Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Kristina McKean of The Elephant Project Is Helping To Change Our World
Don’t give up on what you feel is right. I have found that if you have pure intentions and a goal, you can empower yourself and others to make a real change in this life. Trust your instincts. It starts with a vision, but you must work hard to get there. The vision is not enough.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristina McKean.
Kristina McKean is the founder of The Elephant Project. A seasoned entrepreneur and product design specialist, Kristina has leveraged the extensive experience she gained while working for multinational clients and corporations like The Gap to create a cuddly way for the next generation of philanthropists to help action sustainable change today: The Elephant Project. Kristina has doubled down on her life- long passion for animal protection and wildlife conservation by creating this luxe line of plush stuffed elephants and donating 100% of all net proceeds to the aligned, on-the-ground non-profit organizations that directly benefit the toys’ real-world counterparts. To date, Kristina and The Elephant Project have helped aid in the rescue and protection of hundreds of elephants, while fostering numerous orphaned elephants, increasing family education around the ethical and physical complexities of elephant tourism, and delighting children the world over with her adorable SaveUs™ branded collection of Kiki, Tembo (and soon, Baby Chaba) plushies. Kristina has been profiled by a multitude of local, national, and international media outlets, including The Today Show, Vogue, People, Santa Barbara Magazine, The Montecito Journal and The Santa Barbara Sentinel. Her partner non-profit organizations include The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Elephant Nature Park, and The Elephant Cooperation.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was celebrating my honeymoon with my husband in Thailand. Near the beginning of our trip, I saw a baby elephant begging on the street (“Begging elephants” are elephants that have been taken and held captive by beggars and are typically emaciated and severely malnourished. They are made to walk long hours throughout Thailand’s towns — paraded around to perform tricks to gain money). When I saw the enslaved baby elephant looking helpless, restrained, and in despair, it completely broke my heart and, frankly, kind of ruined our trip.
I thought, “How could this be? How could humans be so cruel to these beautiful creatures?” It bothered me so much that by the time I came back home, the only thing I had on my mind was how I could help end this practice. While I was overwhelmed with frustration at first, since I didn’t know where to start, I knew this inner, nagging feeling was a calling. All I wanted to do was figure out how I could play a role to remove this horrible practice from this planet and save these animals. I started signing petitions. I joined rallies that would protest and bring awareness to cruel circus practices. Over time, I met others who shared the same passion I had to get as many of these elephants as possible into safe, humane environments. However, our scope of impact was relatively small in the beginning, because we didn’t yet have social media or digital campaigns to amplify the awareness that was needed.
Then one day when I saw my daughter playing with a stuffed animal, everything clicked. What if I could make a stuffed animal that taught children about this cause and raised awareness for elephants before they’re completely extinct? I knew from my petitioning days that most of the people who were dumbfounded by the abuse of elephants were young girls. That was my audience. If I was going to make any kind of impact, it was going to begin with them. I ran with the idea. I had mock-ups made until I honed in on the right design, found a manufacturer, and The Elephant Project was launched in 2017. Since then, this passion project has taken on a life of its own, and we’ve been able to help rescue hundreds of elephants from captivity and abuse. Profit incentives were never the goal. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to donate 100% of the net proceeds to make the difference I was called to.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Lek Chailert, my personal hero and the founder of the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand was visiting the U.S. While she was here, a woman from Direct Relief (a humanitarian organization) encouraged us to have a showing of Love and Bananas that highlights the daring 48-hour mission across Thailand that Lek and a team of elephant rescuers took on to save a 70-year-old, blind, captive Asian elephant and bring her to freedom. We hosted a viewing in Santa Barbara and gained great support from that community of people who were inspired to help and to learn more about why riding elephants and other common tourist activities were so problematic and abusive. That experience revealed to me that, when shown the painful truth behind the curtain, most people are receptive and want to help activate change. I saw that there’s definitely an audience out there who will listen and get involved, if I was willing to put in the work to help educate them.
That’s why our stuffed animals are so much more than toys. The company is the mission. It is about saving majestic, powerful, innocent creatures. It is about leading the way for other people to help. I’ll never forget when Lek told me that “elephants pick their people.” That must be true, since I have received so much press and support for these efforts already. I felt the first taste of the impact we’re working toward when I was able to gather 200,000 signatures to safely and humanely retire an aging elephant at the local zoo to an elephant sanctuary. I learned that one person can actually make a difference, and I now teach my daughters to be their own advocate, to stand up for what they believe in, and to know that they are capable of making a bigger impact than they may think at the outset.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started developing the collection, I put an ad on Craigslist to hire seamstresses who could create the prototype. Several people responded, and I tried to explain to each of them how the elephant should look. I cut and pasted doll ideas — but, with my lack of artistry and bad drawings — they couldn’t really understand my vision at first, and I knew I had a lot more work to do. Turns out, designing stuffed animals and creating prototypes is much harder than you might think.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Since we’re technically a toy manufacturer, The Elephant Project is not considered a non-profit, but we do give 100% of our net proceeds to support well-established NPOs who share our mission. I work with is the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya. Most of their elephants are baby elephants whose mothers died due to poachers and trophy hunting. They have a program that allows people to foster elephants, in the same way you can foster a child from far away and are given regular updates. This can actually be done quite inexpensively, and every little bit counts. We have an ongoing relationship with the organization. Another organization we support is The Elephant Nature Park (again, founded by Lek Chailert and based in Thailand). It’s an authentic and passionate organization that has established a beautiful sanctuary and rescue center for previously captured and tortured elephants. I think Lek and her team are doing amazing things, and they deserve even more support to truly make the impact that they are capable of making.
We currently offer two stuffed elephants — both inspired by real-life elephants that have been rescued and a stuffed lion. All the proceeds from these sales go to organizations that are actively fighting against the cruelty that elephants suffer. We’ve also offered limited edition style options including Halloween outfits, summer themes, pajama editions, and more. We even did special blue-and-yellow outfits for our elephant dolls in honor of the animals at danger in the Ukraine crisis. And, ultimately, the purchase of each of these carefully designed stuffed animals goes toward helping end this cruelty and restore the lives of their real-world counterparts, which feels like a really positive social impact to me.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Hands down, it would be Lek Chailert. She continues to exert heroic efforts to change brutal practices and provide sanctuary at her Elephant Nature Park and has even been featured as one of Time Magazine’s “Heroes of Asia” in 2005. She doesn’t have a corporation behind her. She is a grassroots change-maker and has rescued hundreds of animals. Her park provides sanctuary for disabled, blind, and orphaned elephants that have often spent decades working in the logging and tourist industries.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Yes, we can start with small things that really make a difference. Celebrities can stop taking and posting selfies with extinct animals. We can stop offering elephant rides and stop using elephants in circuses, renaissance fairs, and zoos. We can change the way we relate to animals and stop viewing them as commodities to own. We can implement legislation to enhance animal rights and direct more funding to groups that protect them. It is more beneficial to share stories of how we can make an impact.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
A leader is someone who is strong, unafraid, and who takes on issues that no one else wants to take on. Leaders have a positive attitude for change and know that one person can make a difference.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Don’t give up on what you feel is right. I have found that if you have pure intentions and a goal, you can empower yourself and others to make a real change in this life. Trust your instincts. It starts with a vision, but you must work hard to get there. The vision is not enough.
- Hard work goes further than luck. People always say “You’re so lucky” to me. Yes, there is some luck involved, but it’s more about hard work. Keep consistent with your desire, keep going, keep reaching out. You’d be surprised how much “luckier” you’ll be the harder you work.
- Starting a company is hard. When I first started this, I remember people telling me, “If you are passionate about what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” While I love what I do, there is always hard work involved. It is very well worth it, but people should be prepared to roll up their sleeves and put in the work.
- Ask questions, ask for help. If you need something, ask for it. People can (and often do) say no. I asked many people to share the story of the elephants or include me in something they were doing. You never know where the connection will come from, so I asked everyone in my address book if they could help me make a difference for these elephants.
- It may not turn out as you envision, it could be better. Not everything goes as planned, but it’s all part of the journey. Every step forward leads you somewhere. Keep going, trust the process, and hold your original mission close whenever the doubt starts to creep in.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“We’re all making it up as we go along.” Oftentimes, we assume that organizations are backed by huge teams of people, but nonprofits for animals are often just a few people working from home. We are all doing our best, and every little bit helps make the difference we are working toward.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
You never know where you can find people. This summer I was in Italy at the Amalfi Coast. I was in a restaurant having lunch, and I saw Leonardo DiCaprio. I didn’t want to disturb him, but it would be great to have someone like him (with great power and an ongoing commitment to animal preservation and protection) join our cause.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Kristina McKean of The Elephant Project Is Helping To Change Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.