The global voyage of an adventurous UWC alumnus
Sebastian de Halleux is a Belgian UWC alumnus who graduated from UWC-USA in 1996, and has since then spread his wings around the world to discover his passion, and to find out how he can put the UWC mission into practice in his daily life. He currently is a Technology Entrepreneur, driven by discovering the planet we live in, and the oceans that surround us. Determined to be the best version of himself, he took advantage of his UWC experience, and the opportunities presented to him after graduation, to question himself and the world around him, and to find out how he can be one of the 'change makers of tomorrow'. UWC Belgium had a conversation with him, 25 years after he graduated from UWC, to find out how that process looked like, what challenges and successes he faced, and what advice he has for the future generations! You can read the whole interview here.
You were born in Africa, studied in the UK and now live in the US. Is your time at UWC-USA just one episode in a life that was meant to be international from the outset, or does it stand out in one way or another?
UWC definitely stands out! I was indeed born in Africa, but I spent there only my very first years. After that, I was living the regular Belgian childhood, living in a house like everybody else, going to a school like everybody else. We were not very international at all. I was reading a lot, though, and I was always feeling that things were happening not quite where I was, but somewhere else in the world. One day I came across an article in a newspaper that discussed a different type of schools, which woke me up and made me realise there were indeed different types of schools. That school was UWC and I decided there and then that I wanted to go to that school, even if I was only twelve, and I still had to wait to apply. When I finally applied, I was pre-selected, but in the final stage I did not get a place. And I even understood why, because during the selection days I had seen all the other candidates, and many of them had impressed me so much and made me realise that there were kids around who had been doing so many things in their lives that they were simply better candidates. It made me only more convinced that I wanted to be part of this initiative and a year later I applied again, and I did get a place. Then follows the surprise, of course, when they are giving you a place, because you cannot choose the School or College you go to. I had wanted to go to UWC Pearson College, in British Colombia (Canada), to be close to the sea, but they sent me to UWC-USA, which is in the Montezuma Castle in New Mexico. A place where there are high mountains all around you, and where you are out of breath after climbing the stairs. But, in the end, it does not really matter where they send you. The UWC experience is not so much about going international, it is also not about being the best. It is about being the best you can be. Looking at other students, I saw what I could be. Just like looking at the world from different new perspectives, I realised what the world could be like, if only we take up the challenge and try to make it better. UWC gives you the message that you can be that change maker. Coming from Belgium, where so many things are being done for you, and you don’t even think about taking responsibility, this was a big wake-up call.
After this intense experience, you came back to Belgium to start studying civil engineering. How did that go, comparing the different approaches to learning?
I was very motivated to return to Belgium and bring home my experience. This is what UWC encourages you to do. However, soon I felt that I had to step out again. As a student in civil engineering, we were welcomed by the university as those who would be shaping the world of tomorrow. Ironically, after only a week I was called to order by the university disciplinary services because I had sent emails to friends abroad, a violation of the university IT policy at the time. These were the early days of the internet. I had discovered email at UWC, and it was an amazing tool to stay in touch with my international friends, who are now scattered around the world. Technology was evolving so rapidly at that moment; new tools were available, but no one understood which possibilities these were offering. The university considered that emails were only to be used internally for communication between staff and students. They almost kicked me out of university for using email to its full potential.
This made me think about the dichotomy between those who sincerely wanted to prepare us to shape the world of tomorrow and those who actually were not open to any change. I realised that, as a student, I would not be able to change that system and took my decision to go and study abroad. I am Belgian, I love Belgium – there is nothing like a long, fresh summer in Belgium and drinking a good Belgian beer on a terrace. In fact, the only reason I left was because I realised that I had to go somewhere else to do the things that I wanted to do. This is what I learnt at UWC: you cannot change everything around you, but there are certain things you change to get to your ultimate goal. And when you are a student, and you have no money or power, one of the only things you can change is your location.
And so off you were to Imperial College in London and you studied civil engineering there?
Indeed. I have this fascination with technology. When I finished my studies in 2001, the world was in the middle of an economic crisis, so there were not that many great opportunities at that time. One field that was booming, though, was the mobile phone market. Everyone seemed to be buying mobile phones. They were shipped by the millions. But again, no one really knew what the potential was of these phones. When they became programmable with Java, together with a UWC friend (Kristian Segerstrale from Finland), we had the idea of trying to develop a programme to play Tic Tac Toe on these new phones. Looking back at it, as a business plan, this was not a particularly great plan, because, as it turns out, only 5% of mobile phone owners ended up playing games on their phones. But we were very early with our idea, and we were not afraid, so we did what no one else did. And when the mobile phone market reached 3 billion users, 5% turned out to be a lot of people. So our little company GLU became big and went public, exactly on the day when my first son was born in 2007. At around the same time, Marc Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would release public APIs to enable programmatic access to your online friends, and again Kristian and I, along with a few friends, decided that this was the perfect platform for us to be playing together, and we launched a new company we called Playfish. Again, we spotted the potential of a new technology. We spotted it just because we wanted to play together, and we thought this could be interesting for other people too.
You make it sound as if it has been all play and no work …
It was the kind of overnight success that took ten years to prepare. And an important element in that repeated success is also the skill of conflict resolution that we gained at UWC. Kristian and I had our differences of opinion sometimes, but at UWC we had learned on how to constructively resolve those situations. Only that way, fruitful cooperation can last.
And then you took a break, went sailing and while looking at the sunset on your boat you had another amazing business idea?
Again, that is a bit simplified. As a kid, I had only sailed small boats near shore. Later in life, when I decided that I wanted to learn to sail offshore, I started a personal journey and wanted to learn everything there is to learn about the oceans. Once my training was complete and after some coastal experience, I finally wanted to get that real ocean experience, sailing from California to Hawaii. When you sail across the ocean, you realise how big it is. And when you start studying the ocean, you realise how important it is. It holds heat, it holds life, and it stores CO2, to name but a few important characteristics. And I was thinking: if we could get people to spend so much time playing video games, imagine what we could do using the same focused on real-world problems, the issues that impact our daily lives. When we talk about climate change, it seems too big to catch people’s interest and I think it is only a symptom of other things that are going wrong. We have to focus on more concrete issues, identify the problems and solve them. And one of these issues is the ocean. But I realised we know so little about the ocean, and what is more, we are not equipped well enough to study it. So, while my previous companies were born from using the opportunities created by the availability of new types of technology, here I was triggered by the lack of technology to examine issues that seem of vital importance. When we have a health problem, a medical doctor will always check the vital signs. So why don’t we systematically check the vital signs of our planet? Around this time, I met Richard who was building robots in his garage and I convinced him to work together to develop a wind- and solar-powered surface vehicle that can stay unmanned on the sea surface to carry out different kind of in-situ observations.
I saw your TED-talk about Saildrone, the company that carries out research projects with uncrewed vehicles. I was not only impressed by the very interesting research that can now be carried out with these vehicles, but I also thought that you are an impressive speaker!
That observation is so interesting! Can you imagine that I could not speak English when I started my UWC adventure? For the first few months I was totally mute and unable to express myself. I will always remember how I felt in that situation and now, when I speak to an audience, I try to speak in such a way that a person in the same situation as I was then is able to understand me. With Saildrone, we are on a serious mission and we have to have everyone on board. I like to think of the Earth as you see it on this magnificent picture of the Cassini mission to Saturn; a tiny dot sailing through the universe. Only if we all help, it will continue sailing smoothly. And everyone on board is equally important.
To end, what would you like to say to those students who are now embarking on their UWC adventure?
First of all: congratulations! This is a big step and remember that you are in charge of your life. But do remember that it is not about being the best. It is about being the best of who you are, whatever that will be. You will have to deconstruct yourself and then reconstruct yourself, which is painful and will include questioning your identity, your upbringing, your place in society, whether you are privileged or not, your gender, and many more issues. But you will come out stronger and convinced of what you stand for — whether you have adopted new convictions or decided to stick to the ones you already had before. And to conclude, I would say to all students about to embark on their own journey: Godspeed to you!
TED-talk: How a Fleet of Wind-powered Drones is Changing our Understanding of the Ocean