Edward Shao ’19 is saving ocean ecosystems through his impact venture

man in a blue shirt at the ocean

Edward Shao ’19 is an international man. From growing up with immigrant parents from Shanghai, China, to being raised in New York City, to now starting ProjectQRRestore, an environmentally conscious non-profit in Quintana Roo, Mexico, Edward Shao is definitely a lover of the world.

As a young teen, Shao was in love with magazines like the National Geographic and Scientific American. Shao always found it fascinating reading about the animals and the environment. He remembers reading about the white rhinos which are sadly extinct today. These magazines had an immense effect on Shao’s passion for the environment.

Apart from these magazines, teenage Shao also was aware of constant new scientific discoveries that promised to change the world. However, having a look around his city, things still looked the same. Where were all the great innovations that he was reading about? He was certainly not seeing any of it around him. He felt a disconnect between what he was reading and the reality he saw in NYC.

It should not then come as a surprise that Shao went to SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, majoring in Environmental Resources Engineering for his bachelor’s degree. He came to know Syracuse University’s innovation ecosystem through a class in the Whitman School of Management with the Department of Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises. One of the courses was taught by LaunchPad executive director Linda Hartsock and this was also how Shao got involved in the Syracuse University Blackstone LaunchPad located in the Bird Library.

At age 16, Shao did a study-abroad program in Latin America. He had studied Spanish in school for about four years but today he insists that you need to go down there and immerse yourself in the culture to truly live and breathe the language. After living with the welcoming families and wonderful people, Shao grew to love Latin America. Shao said that the people he met there were less materialistic and more spiritual, friendly, family-oriented and generally much happier than people in the U.S.

Taking back a picture of a mountain sunset view of Valparaiso, Shao promised himself that he would go back there one day. Shao also went to Tulum, Mexico for a vacation after college and joked that he wished his parents would have settled a life there.

Shao’s return to Quintana Roo, Mexico in October 2020 was prompted his decision to leave a government job and his love for the Yucatan Peninsula during that fateful vacation after college. Leaving for Mexico to escape U.S. turmoil and the cold winters, opportunities arose unexpectedly.

“When the world goes to chaos, you can only rely on yourself”, says Shao.

For six months last year, Shao lived throughout Quintana Roo and other states in Mexico, where he met people who invited him to work on an electric scooter rideshare startup. Along with his cofounder from London and team members from all over the world, Shao excitedly embarked on the adventure. However, this startup met with some difficulties.

Shao’s cofounder had great and honest intentions but not all of the other start-up members did. Due to a variety of complex reasons, the electric scooter business that existed in Mexico had gone through major difficulties including theft and interference from organized syndicates that control many business operations and the taxi industry throughout Quintana Roo. Uber drivers were being harassed and even assaulted, and the electric scooter business faced insurmountable challenges. 

As he saw the electric scooter business decline, Shao says he went back to the lesson learned in his Syracuse EEE classes that he could now put into use in real life. We remembered the value of being resilient and recognizing when to make a “pivot.” He realized that being a good entrepreneur means knowing when to switch focus and cut losses.

Shao talks about the Mayans and many indigenous people he met in the Yucatan and was  still drawn to the culture and tradition. He states that he felt a deep connection with them that has stayed with him. He learned that all indigenous people in the Americas first crossed over from Asia through Siberia over the Bering Land Bridge. So, one can say his ancestors were here first, he says.

Immersing himself in a different culture and society really gave Shao a different perspective on things. Shao says that different cultures have a lot to teach us, and we can learn by reading about it, but we don’t truly learn them until we live there.

Shao has now started Project QRRestore with some of the great people who had worked with him on his original start-up. The purpose of Project QRRestore is to unite environmentalists, professionals, and activists throughout Quintana Roo and restore and rebuild the ocean’s ecosystem by growing healthy mangroves and coral reefs.

Shao says that the ocean’s ecosystem is the same as it is on land except that it works with salt water, and he hopes to eventually work with oceans around the world.

He is now trying to win a competition through the Blue Climate Initiative to gain traction and funding for the non-profit to take it even further.

Shao has always loved the water. Growing up, he swam competitively, worked as a lifeguard for fun and scuba dives now. The ocean absorbs carbon dioxide and covers so much of the world and coral sheefs shelter one-fourth of Earth’s aquatic species. Coastal communities around the world depends their livelihood on the ocean. People are starting to care about the environment more than they did before but eventually world news around climate change and environmental destruction are waking people up in dramatic ways.

There are good people in the world who truly care about the environment and Shao is certainly one of them.

Story by LaunchPad Global Fellow Natalie Lui ‘22; photo supplied