How She Leads: Julian Potter, San Francisco International Airport

How She Leads is a regular feature on GreenBiz spotlighting the career paths of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business. In this edition, Maya Albanese interviews Julian Potter, chief of staff at San Francisco International Airport (SFO).

Julian oversees the airport sustainability policy as well as government affairs. She has spent 20 years in policy and executive positions in government agencies in the United States.

San Francisco International Airport has integrated sustainability across all divisions of its operations, including design and construction standards, operating and maintenance requirements, concession and lease requirements, ground transportation and employee programs. SFO has set targets to achieve zero waste in its operations by 2020 and a 40 percent reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions. SFO has received numerous awards for its sustainable food sourcing initiatives and is a clear leader in North America for local and organic airport food and beverage concessions.

In this interview, Maya asks Julian to elaborate on how she has facilitated SFO’s impressive achievements thus far, and what goals the airport aspires to achieve in the next decade.

Maya Albanese: How did you move into your current role at SFO?

Julian Potter: I have been with the organization for six years and in my current role as chief of staff for four years. I moved into my current role after we saw that sustainability was an emerging trend and we needed a position to cover sustainability policy across the entire organization. I have always worked on policy, and previously acted as deputy chief of staff to Mayor Gavin Newsom. I also have a master’s degree in public policy from the New School for Social Research in New York. My current work is consistent with my skills and background; sustainability is just a new form of policy.

MA: What are your top responsibilities?

JP: I oversee the airport sustainability policy and ensure that the airport creates programs and policies that will help us meet mandated targets, such as in case of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction. By city law, we are required to reduce our GHG emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2017. By 2025, we have to be operating at 40 percent below 1990 levels. Our program for meeting the GHG emission targets is coming along great so far. Despite the fact that we added a whole new terminal with 14 gates to our footprint, we have still reduced our GHG emissions 34 percent below the 1990 benchmark, and our solid waste recycling rate is almost at 80 percent now.

MA: What other sustainability issues do you work on?

JP: We prepare an annual climate action plan (CAP), which quantifies our GHG emissions and documents all of our efforts and tracks our energy usage, fuel consumption, water use, waste generation, etc. The CAP also defines our planned actions for meeting the next milestone in GHG emission reduction. Our environmental sustainability report also examines all of the major operations at the airport with the objective of minimizing the environmental impact of these operations.

MA: What environmental and social issues do you feel passionate about?

JP: I feel passionate about transportation -- personal cars, commuting and mass transit. We really need to advance new ways of moving employees in and out of their offices. By building the AirTrain, which goes to all the terminals and garages, we took hundreds of buses off the road and eliminated a significant amount of GHG emissions. Now, we’re incentivizing public transit more for our staff. The BART train comes right into the airport, but it is expensive at $16.50 per round trip ticket. Half of that price is a surcharge to enter the airport, so SFO has negotiated with the city to pay that surcharge for its employees. Another example is the bikes we have provided to employees to travel in between buildings at the airport. Rather than travel between meetings by car or bus, we’ve facilitated bike transit by repainting the road lanes to include bike paths, and providing the bikes, helmets, vests, training classes and a GPS that tracks the miles they ride. We’re putting together competitions for who can ride the most miles in a month, so we’re incentivizing exercise, too.

Next page: The "aha moment"