The Global Rethinkers: Financial Times interview with Yishan Wong

3 April 2023 | 5 minute read

Following a high-profile Silicon Valley career, Yishan Wong is fighting climate change by accelerating the pace of reforestation

Yishan Wong

After two decades in the tech sector, former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong is building a company based on his favourite climate technology: trees. “If I were to say to you, ‘Hey, I just invented this self-replicating carbon-extracting machine that only requires water and sunlight, and it can be operated by anyone,’ you’d be like, ‘That’s awesome, that’s what we need to address climate change,’” he says. “Well, that’s literally a tree.”

Wong helped to build PayPal and then Facebook into globally dominant forces. He now lives in Hawaii, not far from the parcel of parched land he bought in 2017 with the inkling of an idea for how to bring back its native forest; now restoration of that land is well underway (the process takes many years), it has become part of the proof-of-concept for his new company, Terraformation.

Terraformation is predicated on the idea that global reforestation is the best solution to climate change.

Founded in January 2020, Terraformation is predicated on the idea that global reforestation is the best solution to climate change. The goal, says Wong, is “to relieve all of the bottlenecks that are keeping the world from being able to put a trillion trees in the ground by the end of the decade”.

“Before the human race existed, there were an estimated six trillion trees on the planet,” he continues. “Right now, it’s estimated that we have three trillion trees.” To stop global heating, reversing that loss is essential – but at the current rate of reforestation, Wong says, “It would take us 1,000 years to get a third of the way to restoring all the trees that were on the planet before humankind came along. Obviously, we have to accelerate.”

Rethinking reforestation

Terraformation scouts out degraded and deforested land around the world with potential for regeneration, then finances and facilitates its restoration to biodiverse native forest. The team partners with local forestry initiatives and assists with project financing, as well as two years of training and tech support to scale their operations. It currently has 18 partnerships, including in the Amazon, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Ukraine and Armenia. Partnering with local communities is crucial for long-term success, says Wong: “After we give people what they need to start, and create a clear pathway for financial sustainability, they’ll be committed to maintaining that forest and protecting it."

It would take us 1,000 years to get a third of the way to restoring all the trees that were on the planet before humankind came along.

Wong founded Terraformation to systematically address factors slowing reforestation, starting with methodical seed banking. “It’s fundamental – like a supply chain issue,” he explains. “Trees drop seeds at different times from when you need to plant them. So you have to get them, process them and make them ready to plant.”

Businesses that are heavily incentivised to buy carbon credits and finance reforestation need evidence of the effect on carbon dioxide levels. Currently, demand for reputable carbon-sequestering reforestation schemes outstrips supply. Terraformation steps in and meets the need with tech help, including with easy-to-use apps for tree-planters that retain data for analysis – all making it far easier to register and demonstrate the impact of forest restoration.

Simple and scalable

“From the work that I did in Silicon Valley scaling companies like PayPal, Facebook and Reddit, I know there’s a key insight that’s very unintuitive,” says Wong. “If you want to build something very big, you actually have to use very simple, reliable components.” And with climate change, we all have to think big. “If you solve only one bottleneck, the others will hold you back, so you have to solve them all simultaneously. There isn’t another company that’s trying to do this, because it’s really hard to build capability across multiple verticals.”

When Wong needed to recruit senior colleagues to create Terraformation, he had an enviable professional network, including PayPal and Facebook alumni – but that didn’t make things straightforward. “A lot of these people have ‘won’ Silicon Valley,” he explains. “They’ve had a big exit and don’t necessarily need to work.”

If you want to build something very big, you actually have to use very simple, reliable components.

He persisted, explaining his vision for forest restoration, hyperscaled, to individuals who’d made an impression. “I don’t think of myself as a networker – I just remember exceptional people. When someone is very good at something, it always stands out to me, even if they are quiet about it. And then some of those people knew other exceptional people, so we have an unusually high density of high performers.”

Wong was raised in Minnesota, in what he says was a comfortable childhood “in the way of an Asian kid raised by very frugal parents”. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2001, and was persuaded to join PayPal as an engineer by his schoolfriend Jawed Karim, who went on to co-found YouTube. Wong was so successful by 2014 that he regarded himself as retired in Hawaii, concentrating on his family. “I wasn’t eager to be a CEO again.”

But once he came across the ideas that gave him the basis for Terraformation, speaking about them first to friends and then to the press, he found he couldn’t let go.

Terraformation’s Seed to Carbon Forest Accelerator is launching with an initial cohort of four forestry groups internationally. The company’s early innovations – such as Terraware, an app to track project progress, and solar-powered seed banks – are about to be tested in new ways. The Accelerator also connects teams with financing through sales of carbon credits from the biodiverse native forests, and includes holistic training for teams to develop forestry and business expertise. Wong is confident that the accelerator will bring forest restoration to the locations and teams that need them the most. Until then, though, retirement is off the table. “I gotta take care of this climate problem,” he says. “Then I can go relax.”

The Global Rethinkers

We're getting behind some of the founders and innovators who are changing our world. Check out our hub to find out more.

Global Rethinkers

This document (and any information accessed through links in this document) is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from any action as a result of the contents of this document.


Join the club

We have lots more news and information that you'll find informative and useful. Let us know what you're interested in and we'll keep you up to date on the issues that matter to you.