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Sustainability’s emerging leaders pursue impact-driven work at GreenBiz 19

By Holly Secon
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The GreenBiz 19 Emerging Leaders on the mainstage. From right: Ovie Mughelli; Temis Coral Castellano; Angie De Soto; Trecinia Wiggins; Olivia Yu; Allen Townsend; Cedrik Chavez; Emily Foulke; Awa Ndiaye; Juanita Macheca; Rachael Notto; and Joel Makower. Photo by: Robert Keith

Young people have been brought into a world that’s experiencing the biggest environmental challenge it’s seen in centuries: how to combat and counteract climate change. They are also — so it’s been said — the “last generation that’s able to take action before it’s too late.”

Well, they’re trying.

Young folks are leading new climate movements and speaking out for environmental justice around the world. And as they pursue jobs and careers, they’re looking for meaningful, sustainability-focused work. The field of corporate sustainability is high-impact, high-reward work; however, there are many barriers to entry and employment.

Corporate sustainability tends to have its own lexicon, many positions call for higher education degrees or certificates, and the community may seem insular to outsiders. These factors can be roadblocks to diverse, passionate young voices joining the sustainability conversation and continuing on that career path.

However, expanding the points of view in that dialogue is critical to ensuring that young people from all over the world are able to tackle this massive global emergency together.

GreenBiz Group launched its Emerging Leaders program a few years ago to make sure that these students and early-career professionals were in the room and included in discussions. In February, at GreenBiz 19 in Phoenix, 10 emerging leaders in sustainability attended to meet, learn from and teach other sustainability professionals.

Genentech sponsored this year’s Emerging Leaders cohort with an all-expenses-paid trip and the opportunities to connect with the community. “At Genentech, we believe when an organization encourages diversity of background, thought and experience, it is far more likely to uncover new insights and unique approaches to addressing a challenge,” said Katie Excoffier, Genentech’s sustainability manager. “We are inspired by this next generation of sustainability leaders and look forward to working alongside them to tackle global climate change.”

We asked each Emerging Leader how attending GreenBiz 19 helped them learn about the sustainable business career path, from navigating to overcoming the barriers that exist for them and their peers.

Their answers, below, are edited for length and clarity.

Trecinia Wiggins, development and employee engagement manager at EarthShare of Georgia

Trecinia Wiggins

Being chosen as a GreenBiz Emerging Leader for GreenBiz 19 was life-changing. Never in my life would I have imagined being surrounded by so many passionate individuals representing companies and organizations making such profound impacts within our environment and communities. I am beyond thankful for this experience as it pulled me out of my introverted comfort zone and opened up a whole new world of ideas and possibilities. I know it has made a profound difference in the impact I will make within the field of sustainability. As a young professional in this field, attending this conference and making the connections I was able to make will propel the work I have been embarking on and has set the bar for what I will accomplish in the days ahead. I send all of my thanks and appreciation to GreenBiz Group and Genentech, 2019 Emerging Leader sponsor, for this amazing and unforgettable experience.

Cedrik Chavez, market research intern at AEV Technologies

Cedrik Chavez

I think not knowing how to communicate the benefits of sustainability on the business operations side is one of the biggest barriers not only to young professionals, but I think in all aspects of sustainable business, because at the end of the day it’s a business and you have to be able to communicate how sustainability impacts the company.

I think the biggest takeaway from GreenBiz 19 was to look at your company’s targets, goals and values. Then think about how sustainability can help achieve those goals and work backwards from the company’s target, goals and values as opposed to starting with [how] sustainability will make it significantly easier to communicate sustainability’s benefits to the company.

Allen Townsend, Ph.D. fellow at University of Virginia

Allen Townsend

One of the biggest barriers I see for students and young professionals in pursuing careers in sustainable business is having a well-established network. The sustainability community is a relatively small group, and having a diverse network helps tap into prospective mentors, resources for expertise or staying on top of what’s current, as well as career opportunities. As a current Ph.D. fellow, I spend most of my time working at the frontier of knowledge in the areas of water-derived financial risk and value creation and applying insights from behavioral science to sustainable systems. Although my focus is to influence how others are thinking, it’s also important to recalibrate my own.

Through my interactions and networking with impressive sustainability professionals at GreenBiz 19, one of the many things I gained is a more refined sense of where I can contribute my research now. Beyond that, the relationships established have helped me gain a better understanding of the type of companies where I’m well suited to contribute my experience when I enter the workforce.

Juanita Mahecha, Master’s student of sustainability management at American University

Juanita Mahecha

I think one barrier is that many of the sustainability teams in companies are very young and self-created, so there is still a challenge finding the right set of skills for young professionals to apply for the job opportunities in this field.

On the other hand, sustainability is such a broad concept that all careers fit in this area of study; from a lawyer to a doctor, anyone can apply sustainable principles in their practices. Therefore, it is important to keep including introductory classes on sustainability in all professional careers so that when these young professionals enter labor markets, they understand the opportunities out there and improve the ways we do business.

During the conference, I listened to many panelists talk about connections, adaptability and persuasion. What I take from this conference is how to apply these three concepts in my academic and professional career. I will keep creating a strong network of young professionals that work by and for sustainability. I will adapt to the challenges of the companies and give them the best of my knowledge to understand their sustainability spectrum. And I will use persuasion to convince peers and C-Suite managers of the importance of changing the way we do business.

Temis Coral Castellanos, sustainability intern at John Beath Environmental, LLC

Temis Coral

Sustainability, as a continually developing discipline, introduces new challenges every season. After attending the GreenBiz conference as Emerging Leader, I believe the most pressing challenges for students and young professionals are: a) Prioritizing actions and strategies based on the available resources and the subsequent impact; b) Promoting diversity and inclusion as an essential resource to achieve sustainable solutions; and c) Staying up to date with the sector´s trends and nascent technical concepts.

One of the recurrent insights at GreenBiz was collaboration. Leveraging our knowledge with a network of collaborators enhances our capacity to generate a meaningful and long-lasting impact, while providing us with a framework that allows us to design robust solutions for the corporate sector.

Rachael Notto, sustainability consultant

Rachael Notto

I often see jobs related to sustainable business that strictly require a finance or business background with knowledge of environmental policy/sustainability management as a “plus” or not mentioned at all. It seems in the shift to a more circular economy, which will cut across industry silos, hiring practices are slow to catch up and adjust to meet the different skills required.

We are witnessing an entirely new category of jobs emerge, but current hiring practices do not consider this new pool of college degrees and skillsets. While hiring practices were not specifically discussed at GreenBiz 19, I did pick up on the underlying theme that all industries are dealing with the same issue of how to rewrite their practices, reorganize their companies and rethink their view on how business, environment and people intersect. A key message heard throughout GreenBiz 19 is that most companies view sustainability as an opportunity. Now we have another opportunity: to reconsider hiring practices making them inclusive of these new degrees and skillsets while providing companies with a new source of talented, qualified individuals that already understand sustainability and business go together. For now, students will need a bit more creativity in marketing themselves as they seek careers in sustainable business.

Awa Ndiaye, Master’s in Environmental Change and Management at the University of Oxford

Awa Ndiaye

One major obstacle young professionals in sustainability often face is the lack of support and shared motivation. Especially in companies where sustainability is not engrained in the culture, it can be quite challenging to rally others around sustainability initiatives. At GreenBiz, I learned key strategies that can help spark motivation and invite others within a business to embrace sustainability. It became clear that the first step towards this was to question one’s own vision and to reinforce one’s motivation for pursuing sustainability by it anchoring in core values as opposed to external factors. Then, instead of attempting to impose one’s motives onto people—which often leads to frustration, it is most effective to vulnerably share what sparks motivation for us and invite others to explore how sustainability fits into to their own vision for the world. As such, it is useful to communicate in language others can relate to. For instance, highlighting how sustainability can advance corporate social responsibility to better serve people can help someone with a particular concern for social considerations to rally the cause. Finally, GreenBiz emphasized the importance of resilience for young professional pursuing a career in sustainable business. Through insightful testimonies of various experts, I learned that although the path to generating motivation and support can be quite strenuous, the most important tool to succeed in this field is resilience.

Pursuing a successful career in sustainable business can be challenging for young professionals and students. One of the main challenges is associated with motivation and external support. Often, it can be hard to invite others and co-workers to unanimously adopt sustainability initiatives. It can even be frustrating trying to get other people on board when it feels like they do not share the same motivation or understanding of why sustainability is important. At GreenBiz, I learned more about internal motivation and how to spark it in others or at least facilitate that process. I also learned the importance of resilience and perseverance throughout the process. It appears that often, the reasons why we care about sustainability vary individual to individual. I learned that the first step towards helping others develop motivation to embrace sustainability is to question our own vision and motivation and identify how and why sustainability aligns with our core values.

Olivia Yu, living products specialist at International Living Future Institute

Olivia Yu

The biggest barrier young professionals like myself face is guidance on career trajectory. I had several points of interest when job searching during my senior year of college. I put a lot of pressure getting the “perfect” first job — what would I do after this job?

If I worked in agriculture would I ever be able to leave the field? GreenBiz served as a great platform to expand my connections and learn about what leaders across the industry, in tech, healthcare, green building, higher education, were implementing to promote system change and prioritize regeneration of the environment.

Emily Foulke, information technology intern at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Emily Foulke

I feel like an existing barrier is just the newness of sustainability, especially as an enterprise of the private sector. While this can also be a huge opportunity, I have noticed the tendency for companies to first look internally at which positions have the greatest overlap and then umbrella-ing sustainability into that. This newness can create confusion in what exactly should a sustainability professional be tasked with, what department should they be in, what should their background be … If you aren’t even sure of what their role will be within the company, how are you supposed to know where to look or who to look for?

I was initially excited to hear about all of the industry leaders that had to forge their own path within their companies or those who just had “sustainability” dropped on their lap and ended up running with it, but then began to question what this means for me and the rest of us, with these brand new “sustainability degrees”? Where do we fit into this shifting landscape? While new and exciting is, well, exciting, it can be overwhelming for both those hiring and those looking to be hired. However, combatting this feeling of confusion with focus on your personal goal, focus on your company’s goal — this persistence will carry you through. If I learned one thing about the field of sustainability while at GreenBiz, it’s the power of persistence. This new and complicated field of sustainability is a long-haul game with many hurdles, and like the environment you are striving to protect, you must be resilient. You need to withstand waves of opposition, gusts of fatigue, boulders of immobility … and come back shining with climate hope and determination.

Angie De Soto, Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech

Angie De Soto

One of the biggest barriers we’re facing is that despite a steady increase in student interest, sustainability-focused positions are limited, highly competitive and typically not entry-level. I think a key barrier is the lack of communication between those teaching students and those hiring them. While educators have focused on developing new sustainability degrees, employers are actually more interested in hiring sustainability-minded students to work in all business units. Embedding sustainability problem-solving into traditional disciplines, rather than creating separate programs, enables students to develop an adaptive, discipline-based “sustainability lens” regardless of whether they’re studying engineering, management or product design. Addressing this barrier is why I’ve stayed in higher ed and is a central focus of my doctoral research.

Attending GreenBiz 19 was an invaluable experience, and the conversations I had in Phoenix led to a conscious reshaping of my research approach. Because educators need to understand the complex nuances of “circular economic thinking” before designing experiences intended to teach it, I’ve decided to study the iterative steps of innovative thinkers, design disruptors and change agents in the private sector to connect practice to learning. I was able to meet, network with and learn from so many of the leaders I now want to study while at GreenBiz. Mapping these practitioners’ problem-solving steps, decision-making approaches and the organizational conditions that support them will enable educators like me to more strategically develop the learning experiences that produce the types of thinkers we need to move beyond sustainability and transition to a circular economy.

This article originally appeared in GreenBiz on May 7, 2019.