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The Inside View

10 Minutes with Courtney Lareau, Mars

This column is about the people of sustainability. What makes them tick? What have they learned that works? What do they do for fun? This time, it’s Courtney Lareau, Mars Petcare sustainable sourcing insights manager.

Bob Langert: How did your Duke University dual environmental and business degree prepare you for the first five years at Mars?

Courtney Lareau: I was coming from a nonprofit background, and I was having difficulty finding opportunities in the environmental space or the corporate space. I felt it was really necessary to create a business foundation for my career. But I also needed that hard science and environmental science skills and knowledge.

Langert: Was there a professor that made a big impact on you, and if so, why?

Lareau: I really love this question because I don't think teachers get enough credit. I know I definitely didn't give credit where it was deserved. There is one professor that comes to mind, Stephen Mulkey, formerly with the University of Florida. I took his basic biology class just to fill a biology credit I needed to graduate. He was the first person to introduce me to the concept of global warming and climate change, and he really forced me to think differently than I ever had before. He changed the course of my career.

Langert: When it comes to pets, what's the biggest sourcing issue that you're working on right now?

Lareau: Interestingly enough, the sustainable sourcing issues aren't really specific to pets. The issues are the raw materials we source. For example, fish is an important protein in our cat food portfolio. However, the rate at which the world is fishing is not sustainable. That’s why Mars is ensuring that it is not using fish from wild stock that is threatened. But then there are other sources of proteins like soy that have totally different challenges, especially when sourced in Brazil.

Langert: Tell me about your dog, Duke. What does he bring to your personal and professional life?

Lareau: Duke is a mutt. I actually adopted him while at Mars. Mars Petcare used to host an annual adoption fair, and so I adopted him there. He's part Australian shepherd, part yellow lab.

Research proves that people who bring their pet to work actually experience reduced stress and greater focus. Although, as you've heard my dog barking in the background, I'm not sure that that's always true.

I had a friend come over once who doesn't have a dog. It was her first time visiting and meeting Duke. Even though Duke never met her before, he was so excited to see her and she was like, "This is what having a dog is like? Somebody that's happy to see you all the time? I want to have 100."

A strategic leader in our business got up in front of the room and said, 'We're not trying to be ambitious, we aren’t trying to be a leader, we're here to do what is right.' I was so proud.

Langert: What’s a recent example when you said to yourself, "I had a great day"?

Lareau: A few months ago I was sitting in a conference room at a collaborative meeting between Mars and some of our key strategic partners. One of the strategic leaders in our business got up in front of the room and made a statement, and I'm paraphrasing here, "We're not trying to be ambitious, we aren’t trying to be a leader, we're here to do what is right." And it was just this really tough statement that reinvigorated my own "why." I was so proud to work for this company that no matter what challenges we face, no matter what obstacles are put in our place, I'm surrounded by leadership who really believes that this is the right thing to do.

Langert: What is the best attribute that you've seen from sustainability leaders?

Lareau: I admire those that reinvigorate the "why." With sustainability, it's very much an uphill battle. It's really easy to lose sight of why you get up and go to work every day, especially because progress can seem very slow. It’s really important for sustainability leaders to keep their team and their associates engaged and connected to the "why."

Langert: It’s hard to crack into the sustainability profession. Any advice for others?

Lareau: While I was at Duke, I really just wanted to gain as much corporate experience as I could. McDonald's was of particular interest to me because I'm the daughter of an owner-operator.

As I tried to navigate the waters, the timing just never really worked out. So one day I e-mailed Jessica Droste Yagan [the fast-food company's director of sustainable supply strategy] at the McDonald’s home office and asked if she'd be willing to talk, and when I connected with her I discussed with her the idea of possibly helping her with a project she or her team had been asking for. And in return, she took a chance on me and allowed me an opportunity.

My key takeaway from my entire experience was Jessica taught me really just to take chances and to persevere.

Langert: Should others take more risks to land in the sustainability field?

Lareau: Yes. Every door that has opened for me is because I have taken chances and I have persevered. And even when I thought the door was closed, because I saw that there might be a slight crack, I knocked one more time. And sometimes the doors open back up. My story is pretty much due to persevering.

You can see everything from a negative perspective or a positive perspective. It's up to you.

Langert: Where are you on the business sustainability optimism meter? 1 to 10, low to high.

Lareau: I try to be very optimistic. I think if you let the negativity get to you, it would be very difficult to wake up and go to work every day. So I think I’m about a 7 or 8.

Langert: Do you think optimism is a choice?

Lareau: I think so. You can see everything from a negative perspective or a positive perspective. It's up to you.

Langert: Where and how do you draw your inspiration and motivation?

Lareau: I think that it's really important to stay closely connected to those who have inspirational career stories. For example, I recently had the pleasure to meet Darcy Winslow, who worked at Nike for over 20 years [as a pioneer in sustainable business frameworks]. She was incredible. I really enjoyed getting to hear her story, the challenges she faced and how she overcame them. And I left my time with her feeling incredibly refreshed and re-energized.

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