Back in 2011, Sterling McDavid was clocking hours as a Goldman Sachs first-year analyst. Seeking to dive into something meaningful outside of work, she got involved with UNICEF Next Generation, a group of young professionals working to save the lives of the world’s most vulnerable children. Two years later, her involvement with the organization led her to two weeks of volunteer work in Vietnam—a trip that would change everything for the young professional. Below, McDavid shares the inspiring journey that led her to launch the Starling Project—a line of beautifully scented soy wax candles made in Brooklyn—from which each sale helps support communities in need by providing solar energy.
The Window: Tell us about the decision to pivot in your career path and launch your own company.
Sterling McDavid: My 2013 trip to Vietnam completely changed my life. I could not believe how many lives were being saved by UNICEF’s work, and all I knew was that if I spent even half of the hours I did working my life away on Wall Street working for the greater good of these children, I could really make a difference in the world. I came back to the US and immediately put in my two weeks notice at Goldman and embarked on an adventure to start a social impact brand that would give back to UNICEF. I now am a proud member of the UNICEF Board of Directors, Chair of UNICEF Next Generation, and founder and CEO of my very own incredible social impact brand that is saving lives. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure this is real life!
What was your mission with the Starling Project?
I was inspired to start The Starling Project for three reasons. Firstly, I wanted to spread awareness about solar energy and all the incredible work UNICEF is doing to save lives. Secondly, I wanted to inspire collective action—people coming together to really make a difference and give back. Thirdly, I wanted to create a candle collection that is above and beyond what was on the market. I am a candle junkie and always have been, so I knew I wanted to create a candle that burned evenly, had an extensive burn time, and looked beautiful in any home.
So the product itself was as important as the mission?
For sure. I also wanted soy wax and long-lasting fragrance. We are proud to manufacture in Brooklyn and equally proud to have all of the components I mentioned. Our mission is to provide solar energy to communities in need around the world, while simultaneously providing our customers with an elevated candle experience.
Why did the idea of solar projects specifically become so important?
I was familiar with solar energy, but did not realize all it can do until I was in Vietnam, where I witnessed firsthand a solar panel powering pipes to provide clean water. My mind was blown. Prior to that day, I didn’t realize solar could be a life-saving tool. It can do everything from power pipes for clean water to power refrigerators for life-saving vaccines. And the light provided by solar energy can lead to safer environments, lowering rape statistics and increasing productivity. It is truly an incredible tool.
Tell us about the countries you work with through the Starling Project. How have your experiences there shaped you and your mission?
We are proud to have given over $100,000 to Chad for UNICEF’s solar energy initiatives. The solar panels we funded not only provide light to the most impoverished communities, but they also help power pipes for clean water. Prior to installing these panels, community members had to walk over 4 miles in one direction for clean water, but now they have it right at their fingertips in the center of the community. This means members can get back to work and children can get back in school, given that they are no longer spending full days fetching water. Additionally, cholera and diarrhea outbreaks have been drastically reduced in these communities, since the water they consume is no longer contaminated. It is absolutely amazing that solar is a solution to so many things for these rural communities!
We also are now focused on funding solar energy for hospitals in Rwanda. After working in the field with UNICEF in Rwanda last year, my team and I decided it made sense to focus our efforts there. I was absolutely shocked by the fact that hospitals could not continue life-saving surgeries simply due to having no power. Also, the hospitals could not store life-saving vaccines because they require refrigeration which, of course, requires power. It made a world of sense for us to begin funding solar for these hospitals and we are excited already to be witnessing the progress.
What do you hope to achieve next?
The Starling Project has already garnered nearly $200,000 for UNICEF solar initiatives in our short two years of life, but our goal is to go above a million dollars in the next five years. We know it is an aggressive goal, but we believe that with the support of our loyal customers, we can get there. That would mean hundreds of thousands of lives saved, which would be a dream come true!
You received a UNICEF Champion for Children Award and the President’s Volunteer Service Award from President Obama—how impressive! What was that experience like?
It was an incredible honor to receive these prestigious awards for the work I am doing. However, candidly, there is nothing more gratifying than meeting the people whose lives we are positively impacting. Everyone deserves to live a healthy and safe life.