The heart of the jungle: How five young technologists changed their communities, the jungle and themselves

Even in the jungle, breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

It will also be one of the only times to catch Sara Stifler, Sathya Narayanan Subramanian, Dominic Co, Juan Carlos Murillo and Laura Fulton holding still. It will be where we discuss life, love, technology and the point of it all over eggs, toast, plantains and exotic juices. 

Over the clatter of coffee cups and silverware, these five will slowly reveal themselves and their plans to change the world and, in doing so, swiftly dispatch of any unflattering notions I may have had lingering about Millennials. (In fact, their optimism is so contagious, and their capabilities and confidence so comforting, that one day I caught myself humming “We Are the World” while leaving breakfast – entirely without irony.)  

Like John Hughes’ coming-of-age masterpiece nearly 30 years ago, this Breakfast Club consists of five young people with seemingly very little in common who are thrust into a situation that will challenge them to the core, and in doing so, change them forever. Unlike the original Breakfast Club, these five have reported to a lodge in the Amazon rainforest, not detention. (Also, as the oldest among them was born in 1991, none of them have even seen the movie, but they politely listen and nod while I explain its premise and cultural importance.)

Months ago, before they shopped for two weeks’ worth of quick-dry clothing and headed for a lodge in South America, these five entered Microsoft YouthSpark’s “Challenge for Change” contest. First, they sent in their (vastly different) ideas for how to use technology to make their communities better. Next, they were named among 20 finalists and then, after a tense period of public voting online, they emerged victorious. They each won a pile of Microsoft technology, $2,500 to help with their projects and a two-week trip to Ecuador to help them boost their leadership skills and galvanize their knack for creating change. 

Breakfast is where we will learn that Fulton earned a patent before she graduated from high school (for a synthetic tooth enamel she invented), and that at home Murillo has a parrot named Max that does a spot-on imitation of his mom calling him to dinner, and that Co doesn’t really like ice cream (though his mother runs Dippin’ Dots in the Philippines), and that Subramanian is 100 percent reliable at cracking wise when things get too serious or heavy, and that Stifler spent the summer living in a tent in the woods mainly just to see if she could.

In the span of two weeks, five young adults who started out as strangers armed only with boarding passes and backpacks would become far-flung siblings. In August, they left their homes all over the globe, boarding airplanes bound for an adventure. (Technically the destination was Ecuador, not adventure, but from here on out it is safe to consider the two synonymous.)

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