Like many successful millennial entrepreneurs, the dream started in an Ivy League dorm room for Henry Elkus. And like many of his contemporaries, the ambition and inspiration of the vision was so powerful that his enrollment at Yale University became a mere nuisance.
At 22, Elkus is changing the world, and he’s just getting started as the founder and CEO of Helena, a global think tank and non-governmental organization the majority of whose efforts involve putting ideas into action. The members—not board members, just members—are the core of the organization. Half of those members are 25 or younger.
“Honestly, I’ve always struggled in the classroom, but once I develop an idea organically, I become obsessed,” Elkus says. “I didn’t use college like the average person; it was more experimental. I was taking all different kinds of classes, forcing myself to discover what I was passionate about and having a deep philosophy about that passion.”
Each year, Helena, which is based in Los Angeles, names 30 new members, and they meet throughout the year to analyze global issues and develop projects. Members include a Nobel laureate, two retired four-star generals, a nuclear physicist and some of the brightest young minds in the world today.
“With Helena, I found this thing I loved doing,” Elkus says. “I just couldn’t respect or find the time for both school and Helena, so it was an easy choice. What we do every day now, it’s a more active style of education than college.”
Before anyone rolls their eyes at the notion of a Yale student “struggling in the classroom,” it’s worth noting that Elkus dropped out of high school at 15 after his freshman year. The year before, one of his classmates—a vibrant, fearless, young woman—was killed in an auto accident. The moment was a turning point that Elkus credits as a major factor leading him to reassess his goals and to develop the courage needed to pursue those goals. He co-founded a clothing business while traveling the world as a full-time ski racer. After a few years he started taking classes through Stanford Online High School and began writing for the Wall Street Journal’s online small business section before heading across country for college.
“I’ve always been obsessed with helping people, even from a young age, seeing the homeless around Los Angeles,” Elkus says.
As a restless freshman at Yale, he came up with concept for Helena and immediately went into obsessive mode, researching leaders from 90 fields until 5 a.m. He compiled thousands of names into a spreadsheet of potential members. He started reaching out to those people, and while there were a lot of noes early on, soon enough the idea became a reality.
A year later Elkus and fellow classmate Sam Feinburg, who now serves as the executive director and chief operating officer, left school. Helena quickly took off, assembling an impressive array of members, including Hollywood producer Brian Grazer, Ret. U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, General Electric vice chair Beth Comstock, North Korean escapee and activist Yeonmi Park and former NFL All-Pro Arian Foster.
Some have taken to calling Helena’s members the real-life version of the Avengers, which to Elkus means a group of leaders coming together to take on global problems through collaboration.
Thus far Helena has launched two significant initiatives in climate change and global security. The group has already seen success with its first major project, the Helena Prize, with the goal of identifying an economically sustainable technology to remove as much CO2 from the atmosphere as possible. Helena supported the Swiss company Climeworks, providing consulting, mentorship and acccess to rapid-prototyping facilities, as the company launched the world’s first two climate plants, built to capture CO2. Helena’s consensus is that the world’s response to climate change in the next 50 years will be one of the most consequential in human history, impacting the next 10,000 years.
Elkus has tapped into his members’ wealth of knowledge in another way, asking each one which books were essential to them, and compiling their answers into a database. When he’s not facilitating meetings between Helena’s members and leading Helena’s projects, he can usually be found reading.
“Every free moment I have, I’m reading,” Elkus says. “The single most valuable thing I did while building Helena was making reading a central component of my life. My house is completely overrun with books; I’m completely addicted. I hate giving advice because it’s so subjective, but reading smart books as much as possible has been the key to my own success.”
Helena has 15 full-time and five part-time employees and anticipates adding 30 more members in early 2018. Future projects include minority job growth and the U.S. economy.
As far as funding, Helena is a nonprofit that doesn’t accept money or donations from its members. The majority of the capital comes from grants and fundraising. There are also no clients; no outside person or company can call Elkus and pay for Helena to champion their cause.
“We only take on our passions, We seek the best solution to a given problem, and that is it,” he says.
Despite Helena taking up the majority of his time, Elkus is also the youngest member of the Wall Street Journal’s small-business panel and the Social Entrepreneur in Residence of the Boston Consulting Group. He says Helena’s mission will remain to bring together dynamic, brilliant leaders of all ages, from different fields, in small groups to find the best solutions to society’s biggest challenges.
“This is by far the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done, and I know that sounds ridiculous since I’m 22, but I mean it in the best way,” Elkus says. “I’m in this for the infinite game. I’m in love with what we’re trying to accomplish here. I can’t see not being involved with Helena; this will be the backbone of my life. I am always imagining where we could be, what we could be achieving and contributing in five, 10, 15 years, and it’s so exciting.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine.