The woman who writes the ‘Girls Who’ books on greening the world

San Francisco author Diana Kapp jumps for joy after spotting her new book “Girls Who Green the World” in a Barnes & Noble store window on Fifth Avenue in New York City. (Photo courtesy Lisa Kapp)

Diana Kapp likes Type 2 Fun, the kind of fun that is miserable when you are doing it, but with some distance, you remember it as satisfying.

Not everyone looks for fun that isn’t fun, but that is what she cares about. “I just love physical challenge,” Kapp says. “I love it when it’s hard.”

She says that at the Mount Baldy ski resort in the San Gabriel Mountains, most of the mountain bikers carry their bikes up in the chairlift and then ride down. Kapp does it the opposite way: She rides her bike up, and then she chairlifts down.

Kapp loves extreme activities: hiking to Everest Base Camp; rock climbing in Thailand; five marathons; backcountry skiing (skinning up, skiing down); twice hiking the 211-mile John Muir Trail from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney, the highest place in the continental United States, carrying a 40-pound pack.

And while she loves extreme physical challenges, the mindset that drives those pursuits also drives her work.

Make no doubt about it; Kapp, the San Francisco author of the newly launched book “Girls Who Green the World: Thirty-Four Rebel Women Out to Save Our Planet,” is a driven woman.

Girls Who Green the World” (Delacorte, 336 pages, $19.99) profiles 34 women who are hip deep in the kind of environmental work that matters to the future of the planet.

The book is written for teens, but it is no children’s book. Kapp never talks down to her readers; she challenges them.

Her goal is to spread the word about the work women are doing so teen girls can visualize themselves taking on something ambitious, something hard, something that really matters.

Sabrina Schroeder, age 12, reads “Girls Who Green the World” while cozied up. (Photo courtesy Sascha Ward)

Kapp hates the expression because everyone is using it now, but she uses it anyway because it is so true: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

The idea for “Girls Who Green the World” sprouted from her three children. Environmentalism was not at the top of her list of major advocacy issues. Poverty, reproductive rights, injustice and racism were higher.

But her kids were passionate about all the green issues — from climate change to sustainable farming to zero waste to shared consumption. And as Kapp began to look at the world through their eyes — and appreciate that what they were seeing was the world that Kapp’s generation was bequeathing to them — she began to understand the towering importance of the issues and “how much anxiety they have about it, how much sadness and fear; it’s so real and palpable.”

At first, she was intimidated to take on the project. There was so much she didn’t know about. But when she started to interview the women profiled in the book, she found so many good stories that it blew her mind, and if there is one thing that Kapp likes, it is a good story.

Kapp hopes that by reading these stories, girls will not only be inspired, but that they will find, much sooner than Kapp did, what their direction in life will be.

Kapp says she didn’t have much direction growing up. She lived outside of Washington, D.C. Her father was a lawyer and her mother a teacher. She describes her home life as traditional; “my Dad made the money as a lawyer, and my mom was in charge of the family stuff.” She went to a large public high school in Bethesda, Maryland, and in 1985, followed a boyfriend to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

She majored in English because “I always got A’s on my papers, and I love to read and write, but I wasn’t one of those kids that wrote stories and kept a journal. It was more like when I had school writing, I was good at it.”

In 1989, after graduating, Kapp went back to D.C. and bounced around. She worked for a senator shepherding constituents around the Capitol. She moved to a nonprofit and wrote grant applications. She got a gig working nights at Café Lautrec, a French bistro that was open until 3 a.m., and “in the morning, they tap danced on the bar.” She waitressed and smoked “so many cigarettes.”

Of that period, she says, “I just hadn’t come into my own, and I wasn’t getting guidance. I was lost.”

Wearing a jacket made of soda tabs, Diana Kapp poses with, from left, Michelle Zhu, CEO of the Berkeley sustainable dye company Huue; Jessica Landzberg, a Stanford Business graduate student who started the sustainable fashion company Pareto; and Jamie Bainbridge, vice president of product development at Bolt Threads, an Emeryville company developing sustainable fabrics. The four women were part of an April 19 panel titled “Forget Fast Fashion” at The Battery in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy David Singer)

But then Kapp got a wild hair of an idea that turned out to be the most important thing that ever happened to her. She decided, “I have to break out. I’m going to move to California. … I’m going to go there all by myself.”

And so in 1991, at 24, she moved to San Francisco.

Thinking back 30-plus years later, Kapp remembers what a challenging step the move was. She went by herself “with no safety net.” “No one in my family knows anyone out there,” she says. She didn’t have a car. She didn’t know the city or how to get anywhere. She got jobs temping and remembers going to a copy center to get her resume printed because she didn’t have a printer.

She’d been in San Francisco for a couple of months when she got a lead that there was a company in Palo Alto that might need someone to help with getting its message out.

Kapp went down to Palo Alto and, at 7:30 a.m., walked into an interview and learned that the company was “weeks away from going public, and they were desperate fora communications investor relations person.”

She got hired straight away and was soon making $45,000, a fantastic amount compared to her jobs in D.C. The company even rented a car for her to get from San Francisco to Palo Alto for six months.

With her husband, Diana Kapp skiied the Sawtooth Mountains Traverse in Idaho in 2014. (Photo courtesy David Singer)

(The interview was doubly fantastic because the interviewer — David Singer — later became Kapp’s husband and partner in extreme adventures. Together, they have raised three kids, now 16, 20 and 22, all steeped in the “joys” of Type 2 Fun.)

The job was a dream. It was a biotech company, and right away, Kapp had to make a video for the company’s road show.

She didn’t know what she was doing. “I’d never heard of Silicon Valley before I moved here,” she says. “I thought silicon was something that grew in the ground.”

Kapp was a complete novice, but she says, “it was the first time I’d ever been taken seriously. … It was coming to this place where there’s endless opportunity because these businesses are growing, and it’s entrepreneurial, and there’s no rules about who can do what.”

Soon she was writing the company’s annual report and press releases and speeches for the executives. Kapp found that she was explaining complicated technology so investors could understand it. She was good at it.

That gig led Kapp to apply to Stanford Business School, perhaps an unlikely path for an English major, but in 1994, she got in. When she told her father, the first thing he said was “I can’t believe it.”

At Stanford, Kapp got interested in consumer psychology, and when she graduated in 1996, she took a job in an advertising agency in San Francisco. Not long afterward, the agency won the Nike account, and she found herself going around the country to meet with consumers and hear their stories. She’d listen for the emotional part and then come back and use it in the campaign.

After a while, Kapp realized that what she was doing was storytelling and that she loved it.

Diana Kapp pauses on a rock-climbing expedition in Moab, Utah, home to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, known for their stunning red rock formations, in May 2015. (Photo courtesy David Singer)

She decided to become a freelance writer. she would be free to find good stories — stories about things that matter — and write about them in-depth. However, even though her Stanford Business School degree was excellent for getting a job at a tech company, it didn’t do as much for a writer. Plus, she had a more serious problem: She hadn’t written anything for a magazine or a newspaper.

Kapp struck out with her first pitch, but her second was accepted — impressive for a first-time freelance journalist.

“I had heard about this egg freezing happening at Stanford,” she says. “That was the very first time women were going to try freezing their eggs without being fertilized.”

She saw the futuristic implications: “Women are going to free themselves from their cycle, and they can work first.”

The technology was brand new in 2003. No one had written about it. With this pitch, Kapp got a feature in San Francisco Magazine, and her career as a freelance writer was launched.

She wrote stories on education, mental health, tech, culture. She looked to find meaty issues that others were not yet exploring. She wrote about a spate of high school suicides in Palo Alto. She traveled to Afghanistan to write about an English physician and mother of four who, at 50, was building schools “in one of the remotest spots on Earth.”

Kapp’s journalism appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, O the Oprah magazine,, among many others.

“Girls Who Green the World” is rich with stories — stories about women all over the world who are fighting climate change or finding ways to rid the oceans of plastic or teaching others how to reject the throwaway culture of consumerism.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 10 of the profiles are of women from the Bay Area. Some are well known — for example, Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace; Lisa P. Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under Obama; and Lynn Jurich, cofounder and CEO of Sunrun, the residential solar panel company — but all 34 have powerful, engaging stories.

Heather White, the author of “One Green Thing,” joined Diana Kapp at Diesel, a Bookstore in Brentwood for an Earth Day discussion and book signing on April 21. (Photo courtesy Emily Fowler)

San Francisco’s Kayla Abe founded Ugly Pickle, a company that Kapp describes as an “indie brand of condiments, pickles and spreads made from rejected produce — limp three-legged carrots, sunspotted cukes, bruised apples, etc.” Ugly Pickle is buying and using the tasty and nutritious food that is “spurned by beauty-conscious consumers.” Kapp’s lively and generous storytelling not only describes the food waste that Ugly Pickle prevents, but also about how, early on in their relationship, Abe and her partner, David Murphy, shared “an accidental wet kiss.” (Kapp helpfully explains it was the result of a startled response to an unexpected French-style two-cheek kiss.)

Los Altos-based Kathy Hannun, cofounder and president of Dandelion Energy, learned about the potential of geothermal heating working at Google X. Geothermal systems bury pipes deep into the Earth and let the Earth’s heat warm the water running through the pipes to heat homes and buildings on the surface. There are no pollutants involved, and for every house with a geothermal system, “it’s the equivalent of 18 cars coming off the road.” When Google passed on the idea as not having sufficient market potential, Hannun went out on her own. By the end of 2020, there were 500 hundred homes in New York State heated with geothermal. The company’s current goal is to ramp to 10,000 installations a year.

UC Berkeley student Shelby O’Neil was 15 when her father made her tag along on an errand to the tire chain Les Schwab Tire Center in their hometown, San Juan Bautista. She was stuck in the waiting room while her father did his business, and she noticed all the small plastic straws available at the self-serve coffee station to stir creamer into cups of joe. She imagined hundreds of stirrer straws making their way into the ocean. When she got home, she learned from Google that a company called Farmer Brothers was the supplier of the coffee setups for the entire Les Schwab chain.

She found the name of the CEO — Michael Keown — and composed a “Dear Mike” email informing Keown that, by 2050, “there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.”

Two days later, she got a phone call — “Hi, Shelby. It’s Mike.” Not long later, bamboo stir sticks replaced plastic straws throughout the tire chain, and an environmental activist was born.

One thing that Kapp learned as a freelancer is that writers have to be entrepreneurs.

In 2019, she published the first “Girls Who” book, that one called “Girls Who Run the World: 31 CEOs Who Mean Business.”

That book, like “Girls Who Green the World,” told teens about the amazing, innovative, meaningful and often unrecognized work that women were doing all over the country.

One morning at 5:30 a.m., just before “Girls Who Run the World” was to be published, Kapp was sitting in her car outside Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center on Folsom Street after dropping one of her daughters at a skating lesson. She saw that Forbes had just released a list of America’s Most Innovative Leaders and began reading the list with an enthusiasm that faded as she saw that, one after another, the list was populated with the names of men.

Young representatives from Girls Crushing It, a nonprofit that empowers girls to pursue entrepreneurship, join Diana Kapp, right, at the “Forget Fast Fashion” panel event held at The Battery in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy David Singer)

Of the 100 innovative leaders on the list, there was only one woman.

It pissed her off.

Kapp had met dozens of innovative women leaders while writing “Girls Who Run the World.” They had done amazing things.

The Forbes’ list was a travesty. It was also an opportunity.

In a few days, Kapp had gathered signatures of 161 CEOs — almost all women — on an open letter that she wrote to the editor at Forbes and posted on her personal website. Then, Kapp asked Anne Wojcicki, the Palo Alto-based CEO of 23andMe, to go on NPR to talk about the letter, and posted the letter in its online article about the broadcast.

Kapp told Forbes that it was time to rethink how the magazine defines “innovative” and “leaders.”

Recognizing women wasn’t just an issue of equity and inclusion; it was an economic imperative for the country.

“We cannot compete on half our brain power,” the letter read. “That’s like hopping long distances, up mountains even, on one leg.”

A list like the Forbes list “governs who gets tapped for boards, which candidates get to interview, who speaks at conference podiums and who gets funding for their next gig.”

Kapp’s letter got a lot of attention, and if a magazine can flinch, Forbes flinched.

Moira Forbes, executive vice president, and Randall Lane, chief content officer, wrote a formal apology letter on Forbes letterhead and sent it to Diana and other signatories personally via email to say, “We hear you, we can do better and we will.”

Kapp’s letter was deeply felt, but her entrepreneurial spirit is perhaps reflected in a line close to the end of the letter where she asks Forbes to “think about the teen girl who takes her mom’s phone and scrolls her feed and happens upon such a list — what would you want her to see?”

Her book, of course, was the answer to that question, but for the book to make a difference, it had to get out there. Girls had to read it, and that meant that Kapp had to use her entrepreneurial skills to promote it.

A book-party display at Freeland Spirits, a woman-owned distillery in Portland, in May shows some of the pages of “Girls Who Green the World” illustrated by Ana Jarén. (Photo courtesy Diana Kapp)

And so Kapp organized events, found speaking opportunities and traversed the country engaging with young women, every day feeling even more viscerally how important it was for girls to have models they could identify with. She remembered how she felt directionless coming up, “never feeling very confident about my leadership capabilities.”

She wanted girls to feel confident and powerful.

“It’s almost like a movement I am trying to start,” Kapp says.

Some of her favorite feedback came from mothers who wrote to tell her about their daughters reading the book under the covers with a flashlight after bedtime.

Kapp got some flak for the title. Her target audience, for sure, was girls, but the title of the book referred to the women CEOs as “girls,” too. Some people thought it was inappropriate, maybe even demeaning. “I got this one nasty email from someone who really didn’t like it,” she says.

But in the end, the issue didn’t resonate with Kapp. She had plenty of grown, accomplished women friends who called each other “girls.”

One group of accomplished women was her running group. Kapp is a member of a group of 10 women runners — the Early-Morning Crew — who meet almost every morning before 6 a.m. They run five or six times a week, and many of them (including Kapp) have been at it for 20 years. Kapp describes them as “a weirdly loyal posse of badass, midlife moms who have an uncanny ability to talk while we run.”

“It’s really indescribable, I’m so connected to them,” Kapp says. “It is just a complete sisterhood.”

Staci Slaughter, who is a senior executive advisor for the San Francisco Giants, has been running with Kapp in the group for close to 15 years.

“We can share those really difficult, challenging life moments without feeling judged and also knowing that people are going to have your back without breaking confidentiality,” Slaughter says.

At a May 10 “Girls Who Green the World” book party held at a San Francisco home, co-host Robin Richards Donohoe, a social impact investor with Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, introduces, from left, Diana Kapp; Michelle Zhu, CEO of Huue; and Lisa Dyson, CEO of Air Protein, a Pleasanton-based sustainable meat company. (Photo courtesy Adina Safer)

In 2016, Kapp wrote an essay about the group for ESPN Women called “Ode to My Early-Morning Running Crew.” The thesis was that everyone needs a running group. The first line is “They are the scaffolding my life hangs on.”

Someone who saw the piece thought it would make a good television show and wanted to buy the rights. That provided weeks of entertainment as the women considered which star should play each runner (Kapp wanted Winona Ryder for herself).

“I guess I just love women, too,” Kapp says. “I think being with women is so much fun and just sharing our lives, having people to share the ups and downs of all these stages we’ve been through together.”

That feeling is reflected in what she values most. “I care most about living in the same place for a very long time and having deep roots and a close community,” she says. “And I think that’s, like, how you get through life.”

When Kapp interviewed her subjects for “Girls Who Green the World,” she posed a set of light personal questions to each of them.

Among the fill-in-the-blanks questions: “I am oddly good at …”; “My greatest fear is …”; “If I could change one human behavior to save the planet ….”

Diana Kapp and her sister Lisa Kapp go for a run during a December 2008 family trip to Costa Rica. (Photo courtesy David Singer)

In the book, Kapp begins each profile with the answers that the interviewee gave to the questions. The answers serve as a kind of literary icebreaker leading into each woman’s story.

Among the answers the women gave to the “greatest fear” question were “not doing enough,” “leaving potential unrealized,” “mediocrity” and “that we’re already too late to successfully green the planet.”

Were Kapp forced to answer the questions herself, she would say that she is oddly good at “walking fast and running uphill.” Her greatest fear is being “buried in an avalanche,” and if she could change one human behavior on the planet, it would be “our addiction to consumption.”

Kapp’s mother died in 2018 leaving her father on his own after being married 60 years.

One day, Kapp noticed him using one finger to peck out a painfully slow text message. She kept an eye on him and gradually realized he was texting with a new friend.

Her 2019 essay about the discovery ran in the New York Times under the headline “Meeting My 84-Year-Old Father’s New Girlfriend.” The subheading says, “I have arrived at a life phase in which my dad is crushing on a silver-haired grandmother, and I’m giddily becoming his girlfriend’s girlfriend.”

Kapp shared the story with her father before committing it to publication. He was not excited at the prospect, but Kapp pushed and, ultimately, he gave his consent.

She is proud that she pressed him. “Not because I wanted a piece in the New York Times.” Kapp says. “It was because I feel like [for] people who lose somebody and are alone at that age, it’s really hopeful to hear a story like my dad’s. It’s genuinely, like, one of the most hopeful stories you could ever hear.”

San Francisco author Diana Kapp jumps for joy after spotting her new book “Girls Who Green the World” in a Barnes & Noble store window on Fifth Avenue in New York City. (Photo courtesy Lisa Kapp)

Kapp is deep into the entrepreneurial part of promoting “Girls Who Green the World.” In addition to the readings and talks, she is organizing events that illustrate some of the ideas from the book. She recently hosted an event in SoHo in New York to promote World Clothes Swap Day, a way to change the culture of endless consumption.

There will likely be more “Girls Who” books in the future, but not because Kapp is an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship is just how she gets her message out.

At her core, Kapp is an advocate, and telling stories about things that matter is her life’s work.

It is hard, challenging work but, like Type 2 Fun, in the end, it is deeply satisfying.

Diana Kapp’s “Girls Who Green the World: Thirty-Four Rebel Women Out to Save Our Planet,” illustrated by Ana Jarén and published by Delacorte Press, is available now. Follow her at for readings and other events.

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