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3 Women Share Their Sustainability Career Journeys

Chris Hagler knew it was time to move on after telling her boss she wanted to shift into a sustainability career. “He said, ‘The only thing green I care about is my green Porsche,’” she recalls. Chris embarked on a new path that would merge her business acumen with her passion for sustainability, and now she is the Southeast Practice Leader, Climate Change and Sustainability Services for EY.

She is not alone in her interest in sustainability. According to Deloitte’s 2018 Millennial Study, three-quarters of millennials believe multinational corporations have the potential to help solve society’s economic, environmental and social challenges. Fortunately, businesses agree.

As businesses increasingly recognize that doing good for society helps the bottom line, opportunities in sustainability careers are rising, too. Careers vary widely and include environmental consulting, alternative energy finance, socially responsible investing, and supply chain sustainability, to name a few.

Three potential paths in sustainability

Sustainability paths can take many directions. Beril Toktay, Professor of Operations Management and Faculty Director of the Ray Anderson Center for Sustainable Business at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business, offers three sample paths:

  • working for a company in any industry with focus on a traditional discipline, such as marketing or operations, that also has sustainability responsibilities;
  • a hybrid role in a company within an expanding sector, such as energy, that is transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables, in which sustainability knowledge needs to be deeper; or
  • a position with primary focus on sustainability.

CPG sustainability with an innovation focus

Chantel Adams, Brand Manager, Global Innovation at Ocean Spray Cranberries, and a 2014 MBA graduate of UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, felt strongly that she needed to become a marketing expert before developing a sustainability specialty. “Although I wanted to do something long-term that was going to be more sustainability-focused, I felt that I needed to become a functional expert in something to demonstrate that I had that ability to think strategically and to tie things back to an overall business strategy,” she said.

Working in the consumer packaged goods industry, specifically the food and beverage sector, Chantel says that “sustainability across the industry varies significantly.” In her current innovation role, she shares observations about the market with organizational leaders, expanding her scope beyond marketing to include product development and operations. 

From consulting to not-for-profit in the energy sector

Lisa Bianchi-Fossati, Policy Director at Southface, knew early on that she wanted to work for the environment, but at the time companies were not making sustainability a priority. “When I got out of school, sustainability wasn’t even really a word…so there wasn’t an obvious place to go or a place to direct myself.” she says.

Her consulting experience broadened her knowledge of industries and functional roles. During her time at Accenture, Lisa was serendipitously deployed to its resources market unit, which comprised clients whose business relied on natural resources – paper, pulp, metals, mining, utilities, and energy.

Learning business fundamentals was essential training when she later decided to move into the not-for-profit sector. “Non-profits engage more effectively when they understand how to speak with a business person and how to work with a corporation that has ambitious corporate social responsibility (CSR) goals,” she says.

Her business experience directly applies to her work at Southface, where she helps businesses be good corporate citizens and works with policy makers to help companies drive sustainable changes in the marketplace. 

Complementing fundamental business skills with self-taught sustainability knowledge

Chris Hagler also recommends getting a solid foundation in business fundamentals. Chris went to work for Deloitte Consulting after getting her MBA at Georgia Tech’s Scheller School. Similar to Lisa’s consulting experience, Chris says she learned about different industries and functions.

At some point Chris realized she wanted a more from her career than to just make money.  After her CEO let her know that he was not interested in anything green other than his sports car, she and another woman co-founded a small consulting firm where she used her strategy and change management skills and learned about sustainability on her own.

She encourages people who might shy away from sustainability because they lack formal education in that area. “You can go get that knowledge,” she explained, something she did by reading books. When her small business began competing with EY, they hired her. Over the last years, she has built the climate change and sustainability practice in the southeast from the ground up. 

Developing credibility in sustainability

Gaining credibility in the sustainability world can be tricky for people who take more traditional business career paths. Chantel suggests getting involved with a local non-profit that needs business skills, something she did as an MBA.

“Learn as much as you can about anything that you think would be relevant…looking back, if I could do anything over, I would’ve taken more than what was required of me, because that’s all I did when it came to supply chain and operations. Now that I am working for a manufacturer, it would be in my best interest to speak the language of those functions better,” she explains. 

Lisa says that “there are elements of sustainability everywhere.” “You may think you’re in a place that has nothing to do with it, but supply chain, accounting and finance are all good examples …that can transform the way an organization needs to operate,” she suggests.

Start with the end game in mind 

Because there is no one clear path to a satisfying sustainability career, having an understanding of the ultimate impact you want to have is essential. “There are things that are going to be shiny and attractive, in business school and after, but if you know that you have a strong passion for sustainability, or corporate social responsibility, ensure those short-term decisions you’ll be making are in line with your long-term goals,” Chantel recommends.

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