Marin native Sinead Kennedy has taught shark diving, worked with Malala Yousafzai, and run the country's biggest food truck gathering—and somehow she still finds time to surf.
Kennedy's resume is as varied as her interests. With a degree in marine biology from UC Santa Barbara, she did ocean-related work in South Africa and Australia before moving to New York to work as a digital strategist. Kennedy created the digital strategy and branding for a non-profit you may have heard of, The Malala Fund, while also managing the social media for the 19-year-old girls' education activist and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai herself.
In addition to her career endeavors, Sinead is a human-rights activist. She was a community leader for LGBT causes and has worked with a number of nonprofits including founding Project SAFE– an organization in South Africa that holds workshops in rural areas to teach women how to build solar cookers. Currently, Sinead works as the director of marketing for Off the Grid, which organizes food truck events around the Bay Area. We spoke with Sinead to get the inside scoop on her past and current work, her typical weekend uniform and one of her craziest travel stories.
7x7: Why work in South Africa and Australia?
SK: I took time off during college and went to South Africa to study great white sharks. I went back to UCSB to finish my degree, but that experience really changed what I wanted to do. I was certain that I wanted to study oceans and sharks, which led me to Australia after college where I worked on the Great Barrier Reef. I only had $600 to my name, and spent half of that on the flight out there, so it was a life-changing experience just trying to survive. After working on the Reef for while, I moved to Sydney to be a part of city life and started working at an aquarium teaching shark diving. I spent two years living in Australia. After that, I traveled around Southeast Asia and then I moved back to South Africa to start a nonprofit.
What made you decide to change careers and become a digital strategist upon moving back to the U.S.?
At the core of everything I've wanted to do is this big sense of adventure. I was really involved in politics in college, so when I moved to New York I knew I wanted to get back into politics (plus, there's only so much you can do with sharks.) My passion is to persuade people on progressive issues and I knew I really wanted to do this through running campaigns on a digital scale.
What has been your favorite position so far?
Everything I've done has been so different and fulfilling in different ways, it's hard to compare. I would say, however, that being a senator in the student government at UCSB was my most impactful position because I was young and it trained me to be a really great leader. It taught me different ways of working with people and put me in a position to get involved in political campaigns such as queer politics.
What was most surprising about working with Malala and for the Malala fund?
When I was working for the Malala Fund I worked a lot with Malala's dad. Malala is an amazing and wonderful human being, and at the core of this is her father. Her father is a kind and passionate person. He's a real feminist. He's the reason that Malala is who she is. Her mom is more conservative and doesn't speak very much. Malala's dad really raised her and they're very similar people. It was a really humbling experience to work with them and I learned a lot about Pakistan as a country.
What is some of the work you've done to support LGBT rights?
Most of the work I did was around same-sex marriage. In 2008, I was doing work around the Prop 8 campaign in California. We thought we were going to win it and the fact that we lost pushed me to work harder. After that I was involved in state-by-state work, trying to win the vote by changing people's minds about queer people and the queer movement. Specifically, I spent time working with an LGBT-rights organization called EqualityMaine in the State of Maine for a while.
How did you come up with the idea for Project SAFE and how did you get it going?
It was really an out-of-left-field idea. I was traveling through Southeast Asia and talking with a friend who was also interested in empowering women and had worked with solar cookers—which use the energy of direct sunlight to heat and cook foods or pasteurize drinks—before. She had this knowledge and I knew I could really take initiative and contact people to help get it started. We flew out to South Africa and did some couch-surfing while I got on the phone with people to get donations for initial funding. We really built the nonprofit ourselves. We went door-to-door to build coalitions with people and get translators, and we got involved with Wheat Trust, a large organization that works towards empowering women in South Africa. We went into refugee camps, community centers, schools, and female networks to run workshops that taught women how to build their own solar cookers. Eventually we handed off the project to Wheat Trust, which was really our end goal the whole time, to empower women in the community to run the workshops themselves. That was the beauty of it.
How did you get involved in Off the Grid and what interested you in their work?
I moved back to the Bay Area in late 2014/early 2015. I had been going to a lot of Off the Grid events, but I didn't fully know what Off the Grid was. I thought it was just Presidio Picnic. A marketing position became available at Off the Grid and I knew I wanted a break from politics but I also wanted to do work that involved persuading people, which is totally what marketing is. I went to interview at Off the Grid and it just felt right. The life of the office was amazing.
What are the major goals that you focus on in your work for Off the Grid?
Getting people to come to our events is the easy answer, but that's just one of the goals. What we're really trying to do is enhance the experience at all of our events. We hold 68 events a week across Northern California, and we're not just food trucks anymore. We're building digital projects and we have a catering business. We are really focused on what we want our company to be like and how we want people to see us. We want to expand the experience outside of just food and make it more community-centric, as well as fun and valuable. I know that I'm the target audience for our events, so I always go to our events and judge if it's cool. If I'm having a good time, I'm pretty sure the crowd is too.
What are the current projects you are working on for Off the Grid and what's coming next?
We're kind of stealthy, we don't want to give away our secrets. But one thing that's coming down the line is new technology. We have been growing so fast and our technology wasn't keeping up. I just redesigned a whole new, fresh website, and now I'm rebuilding the app.
(Courtesy of Sinead Kennedy)
Favorite Bay Area spot?
Definitely Pacifica. I live 20 minutes away and I love all the hiking and surfing going on there and just the general beach vibe. It's so quintessential Northern California, that's my jam.
Favorite Bay Area food truck?
Well in my job you really get to know the vendors behind the food trucks. So I find myself judging which food trucks I like based the relationship I have with the vendor. I have a really great relationship with a vendor named Bini who makes Nepalese food at the Fort Mason Center event on Fridays.
Go-to weekend uniform?
Board shorts with a Patagonia fleece. I wear board shorts whenever I get the chance and I probably own more board shorts than work pants. Sometimes I even get them tailored because I get men's board shorts—they have much better patterns.
Favorite place you've traveled to?
I went to Cuba back when you had to bus across borders and fly in through another country. I flew in through Canada, and ended up getting stuck in Cuba with passport issues. My girlfriend left the country so that she could figure out a way to get me out. I spent several very intense days and nights alone in Cuba with no money and no way to get money because of the embargo. I made really good friends who were incredibly kind and generous. We would stay up until 4 a.m. talking about American and Cuban politics and social norms. Cubans are just so welcoming and joyful. I got out of the country eventually. I'll leave that part a mystery.
Where haven't you been yet that you're dying to go to?
I'm really intrigued by this town in India called Meghalaya, that lives by a matrilineal system. The women are in charge, and the men are demanding gender equality with a men's rights movement. That's a real thing. Of course I'd have to go with some greater purpose than to just observe it. I think I'd want to really understand it and draw parallels of other human-centric systems and oppressions in the world.