As the world settles uncomfortably into year three of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic, environmental and social volatility of this era are coming into clearer focus.
Stock market tickers have been flailing wildly. The lists of extinct creatures and endangered ecosystems have reached dispiriting new lengths. The climate crisis was amplified on the world stage during COP26, and yet with all the convening and clashing among the leaders of nations, businesses and activist groups, the results from Glasgow were mixed. Meanwhile, authoritarianism is on the rise in many places, imperiling the mechanisms that empower people to vote according to their values.
That leaves large businesses — those with some foresight and risk aversion, at least — to pick up serious slack in terms of speeding up efforts to draw down carbon, restore natural systems and empower communities.
This year, we’ve selected 12 business executives who stand out in 12 areas that are key to accelerating action on climate and delivering positive social benefits. These dozen leaders seek to steer their companies to help build a better world as good business practice, whether it’s through decarbonizing the literal bricks and mortar of infrastructure, detoxifying supply chains, electrifying transportation, regenerating soil, advocating for sound government policy — or financing any of the above solutions and more. They hail from three continents and five nations: the United States; Denmark; India; Switzerland; and Mexico.
Several of these individuals are turning around former fossil-fuel-powered giants, such as Ford, DSM and Ørsted. Two on this list are the first women in their seats of corporate power. We’ve also selected a couple of executives outside the Fortune 500 and for the first time, someone with the chief sustainability officer title. Read on to meet them. And take some time to get reacquainted with our cohorts for 2020 and 2021, some of whom hold entirely new positions.
Policy: David Barrett, Founder & CEO, Expensify; Portland, Oregon
For the head of a relatively small tech company, Dave Barrett wields a substantial voice. Twelve days before the 2020 presidential election, he emailed 10 million Expensify users to vote for Joe Biden, thrusting himself into the national spotlight overnight.
Some recipients viewed the expense-report app founder as a partisan spammer butting into their professional inboxes. Barrett said about one-quarter of recipients replied to the email with a mix of feedback, and traffic to the Expensify website and interest in careers there skyrocketed.
Michigan-raised Barrett, who started coding at age 6, didn’t hit send on a whim. First, he broadcast the idea for the mass email to all 130 Expensify employees on a Slack channel. Support was high enough that upper management gave the thumbs-up.
He viewed the move as a salvo in defense of an imperiled democracy. His "I told you so" moment came less than two months later, when Trump’s attempted coup led supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol. "This is not normal politics," Barrett said shortly after the deadly Jan. 6 riots. "This is like the destruction of our nation up for discussion. The only reason I felt it was important as a CEO to weigh in was that the stakes are too high to be neutral here."
Barrett’s idea for the fintech startup evolved while living in San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin neighborhood, wishing for a digital way to send cash to unhoused people. As for its internal decarbonization efforts, Expensify has leaned on offsets to address its carbon footprint, indicating it is seeking to adjust to carbon removal to reach net-zero emissions by 2030.
Barrett said his company’s profitability, with $100 million in annual revenues, offered a relatively safe soapbox.
"I think most CEOs, it's not that they're bad people; they're just cowards," he said. "They're like, ‘Yeah, I would like to take a stand, but I can't because of investors, customers and things like this.’ It basically comes down to, ‘I care more about hitting the next-quarter results than preventing a civil war,’ which is so f–ed up. They're more afraid of their investors than they are of militants."
Mobility: Jim Farley, CEO, Ford Motor; Dearborn, Michigan
Childhood storytime for Jim Farley meant his grandfather, a Ford Model-T-era plant worker, reading auto magazines. Now leading the company, Farley is taking a sharp turn away from Ford’s combustion-engine past, toward an electrified future.
Ford jolted the industry last spring with an ambitious lineup of electric versions of iconic brands, including the Mustang and the F-series truck. Orders rolled in so fast that the company in November doubled its production targets to 600,000 EVs by 2023. The car maker is steering toward 40 to 50 percent EVs by 2030, and carbon neutrality by 2050 in line with science-based targets. (Ford’s sustainability leadership includes early support for the Paris Agreement and California’s emissions standards during the Trump years.)
As one of the top U.S. auto employers, counting 186,000 workers, Farley seeks to build a beachhead for U.S. battery manufacturing. The company is spending $11.4 billion on new factories in Kentucky and Tennessee. Most of the planned 11,000 jobs are for the nearly six-square-mile BlueOval City campus in Tennessee. Ford is working with Redwood Materials to establish closed-loop battery recycling there.
"This is a chance for us to redo manufacturing in this country," Farley said last fall. "This is a carbon-neutral site, geothermal-powered, zero landfill, totally recycled. It’s our commitment far beyond the tailpipe emissions to go green."
Born in Buenos Aires and raised in Connecticut and Michigan, Farley helped finance his MBA at UCLA by restoring vintage cars. The gearhead, who has called racing "my yoga," cut his teeth as a VP at Toyota Motors’ Lexus group, launching the Scion and was recruited to be a sales and marketing VP at Ford in 2007 by then-CEO Alan Mulally. Farley led a turnaround of Ford Europe in the 2010s, eventually rising to COO in March 2020 and CEO just eight months later.
"For someone who’s grown up in the car business, an electric car is just a better car," he said in May. Developing and selling EVs is the easy part, he added; the harder part lies ahead of building out infrastructure and U.S. jobs in a future of electrified, connected mobility.
Green Finance/ESG: Jane Fraser, CEO, Citigroup; New York City
Jane Fraser to climate laggards: Take your business elsewhere. On her first day as Citigroup’s first female CEO in March, she issued a goal to reach net-zero GHG emissions in the company’s financing by 2050 and in its operations by 2030.
How can the fourth largest U.S. bank, moving more than $4 trillion each day, achieve this? Citi is expected to share a roadmap in the next few months. Fraser has been examining each industry with which the bank does business, hinting that it would ultimately not just lose some customers but gain others in support of its carbon decree.
Fraser, a Citi leader in multiple divisions over nearly two decades, lined up a number of other notable moves in her earliest months as CEO, including a partial coal exit strategy. The company committed $1 trillion toward sustainable finance by 2030, including in renewable energy and low-carbon technologies. Last year, Citi was among 43 founders of the Net Zero Banking Alliance and the broader Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, in addition to its ongoing participation in Principles for Responsible Banking and the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures.
As the megabank catches activist flak for being one of the world’s top four financiers of fossil fuels, and for not ruling out oil and gas investments, Fraser’s view is to help clients shift "responsibly" to new technologies as they retire legacy assets.
Born in St. Andrews, Scotland, the Harvard MBA worked at Goldman Sachs in mergers and acquisitions before spending a decade as a partner at McKinsey, traveling worldwide while she raised two boys. She has spoken candidly about the push-and-pull of working motherhood, and in March instituted "Zoom-free Fridays" for Citibankers. The company is investing more than $1 billion toward closing racial equity gaps.
"Our ESG agenda can't just be a separate layer that sits above what we do day-to-day," Fraser wrote on day one. "Our commitments to closing the gender pay gap, to advancing racial equity and to pioneering the green agenda have demonstrated that this is good for business and not at odds with it."
Climate Tech: Anirban Ghosh, CSO, Mahindra Group; Mumbai
Ghosh. Anirban Ghosh. From his Twitter handle, @Anirban007, the Mahindra Group chief sustainability officer evokes adventure in his work to incorporate sustainability and climate risks into core business operations, risk management and even its total quality management approach, dubbed "the Mahindra Way."
Mahindra Group is a many-tentacled conglomerate, with 250,000 workers across some 150 businesses in 100 countries. Its products include tractors, electric cars and e-scooters, including the now-dead GenZe brand. Mahindra is preparing to roll out new electric bikes in Europe under the Peugeot and BSA brands. One of India’s largest companies, Mahindra has various businesses that also offer IT services, solar PV systems and even timeshares. Its biggest carbon emitters, whose carbon reduction targets are approved by the Science-Based Targets initiative, include steel making and processing.
Tractor maker Mahindra and Mahindra was the first Indian company to set a carbon price internally, helping to decarbonize its energy use, reduce waste and bolster water security.
Ghosh led that effort in 2016 as the VP for sustainability, CSR and ethics, in the hopes of speeding up approvals for sustainability projects. It worked.
He established Mahindra’s overall sustainability framework and a company-wide dashboard to measure results. Mahindra’s decarbonization efforts focus on four factors germane to each business, including energy efficiency, renewables, electric mobility and offsets.
"Our sustainability framework separates the issues related to people, planet and profit so that it doesn’t seem like a big jumble, and then translates each one of the issues into tangible projects and actions which then show up in each of the businesses’ roadmaps," he said in early 2020.
The company is pursuing science-based carbon neutrality by 2040. While it relies on carbon offsets — originating from a forest maintained by Mahindra and tribal farmers in eastern India — Ghosh discourages them because they do "not reduce costs or improve the balance sheet in any way." The company has yet to set a deadline for ending its use of fossil fuels.
A thought leader and regular columnist, Ghosh has contributed to a slate of organizations deep in the details of the sustainability profession, including GRI. Early in 2020, he described climate activism as sparking the chance to discover a low-carbon way of life in harmony with nature, an opportunity "to literally reboot the world."
Environmental Justice: Karen Lynch, President and CEO, CVS Health; Woonsocket, Rhode Island
Karen Lynch insists that she always planned to make a difference as a leader. Personal hardships — at age 12, losing her mother to suicide, and as a young woman, losing her mother-figure aunt to cancer — led healthcare to be the focus.
In leadership at CVS Health since 2018, including overseeing its absorption of Aetna, Lynch has transformed the pharmacy chain into a multifaceted community healthcare provider. Her evangelization for greater accessibility, simplicity and personalization in the tangled healthcare system kicked into high gear when she stepped into the CEO role 11 months ago, just as the first COVID-19 vaccines debuted.
With its 300,000 workers, CVS Health has since delivered 50 million COVID-19 vaccines, working with the Biden administration and the Centers for Disease Control for 30 percent of vaccines it administers to be in underserved communities. COVID led the retailer to elevate primary care services as more people seek care online and in their neighborhoods.
"People are the really most important thing that you need to understand, and how to motivate them, how to inspire them, how to pay them," Lynch said in May, noting the many social disparities revealed by the pandemic. In October, she brought on the company’s first chief health equity officer, charged with reaching more underserved communities.
The CEO has expressed that mental unwellness is the "second wave of the pandemic," citing mothers and other caregivers specifically when describing CVS Health’s expanded online support for individual counseling. In December, the company committed $1.74 million toward causes to reduce maternal health inequities.
Meanwhile, CVS Health has committed to spend $4.5 billion on diverse suppliers and, by 2030, $1.5 billion more on social impact investments toward healthier communities. The latter includes "wraparound services" for underserved patients that fund 65 clinics in 17 states. Those are targeted where the company is investing $100 million toward affordable housing, creating "health zones" where people can also find good food and jobs alongside healthcare.
"Our commitment is to really build these healthy communities," Lynch said. "We really need to think about moving from this ‘new normal’ to building a healthier normal."
Biodiversity: Geraldine Matchett, Co-CEO and CFO, Royal DSM; Heerlen, Netherlands
"Can you call yourself successful in a world that fails?" That’s the question Geraldine Matchett says the multinational DSM collectively asks itself. The co-CEO probably considers the question rhetorical, given the threats to so many living systems today.
Matchett is leading the health and nutrition giant to improve biodiversity and sustainable agriculture beyond its own walls. That’s a paradigm shift for the company that launched 122 years ago as Dutch State Mines. It has long since shed its legacies of coal mines and petrochemicals, now producing nutrition for animal feed, industrial coatings and technology for solar power.
DSM says its products with an environmental or social impact, 65 percent of its business, are the most profitable. The company’s Project Clean Cow has led to developing an ingredient for cattle that slashes methane emissions by 30 to 60 percent. DSM is using artificial intelligence to better estimate the carbon footprint of meat and dairy production. Its embrace of the circular economy includes a goal by 2030 to offer recycled or bio-based alternatives for its products, such as its synthetic Dyneema polyethylene fiber, used in outdoor gear.
DSM’s three-pronged approach to sustainability reaches beyond its own footprint to embrace advocacy and to assist its customers’ sustainability ambitions, which Matchett believes future-proofs the company. DSM’s net- zero GHG goal for production by 2040 expands to all value chains by 2050.
After six years as CFO, she retained that role in her February 2020 promotion to co-CEO alongside Dimitri de Freeze. Matchett is the rare finance chief who weaves sustainability into the financial bottom line. She enjoys changing minds and credits DSM’s internal price on carbon, which is integrated into budget making, with driving its innovation, net-zero ambitions and investment decisions. "It brings the finance team much closer to the rest of the company," Matchett said in November. "Our intent is to have as many people as possible thinking about this as a normal part of the business."
DSM was an original member of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s One Planet Business for Biodiversity coalition, which is focusing first on promoting regenerative agriculture. Matchett stars in other sustainability organizations, including as co-chair of HRH the Prince of Wales' Accounting for Sustainability (A4S) CFO Leadership Network and as an executive committee member to WBCSD.
Carbon Removal: Christian Mumenthaler, CEO, Swiss Re; Zurich
The market for carbon removal tech needs customers. Count Swiss Re in. Under Christian Mumenthaler’s leadership, the company in August inked a first-of-its-kind deal with Climeworks to remove $10 million of CO2 over 10 years. The reinsurance giant intends to send a market signal while supporting its goals to reach net-zero carbon by 2030 as a company and by 2050 for its insurance and investment business.
Climeworks’ equipment will essentially sip carbon dioxide from the air, turn it into stone and stash it underground. "By partnering with Climeworks, we can play to our strengths in this endeavor, as a risk taker, investor and forward-looking buyer of climate solutions," Mumenthaler wrote.
By Swiss Re’s count, 2021 was the fourth costliest year since 1970 due to natural disasters for insurers, with the industry losing $105 billion. Decarbonization is in the best long-term interests of the reinsurance giant, which insures other insurers.
The company, with some $239 billion in assets, views its industry having a special role to accelerate carbon capture for three reasons: improving bankability of removal projects via engineering and insurance; directly financing removal projects; and finally, being early buyers of removal projects to balance a company’s own emissions, according to a Swiss Re report in July. "Do our best, remove the rest!" is the company’s carbon slogan.
Mumenthaler, who holds a doctorate in physics, has been at Swiss Re for 23 years, following two years at Boston Consulting Group. Swiss Re promoted him to Group CEO from reinsurance CEO in 2016, following six years of reinsurance executive roles. He started as strategy risk manager, working through roles including as chief risk officer and head of life and health.
Swiss Re is a founding member of the The Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance and Net-Zero Insurance Alliance, and Mumenthaler co-chairs the World Economic Forum Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders. Mumenthaler’s climate leadership is also a strategic move for a company in the business of calculating risk.
Mads Nipper, Group CEO, Ørsted; Fredericia, Denmark
Mads Nipper is charting a course for the world’s offshore wind leader to become the planet’s "green energy major" by 2030. It’s an ambitious goal for Ørsted, which has been in its current incarnation only since 2017.
Founded as Denmark-owned oil and gas company Dansk Olie og Naturgas (DONG) in 2006, Ørsted flipped its energy mix on its head in only a decade — from 85 percent fossil fuels to 85 percent renewables. That sets the stage of possibilities for Nipper’s next steps as he enters year two as CEO.
To achieve global dominance in renewables, Ørsted is pursuing a mix of wind, solar and green hydrogen. Its name is on one-third of the world’s offshore wind developments, including most coming to the U.S.
Nipper, who calls himself purpose-driven, was lured to Ørsted in September 2020 by the challenge of making an impact on two of the biggest global challenges, water scarcity and energy consumption. He had slaked some of that thirst as CEO for six years at water pump leader Grundfos.
Nipper’s longest tenure was 23 years at LEGO, where he helped to create a global turnaround, reviving the LEGO City brand as the chief marketing officer and instilling a "command-and-control approach to innovation."
Nipper has served on various boards of other Danish corporations including Bang & Olufsen and Stokke, and since 2016 has been vice chairman of Danish Crown, formerly Tulip Food Company, which raises pigs and cattle.
The decarbonization challenge does not hinge on technology or finance, Nipper said in November. "It’s a leadership challenge because we don’t have the courage to take wholehearted action." How can the rollout of renewable energy improve biodiversity and help workers to upskill from old oil and gas jobs? "There are so many opportunities but if we think either/or or both/and, we won’t step up to the leadership challenge that we need," Nipper said.
Catalytic Capital: Anthony Oni; Managing Partner, Elevate Future Fund, Energy Impact Partners; Atlanta
Anthony Oni is well-positioned to nurture cleantech talent from an array of backgrounds by providing capital to what he calls "the underestimated class in the U.S.," those who were left out of the digital revolution: Black, Brown, Latinx, Indigenous, LGBTQ people and women. "There’s a whole demographic of folks that did not win or participate," he said last summer.
Climate tech startups have raked in tens of billions of dollars over the past year alone, yet venture capital remains homogeneous, with only 4 percent of venture capitalists Black and another 4 percent Latino. Less than 1 percent of VC funding goes to female founders.
Oni is managing partner at Energy Impact Partners (EIP), one of the largest specialized investment firms, holding $2 billion under management with such investors as Microsoft. The goal of its new Elevate Future Fund is to hire fund managers "who look like me, and other diverse funders … so that they have that authority, the decision-making ability, to write checks in their community," Oni said.
His primary focus is on writing those checks, by leading that new fund, which is funneling $120 million toward climate tech companies with diverse founders or leaders. Among its investments so far are ChargerHelp!, a Black women-founded app to enable speedy EV "refueling" station repairs, creating jobs and training in the process.
Oni also founded and serves as board chair of Ed Farm, a tech-focused learning center for teachers and students in Birmingham, Alabama. He was involved in envisioning the Propel Center, an innovation hub for the Atlanta University Center community of historically Black colleges and universities. It is a $25 million beneficiary from Apple’s $100 million Racial Equity and Justice Initiative, announced in 2020.
Oni was born in New Jersey and grew up with a Bell Labs-engineer dad. He spent 20 years in executive roles at utilities Alabama Power and Atlanta-based Southern Company Gas, where he most enjoyed community and economic development. Oni came to EIP in April after three years at Cloverly, a carbon offset software company that he founded, and which attracted $2.1 million in seed funding last year by the SoftBank Opportunity Fund.
Infrastructure/Buildings: Lara Poloni, President, AECOM; Los Angeles
The consulting firm founded in 1990 as AECOM Technology Corporation is a hulk in the built environment, counting $13 billion in revenue and leaving its imprint on landmarks on each continent, including the One World Trade Center, the Pentagon and even an Antarctic research site. As AECOM president, Lara Poloni seeks to chip away at the 70 percent of global emissions contributed by construction and infrastructure.
"There’s a lot of power and influence that comes with a role like mine," she said in 2016 when she was chief executive of AECOM Australia and New Zealand. As company-wide president for the last 17 months, Poloni has been aligned with a new ESG strategy: In April AECOM set targets for net-zero carbon by the end of 2021 and net zero with science-based targets by 2030.
Central to AECOM’s path is a new effort, ScopeX, to assess operational and embodied carbon across the life cycle of every project, as well as to reduce costs and emissions for clients. The company will examine carbon in aggregate across engineering and corporate management, zeroing in on the impacts of specific choices, which it projects will slash 84 million metric tons of carbon each year. Moving forward, AECOM will also consider targets for net-zero carbon, resilience and social value in its approach to client accounts.
AECOM also recently set the "near term" aim for women to comprise 20 percent of its leadership and 35 percent of workforce. Engineer Poloni, a mother of twins, has spoken out about social equity, especially gender parity, expressing that she wants her daughter to enjoy the same opportunities as her son.
"We should seize this moment as an opportunity" to help those with the least economic security, Poloni wrote in May 2020. "Traditionally, infrastructure investment has been key to getting economies back on their feet. In their selection of projects, decision-makers should not lose sight of social objectives. If we are to emerge from this pandemic stronger, we must ensure that those who were already disadvantaged before the crisis are not left behind."
Food Systems: Daniel Javier Servitje Montull, President and CEO, Grupo Bimbo; Mexico City
Daniel Javier Servitje Montull is baking sustainability into the business strategy of one of the world’s largest bread makers. With the purpose of "nourishing a better world," Grupo Bimbo reaches $15 billion in annual sales for 13,000 products across 100 brands, including Entenmann’s, Sara Lee, Thomas’ bagels and Oroweat. Grupo Bimbo’s net-zero carbon goal, issued in November for 2050, includes its indirect emissions. Present in 33 countries, the bread maker’s influence in food systems ripples beyond the fields from which it sources.
Grupo Bimbo’s regenerative agriculture efforts include working since 2017 with the nonprofit International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and partners, including Cargill, on pilot projects in Mexico that reduced fossil fuel emissions by 30 percent for corn and by 18 percent for wheat. The company has also explored pairing conservation techniques with social benefits for Mexican producers of potatoes, goat milk and cocoa, in addition to promoting traceability efforts for palm oil, soy and sesame.
"We value the person more than anything else in our company," Servitje said in 2015. "This allows the businesses to prosper. And, it’s universal — it sits very well in all cultures."
The recipe for leadership at Grupo Bimbo was partly measured out when Daniel Javier Servitje Montull was born to Lorenzo Servitje Sandra, who co-founded the business in 1945. The younger Servitje warmed to business as a child, raising hens and carrier pigeons, and hawking primitive solar heaters with high school friends. He joined his dad’s company at age 16 and dabbled in sales, accounting and personnel roles until completing an MBA at Stanford.
Servitje then helped Grupo Bimbo expand distribution into the United States in directorial roles in the 1990s. The billionaire has described internationalizing and modernizing the business while at the same time seeking to maintain its social purpose.
Since Servitje became CEO in 1997, then chairman in 2013, the company has demonstrated continued participation across major sustainability coalitions, including "firsts" for a Mexican company, such as signing on to the United Nations’ Race to Zero Campaign. Grupo Bimbo is 80 percent on its way toward fully renewable energy in global operations. It first installed wind power a decade ago, and its plants’ solar photovoltaic systems — in Argentina, Chile and Mexico — are among the largest in South America. Bimbo operates one of Mexico’s largest EV fleets, too, with more than 1,000 vehicles. Servitje is leading the company to embed sustainability into other key areas as well, including packaging, waste reduction and alternative fuels.
Circular Economy: François Adrianus "Frans" van Houten, CEO, Royal Philips; Amsterdam
As CEO of Royal Philips, Frans van Houten has placed circular principles at the core of corporate strategy, making refurbishment, dematerialization and service-based sales models de rigueur. Since 2011, he has also recast the former domestic appliance giant as a healthcare innovator, and the company in 2020 reached carbon neutrality.
By 2025, Philips seeks to be taking back and putting back into use all of its professional medical systems, which are built from the outset to be modular and serviceable. Its low-carbon innovations include pioneering low-helium magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) systems.
Van Houten, co-chair of the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy, which launched in 2018 with the World Economic Forum, has been ahead of the game in pushing to slash healthcare industry emissions and waste. He has refined Philips’ several-decade embrace of “EcoDesign” by reducing single-use packaging and removing harmful chemicals from products. By 2018, two-thirds of sales came from “green products.”
Van Houten joined the former electronics giant in 1986, moving up through marketing and consumer electronics, leading its semiconductor units. Even his path at Philips has been circular; his father was a board member.
He has spoken out against a "hit-and-run linear" business model in favor of a circular one. "If the product is 5 percent more expensive initially, but I get 30 percent of the value back after eight years, then that’s a great proposition," because investors appreciate the recurring revenue streams that fit "perfectly well with circular economy thinking," he said in 2017.
For other companies considering circular models, van Houten has recommended brainstorming across teams about what customers value. "It took Philips 50 years to get where we are, so don’t think this is a solution overnight. You will grow into it, I’m sure," he said.