On a Friday afternoon in late January, Sam Bencheghib ran alongside California Route 62. He'd already logged 15 miles and was planning on doing 10 more before sundown. It was a typical day for Bencheghib: Since July 2019, the 22-year-old environmental activist had been running 20 to 30 miles a day across the U.S., from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, to raise awareness about ocean pollution. He ran in Adidas x Parley running shoes, which are made out of upcycled plastic waste.
The day had started like so many before it: Bencheghib woke up in his RV, cooked breakfast and hit the pavement. But mid-run, around 2:30 p.m., he saw a guy standing on the side of the highway with a sign that read, "Which Way 2 NYC?" The flip side read, "You Win."
The guy turned out to be Seth Phillips, known from the comedic Instagram account Dude With Sign, who teamed up with "Million Dollar Listing" star Ryan Serhant to promote Serhant's free year in New York City contest. Bencheghib had won, and Phillips and Serhant had flown out to California to personally surprise him with the news.
Serhant, who moved to NYC in 2006 to pursue acting with a small amount of savings, says he owes everything to New York City: "It's what gave me my career, my family, everything," he tells CNBC Make It.
His success didn't happen overnight, though. After two years of struggling to make a living from acting gigs, he decided to get his real estate license. He made just $9,000 his first year as a real estate agent, but he hustled to gain a foothold in the industry. Today, Serhant is one of the most successful brokers in the world.
In 2020, he wants to help someone else realize their dream by giving them a "free year" in the city, which includes an apartment in downtown Manhattan and a stipend to cover food, transportation and other necessities. Plus, Serhant will mentor them along the way.
After sorting through 28,000 applications, Serhant and his team chose Bencheghib. His video, which he filmed on the road outside of the RV he named Jenny, was "super genuine and very authentic," says Serhant. "He had a lot of heart, big goals and a very clear plan for what he wanted to do when he got to New York City. What I also really loved about him was, he was going to do it anyway. He was going to figure out how to come to New York City and sleep on people's couches if he needed to."
But the one problem with selecting Bencheghib was that he was hard to track down, says Serhant, who flew to Los Angeles and rented a car to find him on Route 62. Of the thousands of applicants, "this was the one guy who was running across the United States."
Bencheghib will use the free year to grow Make A Change, the organization he and his two siblings, Gary and Kelly, founded 10 years ago with the mission of combating plastic pollution and cleaning up the coastlines. In the early days of the organization, they simply cleaned up the rivers and oceans in Bali, where they grew up, themselves. As they got older, they started organizing group clean-ups and shifted their focus to raising awareness around plastic pollution by speaking in schools and creating videos that spotlight the issue.
They even caught the attention of the president of Indonesia after they kayaked down the world's most polluted river — the Citarum in Indonesia — and released videos showing the massive amount of plastic floating on the surface of the water. The president responded and promised to hire thousands of military troops to do a seven-year, full-scale clean up of the river.
"That was when we came up with this concept of combining our passion for the environment and adventure," Bencheghib tells CNBC Make It. During his senior year at Lehigh University, he started thinking, "What crazy idea can I do in the U.S. to raise awareness about this cause that I'm passionate about? I thought running across America on shoes made out of 11 plastic bottles was the way to do it."
Bencheghib completed his run across the U.S. on February 1 in Santa Monica, Calif., where he dove into the Pacific Ocean. He ran 3,055 miles over 191 days.
He'll fly to NYC in mid-February to start his "free year" from Serhant. "We're going to follow Sam for a year, we're going to help him and do as much as we possibly can and then it's going to be up to him to determine how he wants to proceed after that first year," says Serhant, who also selected two runner-ups, both of whom he'll bring to New York for a day.
Bencheghib, who spent two months in NYC before his run to train, knows firsthand how expensive the city is. It makes him all the more appreciative for the opportunity to work on Make A Change without having to stress about money. "I have always seen myself living in New York, but the conditions I saw myself living in were: somewhere deep in Bushwick, where the rent is as cheap as it gets, probably working on side projects just to pay the bills," he says.
"To get to focus only on what I'm really passionate about — to put 100% of my time and effort into what I think really matters — without any financial burdens, is life-changing."
To build Make A Change in New York City makes the project even more exciting, he adds: "It's limitless what you can do there."
Serhant agrees: "It's the most intellectually curious city in the world, and if I can help just one person get here who otherwise wouldn't have come here and they want to make a change in the world, then that's better than any donated time or dollar that I could have ever given."
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