How A Social Media Contest Helped 15 Young People Chase Their Passions

The question: “What would you do if you didn’t have to worry about money?” isn’t a new one. In fact, it’s been uttered for decades by high school guidance counselors hoping to give direction to aimless malcontents to get them excited (or at least satisfied with) the inevitable fact that the next five decades of their lives will be spent working some kind of job. But Volcom, a clothing company that specializes in surf, skate, and snowboarding apparel, decided to take that question and invert it when it launched its #ThisFirst campaign on June 8th, 2017.

The nature of the campaign was to find 15 kids and let them take something they were already passionate about, then turn it into a way for them to make a living. Todd Hymel, Volcom’s CEO, came up with the idea when searching for a way for the company to better connect with the youth of today by asking “How do we go and find people that have the same passions that we all have, but in different spectrums of the world?”

That’s where the idea for #ThisFirst was born, “finding passionate people around the world who have a passionate story to tell and a passion that they pursue and they put first,” Hymel says. “So it’s really about how you find people who are thinking about that word ‘passion’ everyday.”

Once the campaign was launched, and sponsored posts started turning up across Instagram and other social media platforms, they’d expected maybe 1,000 people would submit entries. By the time it closed, Hymel said they got more than 10,000 applications. “There were moments in there where it was like, ‘Oh, can we add honorable mentions?’ We were trying to find ways not to tell people ‘no.’ It was excruciatingly hard as we got closer and closer to 15.”

To commemorate the close of the inaugural campaign, 12 of the 15 winners were present for the #ThisFirst party earlier this month at the Volcom Garden in Austin, Texas. Some had their artwork adorn the walls, while others performed on stage, both solo and with one another. Gathered from all corners of the globe, each of the winners all shared one singular characteristic: they had an unwavering passion for what they do, and wanted to be able to make a living with it.

“Graduating college as an art major there’s that umbrella sticker where they’re like, ‘You’re not going to make any money, what are you going to do?'” said Sara Becker, a printmaker from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who uses her work to challenge the stigma of talking about mental illness. “I mean, you need that confidence that somebody wants to see your work, somebody feels your work touches your heart, what you make, and Volcom really gave me that platform to not only feel like I had confidence in my work, but my concept.”

“The fact that Volcom really latched onto that specifically — my heartfelt concept behind my work, the fuel to the fire — really meant alot to me,” she continues. “It’s helped me to actually want to pursue activism in that, not just to create art that touches on that conceptually, but to also personally go out and hear people’s stories.”

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Another #ThisFirst winner, Canarus Leon, a breakdancer out of Houston, Texas, said the campaign first came on his radar when he spotted it on Instagram. “I was like all right, guess I’ll try, see what happens, because it doesn’t seem like a contest where you think you would win,” said Leon, who described the contest as the kind of thing he didn’t expect to win, before adding “but I’m here now, so…”
While #ThisFirst celebrates the individual winners’ accomplishments and creativity, a real camaraderie has come out of bringing the winners together. Next month, when Leon travels to Philadelphia for a dance competition, he’ll be staying with Becker. “She’s planning my trip for me,” says Leon.