How She Leads: Jennifer Silberman, Hilton Worldwide

How She Leads is a regular feature on GreenBiz spotlighting the career paths of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business.

As vice president of corporate responsibility for Hilton Worldwide, Jennifer Silberman helps oversee CSR efforts at more than 4,000 properties across 10 brands, including DoubleTree by Hilton, Embassy Suites, Waldorf Astoria and Hilton Garden Inn. Commitments range from waste, water and energy initiatives to human trafficking and youth development, all of which are part of Hilton's Travel with Purpose platform. Recent high-profile efforts include the announcement that the company would stop selling sharkfin at its 96 owned and managed Asia Pacific properties by next month.

Here, Silberman discusses how she got involved in sustainability, challenges she's faced and advice she has for others aspiring to a role like hers.  

Nikki Gloudeman: When did you become professionally involved with sustainability, and why?

Jennifer Silberman: Officially, it was about 10 years ago. I had worked for APCO Worldwide's corporate responsibility practice, where I had the opportunity to work with companies such as Nike, Microsoft, Exxon Mobil, Mars and Johnson Controls. I saw the intersection of what they did as businesses and what their visions were, as well as how they leveraged values and key priorities.

The opportunity to come in-house was about three and a half years ago when I joined Hilton, and it was a dream job. It was really about thinking about all of the things I had watched and advised and partnered with my clients on over the years, but didn't necessarily always get to see put into practice. 

Gloudeman: How does your position fit into Hilton's broader corporate structure, and how do you work with other departments to execute your job?

Silberman: The core corporate responsibility team is a small group of five, and we like to see ourselves as dot connecters trying to look for opportunities where different teams can work together. We have subject matter experts around the world and an amazing engineering and operations team. That team drives so much of the environmental performance in our hotels, in terms of our energy initiatives and waste management.

Then we have a whole team that works on supply chain issues, which is everything from our procurement team members to those who look at where agricultural shifts are happening or how the cost of cotton is going to impact sourcing. They are constantly thinking about the broader resource implications of what they do. 

Our HR teams are obviously critical in not only driving everything that we do, from a team member engagement standpoint, but in supporting all of the learning, development initiatives and recruitment issues. They also make sure that we are engaging team members in the most thoughtful and strategic ways. 

Gloudeman: How have Hilton's sustainability goals impacted the company financially?

Silberman: As of the last Travel with Purpose report, which was for 2012 — the 2013 report will be coming out this fall — we saw $253 million in accumulated cost savings since 2009 through efficiency projects that reduced energy and water use, as well as carbon dioxide and waste output. We track all of that through a performance management tool called LightStay, which helps us ensure that we are driving toward our goals but also measuring cumulative savings and impact.   

Gloudeman: Can you explain more about LightStay? 

Silberman: It's a tool that we launched a few years ago that drives and supports sustainability performance across our portfolio. We made it a brand standard, which means that regardless of the brand and whether it's an owned, managed or franchised hotel, you have to report with this tool. It allows us to get a full picture of the more than 4,000 hotels in our portfolio.

Gloudeman: How do you communicate these savings to others in the company?

Silberman: Certainly to our owners it's an important message, and we communicate that on a yearly basis. It's also something that from a team member engagement standpoint is important. One of the things we're doing this year is really helping our team members on property understand the role they play in driving performance.

I think a lot of times, you put these goals out there and you have great metrics and reporting tools, but not every team member understands the role that he or she plays in driving that. So this year, we launched a campaign in our Hilton and DoubleTree properties that is called the Living Sustainably campaign. On a quarter-by-quarter basis, we focus on one of our key sustainability goals or initiatives, and give our hotels easy, no-cost activities they can do by just tweaking a process or changing a behavior. For instance, the housekeeping team probably has so many innovative ideas, but we haven't asked them before to see how they might tweak things just a little bit to drive considerable savings from a water or energy perspective.

Gloudeman: How does Hilton's CSR strategy relate to the Travel with Purpose program?

Silberman: Travel with Purpose is our overall platform for corporate responsibility efforts around the world. There are four areas within it. The first is creating opportunities — everything that we do for our current and future team members. A lot of this is our diversity and team member engagement work, but there's also youth work to showcase to the world how and why this is a great industry for young people.

Our second pillar is focused on strengthening communities. Our hotels are active in communities and do a lot of work in supporting economic development. Our volunteer programs, some other grant programs and our human rights work also fall within this pillar.

The third area is celebrating cultures — how do you celebrate guest experiences that allow them to experience local cultures? This is a big issue for us from a public policy perspective, in ensuring that people have access and ability to travel. There are a lot of countries where it's very hard to get a visa and vice versa, so we're trying to advocate more efficient visa processes.

And then lastly, our fourth pillar is on living sustainably. This includes the management and performance of our natural resources and how we elevate performance in our hotels. It's how we think about restoration, mitigation and the resources that we need, making sure that we are ensuring their sustainability over the long term. 

Gloudeman: What are some accomplishments you're particularly proud of?

Silberman: In energy, one of the great stories that we have is our purchase of renewable energy here in the United States for our owned and managed properties. Our VP of engineering in the Americas and his team have done an amazing job in looking at green power, and getting recognition from the EPA and others on green power purchasing. We're really trying to innovate in this area. We just launched a pretty significant project at our Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort hotel on wind turbines that builds off this successful renewable energy strategy.

These innovations are really a win-win. They drive down the operations cost for our hotels — as you can imagine, energy costs are usually the first or second highest cost in operating a hotel — so anything we can do to continue to minimize those costs is going to have a huge impact on business, as well as great environmental and societal benefits.

We had also committed over a five-year period to reduce waste by 20 percent, and we achieved that in three years. This was due to partnerships that we have with groups such as Waste Management and Feeding America to look at things like scalable waste-hauling solutions and food waste initiatives.

With water, it's another success story in that we achieved our goal one year ahead of schedule. Again, this came down to collective efforts in water management and different types of technology, looking at things like flows for our shower heads and toilets.

From a community impact perspective, we've trained more than 1,000 GMs and department heads in our human trafficking work. That's a great accomplishment — creating more of an aware culture to understand the issue.

Gloudeman: What are some of the challenges you've had to face in your role?

Silberman: The hardest challenge that I think a lot of people in these kind of roles have is the engagement factor. At the end of the day, our team members are wired to want to do this kind of work and are very passionate about it and certainly see the value. It's just that you have competing priorities, demands and voices. So it's important to remember to engage your team members and have that powerful army. I mean, we have more than 300,000 team members that comprise our 10 brands around the world. That's a powerful force, and if you can get them seeing the same big goals and wanting to get there together, that's pretty remarkable.

Gloudeman: What advice do you have for professionals aspiring to do what you do?

Silberman: You have to speak the language of whatever business industry you're in. I think sometimes we like to believe that we all want to save the world — and we certainly have these very ambitious goals from a societal perspective — but first and foremost you have to connect with the business side. To showcase sustainability as a discipline of the business, you have to come up with the same kinds of structures and criteria and performance tools. You have to make sure that you are holding yourself as accountable as others, and leveraging the same metrics of the business for the work that you do.

I can't stress that enough — if you want to have a seat at the table, be that trusted advisor that can come in and think about some of the business challenges your team or organization is facing. Think about how the work, programs and initiatives you're involved with can be part of the equation. Because if you can't have those kinds of conversations with your business partners, you're never going to have that seat at the table.