and gatherings, was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We decided to hold on, no matter what, because the environmental and social transition must move forward. Our ecosystem community has continued to grow, and we kept supporting innovators and change-makers through the crisis.
Sustainable development requires collaboration across sectors and stakeholders. What have been some of your most meaningful partnerships and collaborations? How they have helped to drive impact?
In addition to the PlanetCare success story I shared earlier in our discussion, I would mention the partnership between Jean Bouteille, a bulk solution start-up, and L’Occitane, a well-known cosmetic brand. The latter wanted to accelerate its approach towards more virtuous consumption and, in particular, waste reduction. After meeting Jean Bouteille at ChangeNOW in 2020, and after a year of working together, the companies developed a bulk distribution solution adapted to the cosmetics industry’s needs and the brand’s expectations. Deployed in 20 countries, the solution avoided millions of packaging containers.
But sustainability is not just about protecting the environment; it’s also about ensuring that everyone has access to the resources and opportunities they need to thrive. What is the role of equity and inclusion in driving sustainability and how is your company working to promote these values?
ChangeNOW addresses the main equations humanity has to solve to save our planet: climate change, biodiversity loss, lack of resources, and inclusion. The ecological and social transition can only be successful if there is room made for everyone.
At ChangeNOW, we are committed to giving a voice to those who are too often forgotten. Inclusion, social justice, refugees, and indigenous and climate justice are major pillars of our editorial line.
Secondly, the event has been designed to be accessible to all: ticket accessibility, school and family programmes, guided tours for blind and partially sighted people, etc. People from all walks of life are invited to participate in this important event that is ChangeNOW.
ChangeNOW’s largest positive-impact conference will be taking place in Paris this May, one of the world’s most sustainable cities. Was it an intentional choice on your part to hold the event there? Is there any significance to choosing Paris specifically?
Paris is a natural fit for ChangeNOW for three main reasons. The Paris agreement is the first one; it gives a lot of legitimacy. Second, the impact ecosystem is vibrant in Paris and very well developed. Third, Paris and France have led many revolutions that triggered global change. History led us to choose this amazing city and country for ChangeNOW.
ChangeNOW has a global reach and has been able to highlight innovative solutions from around the world. How is the event working to scale impact and help to bring sustainable solutions to a wider audience?
Adding to my previous answers, ChangeNOW’s value is in the connections and collaborations it allows. Here is a great example we’re very excited about this year. A delegation of more than 30 mayors from global cities will come and collaborate at ChangeNOW to build more sustainable cities, as well as meet and source top solutions responding to their challenges.
While ChangeNOW is a platform for showcasing innovative solutions, it’s also a platform for storytelling. What are your thoughts on the power of storytelling in driving sustainability and how are you taking advantage of this to inspire and mobilise people?
ChangeNOW itself is a storytelling tool. We have told the ecological and social transition differently from the way it has always been told in the past, by telling the most beautiful impact stories, igniting people’s dreams and desire to make change happen.
Going beyond storytelling, we push new narratives at ChangeNOW, to help change core values and ways of thinking, and change the way we make society together.
To do that, all the channels must be leveraged. Art is one and we work in collaboration with the audiovisual world to help figure out how to integrate solutions into creatives, books, scripts, etc.
While individuals and organisations make a significant difference, government policy also plays a critical role in driving sustainability. How is ChangeNOW working to influence policy and drive systemic change?
Citizens, enterprise, and politics are the three main pillars of our society. The way it works is that citizens put pressure on politicians; policy makers have the power to change laws; entrepreneurs and businesses develop solutions that can help accelerate politics to establish more sustainable alternatives.
So, our way of doing this is to bring policy makers to ChangeNOW and show them concrete solutions that have the best scaling potential, to encourage them to move the lines and laws.
Succeeding in this task means allowing solutions to scale up, accelerating the development of new economic segments and systemic change.
As ChangeNOW continues to grow, it would be interesting to hear about your vision for the company and the broader sustainability movement. Can you speak about any exciting developments or new initiatives that ChangeNOW has in the works?
ChangeNOW carries the “World Exhibitions” legacy. It is meant to lead the new environmental and social revolution.
While COPs are the times for international political decisions, we have the goal of making ChangeNOW the time for concrete global action.
Also, beyond our international summit, we will continue developing our Impact job fair and influence actions driving change in sports and education.
As the CEO of ChangeNOW, what advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs and business leaders who also want to make a positive impact in the world?
My advice would be to never start your entrepreneurial adventure alone. Entrepreneurship is very demanding. It requires a strong personal and emotional commitment, especially when your business is impact-driven, because your cause often gets personal. Surround yourself; this is key if you want to last.
Also, share your project and vision as much as possible. Quickly get out in the field, collect feedback, test and learn. So it’s no longer a secret to you – ChangeNOW is a great place to do that!
Santiago Lefebvre is a Founder & CEO of ChangeNOW. Santiago started his professional career in finance and as a tech entrepreneur, before completing an MBA at INSEAD in 2015. In 2017, he launches the ChangeNOW summit, which has become within 3 years the largest global event of solutions for the planet. This accelerating event brings together 1,000 solutions and over 30,000 changemakers from around the world annually in a vibrant, action-oriented format. Santiago co-founded the Tech for Good France network, merging into the main professional association for social enterprises in the country. He also acts as an early-stage investor and a nominator to the Prince William’s Earthshot Prize. In 2021, he is recognized as one of the “50 under 40” who change France by French press. When he is not at work, Santiago enjoys reading and passing on his multiple passions – knowledge of nature, history and magic – to his two sons.