How She Leads is a regular GreenBiz feature spotlighting the careers of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business.
Sara Greenstein jokes that her first university economics class had more people than the central Illinois farm town where she was raised. Now, she's a self-described global citizen.
As president of UL's supply chain operations and sustainability business units, and a member of the executive team, Greenstein shepherds the company's mission to "bring safe, sustainable and compliant products to the global marketplace." Among two of its biggest accomplishments: an ongoing quest to accelerate adoption of zero-waste strategies and a mission to support more transparency about what's in products consumed around the world.
Greenstein was instrumental in expanding its footprint in Japan, India and China; and more recently was behind the acquisitions of IDES and Innovadex, since combined into a massive materials information database. She landed at UL after several classic business process strategy assignments with the likes of Boston Consulting Group and Arthur Andersen Business Consulting. In her mind, it was a short-term gig.
"Thirteen years later, I am here and have had a lot of various roles," she told GreenBiz. "Through all of them, I've been able to have an impact on our mission and on our business, which I think is the primary thing that has kept me here."
I spoke with Greenstein about what shapes UL's philosophy, and why "sound science" is important for meaningful progress.
Heather Clancy: Give me a sense of UL's reach and where you believe that it has the most impact?
Sara Greenstein: We have been active pioneers in terms of leadership standards, product certifications and testing methodologies, and sound science that has fed current environmental practices. As we move forward, we're taking that what I call science-backed, technology-enabled capability and embedding it in the supply chain — all the way back to the raw materials and every other link thereafter, to the end product — to help understand broader social impacts, environmental impacts and human health impacts.
You can only do that when you've got a framework that includes consensus-based standards, that includes third-party verification of performance and efficacy against those standards, and the technology, connectivity and security that's required to link all those various strains in a very global and complex world. From a UL perspective, our mission — I'm sorry, our reach — will only continue to evolve from where we are today, both organically and inorganically.
Clancy: How have the acquisitions of IDES and Innovadex expanded UL's services?
Greenstein: We are able to provide the technology across the supply chain so decision makers can force products that are healthy, safe [and] sustainable and either formulate (if it's a material, if it's a chemical or chemically formulated product) or design … a product to meet multiple requirements — compliance requirements, perhaps performance requirements, sustainability requirements, and/or individual brand requirements that are being asked of them.
[Learn more about sustainable supply chains at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.]
Where UL Prospector (the combined IDES and Innovadex platform) comes into play is as a public forum where hundreds of thousands of formulators come every day to get technical information they need when determining what materials to buy to formulate a product. Our supply chain software [offers] a very data-secure environment where suppliers provide very important information in a proprietary fashion that enables them to respond to any compliance requirements that are asked of them by any decision maker further down the supply chain.
A retailer or a brand or a end-product manufacturer has requirements that they demand, whether it's because they have to comply with various regulations around the country or the globe, or because of their own internal policies and requirements. We have a connected, secure mechanism by which we feed that information up and down the chain. We layer our environmental and sustainability standards as filters onto that information. The end result is all about safe, healthy, sustainable products and processes to produce those products.
Clancy: A moment ago, you referred to growth, organic and otherwise. So can we expect any additional acquisitions?
Greenstein: I think the answer is yes. We are at the beginning of a long journey, and to be honest, the strategy that we are deploying is one that is, I believe, going to continue to grow for decades. From my perspective, and this is something that we talk about pretty intensely here at UL Supply Chain, the whole notion of safe in the broadest sense — safe, secure, sustainable supply chains and the science of sustainability — are to the next century what electrical and fire safety were to the last. We are actively investing and charging hard to do what we can do to solve that safety challenge. It's our mission.
Clancy: Recognizing that you have a pretty big purview, what would you say is your team's most important priority?
Greenstein: I think the most important priority for the next probably six to 12 months will be to drive consensus in the market amongst the diverse stakeholders around a common set of requirements, all of which improve the state of sustainability, if you will. To get everybody working from the same page, recognizing that continuous improvement can only happen once we've got a common set of criteria and standards from which to work. From that, true innovation and improvement can occur. In the absence of that, there are inefficiencies and therefore less productive work underway for everybody, for everybody along the supply chain. The sooner we can gain consensus with real science and experience around a common set of sustainability and regulatory compliance for major markets, the faster progress can be made.
Clancy: You've spent a lot of time in Japan, India and China, so how has that impacted your perspective?
Greenstein: I think one of the most enriching things about my journey here at UL has been that I've become a citizen of the globe, right? So I am as comfortable in the business environment in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, as I am in Germany and Italy and the United States.
For me, it boils down to what we do here and the reason why we do it, which is to provide safe living and working environments for people around the world. This matters everywhere. At the end of the day, I lead from a place of "I care." I genuinely care about the people who work for me, who work with me, and who we are doing this work for. …
Traveling the world, engaging with clients and colleagues and governments around the world just continues to invigorate why this matters and why we have to have perseverance and succeed here. Because 75 years ago, in the United States, people worried about plugging electronics in. We don’t worry about that here anymore. But we do worry about known carcinogens that our children are absorbing that we are unknowingly causing. If you see a river in China that's totally black because of the chemicals that have leeched into it, or the air there is so thick you can hardly breathe, you absolutely worry.
Being a global citizen of business just reinforces how connected we are, how our basic human needs are all similar, and frankly, why we have a responsibility to address it.
Clancy: You're going to have more accomplishments in the future, of course, but up to this time, what do you consider to be your most important accomplishment?
Greenstein: To me, it's my husband and three children. I'll also give you the professional one, but I think for me, having someone who I adore and adores me back kind of helps balance everything. And having three healthy, happy children, I feel blessed and grateful every day for that.
Professionally, I think it's having the opportunity to shape such an impactful business and really have the impact that I think UL has had and is positioned to have, and simultaneously watch the people that work for me grow and develop beyond where I think they probably thought they could. That's what gives me the most satisfaction.
Clancy: Who has been your most inspirational mentor?
Greenstein: I'm going to offer the following: I think the most important person who helps me do what I do, the way I do it, is my husband. He serves as everything from sounding board to support to friend and husband. At times, when I am working out what to do or how to do what I know needs to be done, knowing that I have such a strong foundation gives me the extra little push to do what needs to be done. What we do takes courage. There are fewer people who are willing to be brutally honest than I would hope. He's a very steady presence in my life, and I think he has had a big impact in helping me get to where I am.
Clancy: What advice would you give to someone aspiring to a career similar to yours?
Greenstein: I say first of all listen. I think listening is one of the most life-changing skills — listening to others and listening to yourself. Being able to listen, being willing to ask questions is critical in life and in business.
And then I would say, be who you are. I've grown up in prominently male-type environments — both in the consulting world and then UL, the engineering firm. … I always encourage people to just be who they are and be less concerned about what they think they should be and be very honest about who they are. Know thyself. If someone is in alignment with who they are and is able to listen to others and themselves, they will succeed because they will be doing something for which they have passion, that they're capable of achieving, and that they enjoy. That is the recipe for success.