If you're looking for the light of inspiration during one of the darkest periods the world has seen in decades, you've come to the right place.
We are proud to introduce our fifth annual cohort of twentysomethings who are sustainability leaders within — and without — their companies, nonprofits and communities. The Class of 2020 hails from seven countries, including Switzerland, the Netherlands, Brazil and Taiwan, and they are tackling diverse challenges — from cultivating a more sustainable food system to advocating for climate justice on behalf of disadvantaged communities to testing best practices for circular cities to negotiating impactful renewable energy contracts. The list of their accomplishments is long and growing longer by the day, and they're just getting started.
NIne members of this year’s cohort work are affiliated with some of the world’s most influential companies, including Allbirds, Amazon, Goldman Sachs, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, MetLife, Moody's Investor Services and Saint-Gobain. Others are making waves in the business world from other perches, including government, consultancies, startups and environmental justice advocacy groups.
The GreenBiz 2020 30 Under 30 honorees were nominated by GreenBiz readers and community members around the world and selected by the GreenBiz editorial team. Grateful appreciation to the World Business Council for Sustainable Business and the Yale Center for Business and the Environment for helping us spread the word.
Please join us in congratulating and celebrating the best and brightest of 2020 — at a time when we all could benefit from approaching challenges with fresh eyes. Here they are, in alphabetical order:
Emily Adams, 27
Senior Sustainability Lead, MetLife; New York
Emily Adams’ parents impressed on her the beauty and fragility of our planet at a young age, pushing her into Girl Scouts and pulling her along on family hiking trips to national parks. Her experience with an aboriginal tribe while studying abroad in Australia recontextualized the power and importance of the environment across cultures.
To turn her love of nature from a hobby into a career, Adams joined MetLife as a sustainability intern in 2014. Her crowning achievement, so far at least, was building Our Green Impact. The program offers discussion forums, a speaker series and volunteering opportunities to encourage MetLife’s 49,000 employees — whether they work from home or in small offices in other countries — to reduce their environmental footprint, at the office and at home. (Approximately 10,000 of them participate.)
"Our mission is to help people protect their families, protect their finances, be confident for the future — and a large part of that is reducing risk," Adams says. "All aspects of sustainability are pretty core to that."
Adams also vets MetLife’s office suppliers, staffing companies and consulting agencies for aligned values. Sustainability questions are being embedded into requests for proposal documents and onboarding materials. These efforts by Adams’ team helped MetLife become the first U.S.-based insurer to achieve carbon neutrality in 2016.
— Jesse Klein
Jennifer Ballen, 28
Head of Global Market Operations, Indigo Ag; Boston
Jennifer Ballen thrives at being busy. "I’m always doing six things at once," she says. "That’s just my personality." It’s also how she grew up. Both her parents worked a lot, and they chose to spend their family time doing something meaningful, such as volunteering at a homeless shelter in Boston.
Drawn to finance, Ballen started her career at Morgan Stanley in traditional asset management. She became intrigued by her clients’ requests for investments with a triple bottom line — and the very notion that profitability and impact needn’t be mutually exclusive.
Delving into the sustainability world, Ballen trained with Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps in Rio de Janeiro, where she got her first taste of inspiring people to act, and her zeal for public speaking. Now she calls herself a "corporate change agent."
While working towards an MBA at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, Ballen met and was inspired by Anheuser-Busch InBev Chief Sustainability and Procurement Officer Tony Milkin. When he offered her a job leading the company’s global sustainable packaging initiative, she jumped at it. Later, she led sustainability at Drinkworks, the company’s joint venture with Keurig Dr Pepper.
Ballen, who recently took on her new role at Indigo Ag, says her time working in the food and beverage sector shed light on "just how important agriculture is to a sustainable future and the climate change battle."
— Meg Wilcox
Charlotte Bande, 29
Senior Sustainability Consultant — Climate Strategy Lead, Quantis International; San Diego
Belgium-born strategist Charlotte Bande connects her career in sustainable business to two incidents: an encounter on vacation in Egypt as a preteen with a young boy brushing his teeth with mudwater, and her father’s decision to leap into a sustainability role while she was pursuing her degree in commercial engineering and sustainable development. The first inspired her quest to find a job with "purpose" while the second woke her to the possibility of bringing that mission to a corporate role.
During her five years with Quantis, Bande has advised some of the world’s largest companies in the food, cosmetics and apparels sectors, helping them define science-based targets, insetting initiatives and carbon pricing approaches. She’s an advocate of "Absolute Sustainability," a Quantis philosophy that challenges businesses to take planetary boundaries into account not just for carbon emissions but also for biodiversity, land use, freshwater consumption, the phosphorus cycle and the nitrogen cycle.
"She’s an incredibly clear and transversal thinker, works hard to know the facts and the science that underlie her advice, has a strong sense of purpose," observes one of the half-dozen people who nominated Bande to this list.
Passionate about kite-surfing and wakeboarding, Bande describes herself as a "slow traveler," someone who enjoys learning new cultures. Her frequent travels have taken her to Croatia, Morocco and Australia, and she’s starting a personal blog to explore changes she can make to her lifestyle to support the sustainability cause. "Learning, thinking and teaching; that gets me moving," she says.
— Heather Clancy
Oliver Camp, 26
Senior Associate, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition; London
Oliver Camp is passionate about food waste, which he calls a "terrible indictment of our ability to manage our food and supply chains." But he also sees ample opportunity for reducing it, and for redistributing this "waste" to hundreds of millions of malnourished people worldwide. Health, wellness and nutrition are Camp’s key interests.
He majored in languages in college because, he says, "Languages really help you connect with people and build relationships." But the primary focus of Camp’s work has been to harness the power of big corporations to improve people’s quality of life.
For the past two years, Camp worked on Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan team to help the company’s brands find new technologies, services and products that would support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. He also worked with Nestlé while at McCann Enterprise to develop a low-technology platform for communicating nutrition and health information to low-literate consumers in equatorial Africa.
Now, Camp is starting a new role with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, a foundation that addresses malnutrition in low- and middle-income countries. He’s excited to bring his skills for channeling innovation and building partnerships to achieve broader impact. Indeed, his former employer Unilever is a key strategic partner.
"The thing about these roles with NGOs and foundations is you can use your convening power to bring together a whole host of public and private institutions. And for me, that feels like impact at the biggest possible scale," he says.
— Meg Wilcox
Alexis Cureton, 27
Clean Energy and Equity Advocate, Natural Resources Defense Council; Oakland, California
For Alexis Cureton, the pandemic has underscored that those left behind need advocates. Championing the needs of underserved communities is something he does on a daily basis through the lens of clean and efficient energy at the largest U.S. environmental organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Cureton’s work touches California’s disadvantaged communities through initiatives such as those providing energy retrofits at multi-family buildings and funding for resiliency plans during wildfire season for those who live in utility power shutoff zones. Before he joined NRDC, he helped low-income families gain greater access to electric vehicles and chargers through the nonprofit Greenlining Institute.
While California is where his work is currently focused, Cureton’s upbringing traversed him across the U.S. South and Midwest via Tulsa, Oklahoma; Duluth, Georgia; and Indianapolis, Indiana. He attributes his ability to see a broader national perspective, and not just a local one, to his childhood growing up across diverse regions.
Cureton says his father — a public health professional who would go above and beyond for his patients — inspired him to embrace a profession of helping others and "fighting on behalf of community members that look like me." He also looks to the teachings of scholars that advocated on behalf of those less fortunate, including W.E.B DuBois and Martin Luther King. But he notes: "It just so happens that my muse is clean energy."
— Katie Fehrenbacher
Mateo Dugand, 28
Technologist, IT Efficiency and Sustainability (EMEA), Hewlett Packard Enterprise; London
At age 25, Mateo Dugand had a big job, running waste management for the United Arab Emirates. Starting out as an intern while working on his thesis about organic waste management, he rose meteorically in a few short years to a position of leadership, with 600 people behind him.
Dugand, an engineer with a master’s degree in energy management, says he learns quickly, "by going on the ground, engaging [people], and not just sitting behind a computer."
Today, he works on Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s corporate sustainability team, overseeing the company’s efforts to help customers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa use IT solutions to reduce their energy and water use. It’s a key part of HPE’s sustainability strategy, given that nearly 60 percent of its environmental footprint comes from customer use of its products.
Dugand finds it "fascinating, working in an industry combining sustainability and technology fields that are both changing so fast, every single day," he says. "You somehow become an expert very quickly because not a lot of people know about it."
Optimism drives Dugand, who grew up in Paris, the son of Colombian emigres. Looking forward, he says he wants to "bring his joy and motivation to solve some of the most pressing sustainability challenges," and that he believes we’re "strongly capable" of leaving our kids a brighter future.
— Meg Wilcox
Arturo Elizondo, 28
CEO, Clara Foods; San Francisco
As a Mexican from Texas, Arturo Elizondo sees food at the center of family, culture and tradition. But after witnessing the practices of America's massive animal production industry as an intern at the Department of Agriculture, he became convinced the foods he loved needed a 21st-century upgrade. Elizondo abandoned his plan for a career in the public sector and booked a one-way ticket to San Francisco, with no job and nowhere to live.
Six years later, he is CEO of Clara Foods, a biotech food company that uses fermentation to create egg proteins without involving chickens. The potential is not chicken feed: the U.S. industry produced almost 100 billion eggs last year, and per capita consumption of eggs has increased over 16 percent in the past 20 years.
Elizondo knows firsthand that it’s almost impossible to get people to change their habits, especially around something so personal and ingrained as food. His mother and grandmother have been buying not only the same food but the same brands for decades. So he focused his company on a business-to-business model, making the right choice easy for consumers.
"If we are this niche product in the corner of a grocery store, it defeats the purpose of what we are doing." he says. "For me, it’s the scalability and efficiency in the company that really, really drives me."
— Jesse Klein
Katerina Fragos, 28
Manager, Sustainability and Climate Change Consulting, PwC; Montreal
If Katerina Fragos could grant humanity a superpower, it’s the ability to think in systems, being able to understand the complexities within an ecosystem or a city and map out unintended consequences. "If I could just have a perfectly systemic mind that's able to make these connections ... it would make all these global challenges easily digestible with the snap of your fingers," she says.
In that spirit, Fragos helps guide some of Canada’s largest, most impactful organizations toward their sustainability and ESG objectives. Her clients at PwC include corporations from the energy, transportation and retail sectors, government agencies and nonprofits with goals in biodiversity, circular economy, climate change, social inclusion and human rights. They turn to Fragos’ team for tasks such as assembling metrics for CDP disclosures, developing science-based targets, penning sustainability reports or helping a board tie emissions reductions to C-suite performance incentives.
On the side, Fragos teaches a sustainability course at McGill University and offers pro bono support to help local startups and social enterprises embrace sustainability principles. Her desire to make an impact warmed up in college after hearing activist environmentalist author David Suzuki speak. Working as an account executive at Procter & Gamble, she joined and later co-led the company's Canada sustainability network, eventually pursuing sustainability as a full-time focus.
Fragos savors her dream job at PwC for the tangible change it can spark. "Any time you’re tired, you think about the possible impact and it’s so energizing. Coffee can’t do that experience justice."
— Elsa Wenzel
Alyssa Harding, 29
Executive Director, Sustainable Food Trade Association; Boulder, Colorado
When Alyssa Harding was tapped in early 2019 to serve as executive director at nonprofit Sustainable Food Trade Association (SFTA) she was working as the sustainability and external relations manager at Justin’s, a food company in Boulder, Colorado, that makes nut butters.
Harding says living in a food desert while attending university in Gainesville, Florida, where she studied environmental science, inspires her work.
While some companies have made attempts to increase access to nutritious food in these underserved areas, those efforts have so far fallen short, she notes. "If it's outside the price point that the average person can access, then we're still not addressing the appropriate equity that we need to be doing in these conversations."
In her previous role at Justin’s, Harding developed all of the company’s community impact programs "from the ground up." She says her favorite initiative focused on pollinator conservation, a program that required her to engage with people on a national and local level.
"Not only were we affecting our supply chain, we were finding a way to trickle down into infrastructure and policy reform and give back to our community in a way that engaged our employees," Harding recalls.
At SFTA, which aims to build the capacity of food companies to transition to sustainable business models, Harding has the opportunity to make even more impact. One current focus: The organization is seeking ways to scale collective impact to redefine food packaging. "You can move the needle so much further with all of these players and all of these stakeholders working together. So to be able to facilitate some of that is really for me, so inspirational."
— Deonna Anderson
Hana Kajimura, 28
Sustainability Lead, Allbirds; San Francisco
Hana Kajimura built footwear company Allbirds’ sustainability framework from the ground up after joining the organization nearly three years ago as its first full-time sustainability hire. And every day on the job looks different for Kajimura.
"I think that's what's really unique about my role in sustainability is that it's not just crunching numbers or creating climate strategy," she says. "We're testing products. It's writing copy, storyboarding videos. And I really get to take the work from initial science all the way through to customer-facing marketing."
In 2013, while studying environmental science at Stanford University, Kujimura interned at the Environmental Defense Fund in its corporate partnerships program. While there, she says: "I really became convinced of the power and swiftness of business to bring about change, but knew very little about how a business was run or what drove CEO decision-making."
Working at Allbirds marries her experience at EDF and as a senior associate consultant, working with Fortune 500 companies on high-level business strategy, at Bain & Company, where she spent three years just before joining Allbirds.
At Allbirds, Kajimura works closely with co-CEO Joey Zwillinger and vice president of innovation Jad Finck on direct environmental initiatives. For example, on Earth Day 2019, Allbirds committed to carbon neutrality from that year forward through an internal carbon tax. Kajimura says that decision came about organically as a result of "being more or less an outsider" of both the fashion industry and corporate sustainability.
"We would hear people talking about the need to be carbon neutral by 2050," she says. "If we all agree that we have to buy offsets or insets in 2050, why aren't we buying them today for 100 percent of our footprint?"
— Deonna Anderson
Matt Kuchtyak, 29
Assistant Vice President, ESG and Sustainable Finance, Moody’s Investors Service; New York
In March, Matt Kuchtyak saw something important happening that most of us likely missed: as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, social and sustainability bond issuance was surging.
For this tiny sliver of the bond market, the jump was significant, because even within the realm of environmental, social and governance investing, "the focus has always been more on ‘G’ and ‘E’ but less on ‘S’," Kuchtyak says. Investors often view social risk — things such as poverty, inadequate healthcare and gender inequality — as less tangible and harder to measure.
With the pandemic, "That’s certainly been flipped on its head," says Kuchtyak, who started with Moody’s Investors Service as an analyst in the rating agency’s public finance unit, after graduating from Rutgers University.
Now, as a lead analyst on Moody’s ESG team, it’s his job to help investors make sense of the risks companies take when they don’t, for example, seriously consider threats posed to their business by the climate crisis or the next pandemic.
Working for a credit rating agency may not be the kind of job one dreams of as a kid, the New Jersey native admits. "It’s not like being an astronaut," he says.
But there’s no doubting the sky-high impact of his role, especially as ESG investing edges into the mainstream, and Moody’s has charged Kuchtyak’s team with further integrating ESG analysis into its broader credit risk assessments.
Kuchtyak sees the ESG debt market moving toward a more holistic approach, as people realize the interconnectedness of various sustainable development issues. "I think [the COVID-19 crisis] will just help accelerate that," he says.
— Carol J. Clouse
Hilda Liswani, 28
Founder and CEO, WeBloom; Zurich, Switzerland
Africa counts more entrepreneurs than any other continent. Yet its women have limited access to the usual support systems for startups, such as accelerator programs and funding, which is painfully clear to Hilda Liswani.
She launched her first social enterprise there at age 14, and has assisted Siemens, Mastercard Foundation and the European Union with rural development projects — even accepting a youth leadership award from Queen Elizabeth II.
Less than two years ago, Liswani founded WeBloom, a nonprofit grooming women innovators in Africa to be investor-ready. When a Nigerian venture capitalist told Liswani it didn't make sense to invest in women, it spurred her on even more.
Now, WeBloom is cultivating a group of Namibian "bloomers" in the circular economy and regenerative agriculture. For example, Ochanya makes chicken feed from seaweed, and iFarming enables people to invest in a farm’s output without managing the livestock or crops.
Did we mention Liswani’s day job as the Tech4Impact business development manager at the Vice presidency of Innovation at the prestigious Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne? She describes her "airport accent" as the result of straddling continents much of her life, reflecting time lived in South Africa, Ethiopia, Namibia, England, the United States and Switzerland. Her Namibian diplomat parents fought for that nation’s independence, won just before her birth.
Liswani is motivated to advance sustainability before Africa stumbles too far down the developed world’s path of unsustainable industrialization. "People are experiencing climate change and environmental crises on a day-to-day basis. There is a real urgent need."
— Elsa Wenzel
Lilian Liu, 29
Sustainability Strategist, Futerra; Brooklyn, New York
Before Lilian Liu’s current job as a sustainability strategist at "change agency" Futerra, she spent years in other sectors — as manager of partnerships and United Nations relations at the U.N. Global Compact, as co-founder of sustainable fashion company Fauna and as project manager for sustainable fashion at nonprofit Redress Asia, among other roles. Across these roles, Liu picked up skills she uses to help companies set and achieve their sustainability goals at Futerra.
Liu says she’s very passionate about apparel, but over the years she’s thought a lot about the most effective way she can have an impact. That desire along with her global upbringing — growing up in Sweden with its egalitarian culture and spending summers in Shanghai where she saw aggressive growth that wasn’t always in balance — led Liu to her current role at Futerra. She says her multicultural background inspired her to get into sustainability and help create balance in society.
"So many industries need help and want to change," she says. "Companies have huge impacts, sometimes more than governments because of their economic power."
On her first day on the job, Liu says her CEO told her that if they weren’t delivering change, they weren’t doing their jobs. "We're really meant to push people and companies to make change happen, even if it's at times uncomfortable."
While Liu was mum on the clients she’s working with, she says one of her most exciting projects so far is working with a materials innovation company.
Although she’s not working in a fashion company directly, she still works with companies in that field and is thinking about ways the industry could improve by closing the loop through better waste management and recycling.
That’s something Liu would fix if she had infinite resources.
— Deonna Anderson
Jasmine A. Lomax, 29
Manager, Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility, Kilroy Realty; Los Angeles
Jasmine Lomax grew up in the city but spent summers immersed in California’s wilderness. When she realized how we live — and where we live — is threatening the wild spaces she loves, Lomax knew she wanted to dedicate herself to sustainability.
Her passion for building — creating things and shaping the physical world — led her to study construction at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Thankfully, her two callings are a perfect pairing for building things.
"It was a total accident that I’m incredibly passionate about the survival of life on earth and that our built environment has the largest impact on our planet," Lomax says. "This is everything I want to do."
In college, Lomax led a trip to Malawi, where she worked with Habitat for Humanity to rebuild three structures washed out by monsoon rains — a reminder of how climate change impacts vulnerable communities across the globe. The trip helped shape a philosophy she carries with her today.
In her current role, Lomax works at Kilroy Realty, where she calculates and manages the Scope 3 emissions in the company’s portfolio. Scope 3 emissions — those outside of electricity and gas consumption — are both the largest source of building emissions and the most difficult to calculate.
"Buildings are pivotal in our society, but we need to find a better way to build them and operate them," Lomax says.
— Sarah Golden
Robert Luo, 24
Founder and CEO, Mi Terro; Los Angeles
Robert Luo’s innovative approach for addressing food waste was inspired by time spent in 2018 on his uncle’s dairy farm in China. Luo said his uncle was frustrated by the buckets of spoiled milk he threw away on a daily basis because it represented profits he could have made. "He asked me to help him find a solution to get rid of the milk waste," Luo remembers.
That’s when the idea for Mi Terro, his social impact biotechnology company focused on turning milk waste into fibers that can be used in apparel and packaging, started to bubble up.
Before starting Mi Terro, Luo founded two other companies that eventually were acquired, including Kuyi Network Technology, an app that lets users send videos and photos without using Wi-Fi or cellular service.
For his efforts, Luo has earned a spot in the Entrepreneur Hall of Fame at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration. Luo’s entrepreneurial spirit comes from his parents, who both have run companies of their own.
"Entrepreneurship is running in my blood," Luo says, noting that if he were to ever leave Mi Terro, he’d likely start another company centered on sustainability and social impact.
But for now, about two years after Mi Terro’s founding, Luo says the major goal for the company is to replace petroleum materials with protein-based materials made from food waste.
So far, Mi Terro has done that by producing T-shirts, available on its website, made from milk waste sourced from organizations including food products giant Danone — and his uncle’s farm.
— Deonna Anderson
Liz Lyon, 29
Small Business and Circular Economy Manager, Plant Chicago; Chicago
Liz Lyon believes in the value of small and mighty. While the dominant narrative of circularity centers on corporate and country leadership, according to Lyon, "Small businesses are left out of the conversation, but they have a lot to offer."
Having moved to Illinois to study public policy and environmental studies at the University of Chicago, Lyon accepted a internship in late 2013 with nonprofit Plant Chicago where she became entwined in the city’s robust local food movement that was taking root in the shadow of Chicago’s manufacturing giants. Part living lab and part business hub, Plant Chicago aims to cultivate local circular economies, and Lyon has been applying and accelerating this mission since she joined the team full-time in 2015.
Lyon established Plant Chicago’s year-round farmers market and learned from farmers and small businesses that for many, success was measured not by size but by better serving their immediate community through jobs and services. Lyon brings this idea to life by leading Plant Chicago’s Circular Economy Leaders Network, a cohort of small food businesses on the Southwest side of the city seeking to implement, measure and communicate the principles of circularity while better serving their communities.
Lyon champions a vision for local circular economies: "resources, materials, nutrients and money circulating within a local context so that as little as possible is wasted and as much as possible comes from and stays in that community." Although the businesses she works with may have a smaller reach than the global food companies that share their ZIP code, they are a model for resource efficiency, sustainability and resilience.
— Lauren Phipps
Priya Mulgaonkar, 27
Resiliency Planner, New York City Environmental Justice Alliance; Brooklyn, New York
Moving from the sweeping natural vistas of Seattle to the concrete urbanization of New York City wouldn’t cause most people to become more environmentally conscious. But for Priya Mulgaonkar, experiencing firsthand the destruction from Superstorm Sandy during her sophomore year at New York University lit the spark for a career in climate activism.
"Seeing how much devastation fell on the backs of low-income people and people of color, it just showed how starkly the inequality of climate change really is," she recalls. "I got really passionate about environmental justice."
For Mulgaonkar, living in New York gave "the environment" an entirely different meaning. It’s not just about natural vistas and pristine mountains but also air quality, waste systems, stormwater runoff and whole urban systems.
As resiliency planner for the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, Mulgaonkar works to ensure the city is healthy for all its roughly 8.4 million residents. She partners with grassroots coalitions across neighborhoods, has led numerous large climate marches, developed proposals and campaign strategies, and even helped pass New York’s most ambitious climate law, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.
Through her tenaciousness and marathon conference calls, Mulgaonkar secured a mandate in the bill ensuring that at least 35 percent of state spending on clean energy benefits disadvantaged communities. "Climate change might affect everyone," she says. "But not everyone is affected equally."
— Jesse Klein
Catherine Nabukalu, 28
Project Coordinator, District of Columbia Sustainable Energy Utility; Washington D.C.
If you’ve seen Catherine Nabukalu’s name before, it may be because she was an Emerging Leader at GreenBiz Group’s 2017 VERGE conference. More recently, she co-wrote an article about the environmental impact of the charcoal supply chain.
Nabukalu first learned about the environmental impacts of that supply chain — including how it leads to vast forest loss — when she traveled to Uganda in Sub-Saharan Africa as part of her master’s degree in environmental studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
Born in Kampala, Uganda, Nabukalu had roots in the region before earning her master’s degree. Separate from the work she did in the region while in her environmental studies program, she traveled to Kumi, Uganda, to lead a reforestation effort with the Green Teso Initiative. Her team planted more than 20,000 trees at five primary schools in the region.
"Our goal was to make sure that school children have trees so that they could play under the shade in eastern Uganda," Nabukalu says. "That is one of the things that I'm most proud of in terms of philanthropy." The project achieved a 90 percent success rate for seedlings within five months.
Raising awareness about the energy demand associated with forest loss is one of Nabukalu’s goals. She says even more important is figuring out how to replenish the world's forests at a faster rate than we're cutting them down.
As project coordinator at the District of Columbia’s Sustainable Energy Utility, Nabukalu focuses on helping reduce energy demand for residents, businesses and institutions throughout the Nation’s Capital, working with the account management and engineering teams to reach that goal.
— Deonna Anderson
Kiera O’Brien, 21
Founder and President, Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends; Ketchikan, Alaska
Growing up in coastal Ketchikan, Alaska, the "salmon capital of the world," shaped Kiera O’Brien’s passions for conservation and policy. The Alaska Permanent Fund, which feeds proceeds from offshore oil drilling into residents’ bank accounts, helped pay O’Brien’s tuition at Harvard.
Dividends of a different stripe are central to a climate movement O’Brien is helping build. In 2018, she co-founded Students for Carbon Dividends, enlisting campus support from a mix of Republicans and Democrats. It advocates a carbon price, which emitters pay. Proponents say that unlike a tax, it reframes climate progress away from the language of personal sacrifice, instead dangling a cash carrot to the populace. The student group’s booth had a warm reception at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year, and O’Brien voiced its cause on CNN.
"I really see this as a generational issue," says O’Brien, who launched Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends in December to continue the work post-graduation. "Young people just have so much more at stake and are so much less constrained by old party lines."
Aspiring to a behind-the-scenes policy career, O’Brien has interned for the U.S. Senate and American Conservative Union. Soon, she’ll pursue a master’s in climate and society at Columbia University.
Her hope is that there’s something in carbon dividends for everyone, and that conservatives can reclaim environmental footing they lost in the 1990s. O’Brien says she asks herself, "What can I be doing to convince my camp to sit at the table and debate what we should be doing — not if we should be doing anything?"
— Elsa Wenzel
Goksenin Ozturkeri, 29
Senior Associate, CohnReznick Capital; San Francisco
Goksenin Ozturkeri’s interest in renewable energy dates back to his childhood in Turkey, a country that has long depended on natural gas imports, primarily from Russia, for much of its electricity.
When Ozturkeri was a kid — in the late 1990s and early 2000s — oil and gas prices were volatile and the threat of power outages often hung over the country’s infrastructure. At the same time, "I would hear these stories about how our country is so suitable for solar and I couldn’t understand why we weren’t pushing for it," he recalls.
Ozturkeri’s interest in clean energy continued through college, but a fateful internship at a Belgian consulting firm transformed his interest into a career ambition. The firm’s biggest client was Gazprom, the Russian natural gas behemoth, and Ozturkeri was asked to research European solar and wind policy on its behalf. "They were concerned that Europe was moving ahead on renewable energy," he says. "Because of them and what I learned doing that research, I got into this industry."
Not seeing himself as an engineer or technical type, Ozturkeri got a master’s degree in global energy policy and finance. After graduation, he landed a job as an analyst for the investment bank CohnReznick Capital, where he serves as a senior associate, working with developers to build financial models and obtain funding from investors.
"I wanted to work in a profession where I would have a direct impact on climate change," he says. "And moving that flow of capital is as close as it gets to having a direct impact."
— Carol J. Clouse
Matt Panopio, 28
Program Manager, Energy and Sustainable Operations, Amazon; Seattle
Born in the Philippines, Matt Panopio grew up bouncing between naval bases in San Diego and Okinawa, Japan. That means he also bounced between typhoons and wildfires.
With such a global and visceral perspective of climate chaos from a young age, Panopio doesn’t remember making the choice to pursue a career in climate change. It was always clear (although it helped that he watched Al Gore’s documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," at peak-impressionable age).
"Ultimately, it’s always just been an interest of mine," Panopio says. "It is the most pressing issue of our time."
Fresh out of college, Panopio spent three years in the public sector, then became a consultant before setting his sights on an operational role within the private sector. "Businesses and corporations have the buying power to make lasting change beyond their operations and I saw they had massive profits that could really change carbon markets and renewable energy markets," he says.
Today, Panopio is part of a team working towards Amazon’s ambitious climate goals. His team executes renewable energy deals; Panopio’s specialty is working with utilities to subscribe to green energy programs.
Before Amazon, Panopio was also an EDF Climate Corps fellow to Lyft, where he helped create the framework for the ridesharing company’s climate neutrality program.
— Sarah Golden
Sasha Ponomareva, 28
Green Operations Specialist, San Francisco International Airport; San Francisco
When Sasha Ponomareva was hired by San Francisco’s Department of the Environment as part of its school outreach team, she had some reservations about local government. However, after 18 months of talking to kids about recycling, composting and water conservation — and subsequently serving as director Debbie Raphael’s executive assistant — her perspective shifted.
"You can grow up feeling jaded about government," Ponomareva says, "and I really disproved that for myself. It was great to see a local government really work for its people and work on [sustainability] efforts that are valuable."
Today, Ponomareva works at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), another city department that is, in many ways, its own metro microcosm — complete with administrative employees, tradespeople and a business community. For her, learning how to collaborate and work with those diverse stakeholders has deepened her impact within the worlds of waste management and city government. Last summer, Ponomareva was part of the team that rolled out SFO’s plastic water bottle ban — the first such ban at a major U.S. airport — and she’s been an integral part of SFO’s effort to "spread the waste gospel" and to train its 1,000-plus facilities staff on waste diversion. It’s all part of SFO’s goal to be the world’s first zero-waste airport by 2021.
While it’s been nearly three years since she worked under Raphael, Ponomareva still draws inspiration from her mentor.
"What inspires me most about her is her ability to listen and connect with people," Ponomareva says, "because ultimately, you're not getting anywhere if you're not listening to people and hearing what they want and what's doable."
— Shane Downing
Benjamin Price, 29
Venture Manager, Saint-Gobain NOVA; Boston
Benjamin Price is helping a 355-year-old materials giant set the foundation for its future by embracing innovative young startups. Saint-Gobain, which supplied mirrors to the Palace of Versailles in the 17th century, sells $42 billion of construction essentials such as drywall and roofing, in addition to high-performance materials and other tools to improve indoor light, air quality and acoustics. Robotics, additive manufacturing, digital platforms, artificial intelligence, retrofits and prefabrication are all on the table.
"It’s a really exciting time to be in this space," Price says. His work within the small NOVA corporate ventures team differs from that of traditional venture capital: In addition to funding and supporting young companies, it offers access to Saint-Gobain’s massive global footprint of materials businesses and distributors.
Price grew up outside Boston, and after college dove into consulting at PwC and Accenture, learning how big companies can drive change at scale. He was always interested in innovation, so in his spare time he created a "micro micro fund," inviting people he knew to invest in startups.
Pre-COVID-19, Price traveled to his company’s offices in Paris and Shanghai, spending half his time at startup events and pitch days, the other half meeting internally. He’s hoping to return to Kenya, where he spent two months several years ago. That led to serving on the board of a teacher-training and rural youth-mentorship organization, the Flying Kites School Network. Back home in Boston, he also volunteers with Caritas Communities, which provides jobs for people without homes.
— Elsa Wenze
Sarah Reed, 27
Program Manager, Electrification Coalition; Sacramento, California
Even as a child, Sarah Reed was at the forefront of electric vehicle (EV) innovation, albeit in the passenger seat of her father's EV, one of the first in California. "Sustainability has just been part of me," she says, "and it's something I took with me and turned into a career."
As a 7-year-old, Reed didn't spend much time thinking about her dad's car, but she does remember how normal it felt. Today, as a program manager with the Electrification Coalition, which promotes policies and actions that facilitate the deployment of electric vehicles on a mass scale, she's doing her part to elevate and expand that feeling of normalcy with local governments and universities seeking to electrify their fleet vehicles. Reed, along with her colleagues, works with more than 200 fleet managers in 42 states pushing toward a collective, electric future.
Reed says those same fleet managers, including city officials, inspire her. "It's easy to get bogged down by things that are happening nationally or internationally,” she says, “but I find a lot of strength and inspiration in what's happening on the local and state level."
Not surprisingly, Reed's career aspirations are centered around making EVs, such as the Chevy Bolt she recently purchased, the societal norm. "I hope to look back in many years when almost everybody has an electric vehicle, and think of when EVs weren't commonplace," she says.
— Shane Downing
Katie Riddle, 26
Sustainability Analyst, City of Charlotte, North Carolina
When Katie Riddle majored in environmental studies and business at Sewanee: The University of the South, she envisioned a future for herself as a sustainability professional in the private sector.
After graduation, she started down that path, working for the British pharmaceutical GlaxoSmithKline and ICF, a global consulting services company. In 2018, the opportunity arose to join the three-person team charged with leading her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, into a low-carbon future, and Riddle joined the frontlines of the climate mitigation and adaptation battle being waged by cities around the world.
"While I believe business can and does have an impact on sustainability," she says, "I feel really passionate about the forward-thinking work being done in the public sector, especially at the local level."
The team’s first order of business was to develop Charlotte’s Strategic Energy Action Plan, which the city council subsequently approved. Since then, Riddle has served as project manager, overseeing the implementation of a plan that maps out how Charlotte will transform into a low-carbon city by 2050.
Most recently, the team has been setting the stage for the development of a 35-megawatt utility-scale solar energy project, which will offset roughly 25 percent of carbon emissions from city-owned buildings over the next 20 years. The system, slated to come online in 2022, is expected to save $2 million in energy expenses over 20 years and create 428 jobs in the region, according to the city’s website.
Working for her hometown may not have been what Riddle pictured in the beginning, but it "feels like a dream job to me right now," she says.
— Carol J. Clouse
Mesbah Sabur, 27
Founder, Circularise; The Hague, Netherlands
Blockchain entrepreneur Mesbah Sabur learned the value of hard work as an Afghan refugee, whose family sought asylum in his adopted homeland of the Netherlands when he was just 7. He recalls the frequent advice offered by his father during the five years they lived in refugee camps before achieving resident status: "Remember that you need to earn everything you are doing."
That can-do philosophy — and his belief that it’s tough to solve big problems from inside big companies — inspired the creation four years ago of Circularise. The digital technology startup is using blockchain to create an open-source platform for sharing data across supply chains. The ambition is to improve transparency so that companies can move toward more circular production processes, starting with the plastics sector. Giant companies including Domo, Covestro and BASF are testing its approach, which they hope will help increase their use of verified recycled resins and decrease their use of virgin plastics.
Better data is key to finding more appropriate applications for materials of all types, says Sabur, who earned his degrees in industrial product engineering at Delft University and co-founded Circularise fresh off earning his master’s. He also believes a reboot of industrial design principles is another pillar the circularity movement needs to embrace more vocally. "Plastics are really a material that can be used for thousands of years," he says. "The problem is that right now, we don’t."
— Heather Clancy
José Miguel Salazar Hernández, 29
Senior Specialist, Corporate Sustainability Services, CSRone (Veda International Corp.); Taipei, Taiwan
Growing up in San Salvador, José Miguel Salazar Hernández was quick to question the inequities he saw around him. When he was 6, he remembers asking his parents why they couldn’t invite all of the kids in his neighborhood to eat dinner together at the same table. Over time, Salazar’s early interest in social justice transformed into a desire to study business.
Salazar traveled to Taiwan thanks to a study-abroad scholarship that allowed him to get his undergraduate degree in business administration. He parlayed that into an MBA from National Taipei University of Technology. That’s where he was exposed to corporate social responsibility and the role businesses can play in serving social and environmental needs.
Today, Salazar has what he calls his dream job. For the past three years, he’s worked at CSRone, a Veda international subsidiary that focuses on CSR and ESG issues, where he provides consulting services to corporate clients and helps to run an online resource center for practitioners. Despite Salazar’s admiration for his employer and his colleagues, he’d one day like to launch his own commercial sustainability startup and to potentially return to El Salvador.
"At one point in the future, I would like to have the opportunity to go back and to bring the knowledge I have learned, as well as the skills, to help to develop the country," he says. "I think that kind of [entrepreneurial] vision can be exported to other places."
— Shane Downing
Daphany Rose Sanchez, 27
Executive Director, Kinetic Communities Consulting; Brooklyn, New York
Daphany Rose Sanchez already has experienced climate change as a matter of life or death. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy thrust a wall of brown water into her Staten Island bedroom. Sanchez clambered to the roof, where she was rescued eight hours later by boat. The first home her family had ever purchased was a total loss. Sanchez returned to the Brooklyn public housing flat where she was raised and lives today, "a tight-knit community with lots of caring people."
Her engineering professors at New York University helped assess the home’s structural damage, inspiring her to merge her technical and social service expertise to help New York City’s marginalized populations. "I'm sick and tired of our communities having to be resilient," Sanchez says. "Why is it that they’re the ones to face the biggest threats?"
In 2017, she founded Kinetic Communities Consulting, a B Corp that helps frontline New Yorkers transition away from fossil fuels through social services, energy efficiency and technical solutions. How does electrification happen in public housing? How can minority-owned contractors get their fair share of support from the state and ConEd? Such challenges are at the firm’s core.
The pandemic is halting some projects while exposing the overlap on the map between historical, real-estate redlining and today’s high COVID-19 rates. Sanchez is posting resources for jobs and mutual aid online, yet points out the difficulty of engaging individuals who already live a "quarantine" lifestyle with limited digital tools. She urges businesses, when launching programs in energy and sustainability, to consider the grassroots experts and their existing infrastructure first.
— Elsa Wenzel
Macaulay Souza de Abreu, 26
Founder and CEO, Onisafra; Manaus, Brazil
Macaulay Souza grew up in a rural community in Amazonas state, Brazil. He’s a self-identified Caboclo (part-indigenous) whose parents had no formal education — that is, until his father attended school in his 40s. Souza wanted something better, so at age 14 he left home to attend high school, and later university, in the Amazonas state capital, Manaus.
During university, Souza came to better understand the agricultural problems he’d observed growing up, in particular the inability of small-scale farmers to get a fair price for their products because they lacked direct access to markets. That motivated Souza to launch Onisafra, an online platform connecting Amazonian farmers directly to consumers. Farmers using Onisfra’s platform produce fruits and vegetables, or harvest brazil nuts, açaí berries and other forest products on plots smaller than 25 acres.
Souza partners with organizations such as the Amazonas Sustainable Development Agency to provide technical assistance to farmers. He’s received multiple impact investment awards from the Partnership Platform for the Amazon, which includes USAID and the International Center for Agriculture, recognizing his work as a social impact business helping conserve biodiversity in the Amazon.
Ever entrepreneurial, Souza envisions expanding into other Latin American regions where farmers face similar problems. He says that the power of education to transform lives, and the novel ways technology can support people, inspire him.
— Meg Wilcox
Riddhima Yadav, 24
Analyst, Sustainable Finance Group, Goldman Sachs; New York
Riddhima Yadav doesn’t wait around to be told when and how to make an impact. At 13, she started an organization called Youth for the Environment to advocate for community-level environmental initiatives.
Yadav’s upbringing began in India, and later included stints in Indonesia and the United Kingdom. She witnessed firsthand the environmental issues present in these varied economies and cultures, such as water access issues in India and air quality problems in Indonesia. She says she felt "predestined" to work to connect people to a more sustainable lifestyle.
Through her advocacy and her studies at Yale, the University of Cambridge and the London School of Economics and Political Science, Yadav came to see the power and necessity of the public and private sectors working together. Governments can operate at scale, but the private sector is often better built for speed, and the climate crisis requires both, she says.
This revelation led her to join the sustainable finance team at Goldman Sachs, where she has worked on projects including a massive report requested by the United Nations on how private finance can accelerate climate action, the formation of Ecuador’s Sovereign Social Bond and a report on how Goldman Sachs plans to invest $750 billion in sustainable projects over the next decade.
Her ultimate goal: mainstreaming sustainability: "That means it moves from being a special thing to just another thing," Yadav explains. "That sounds counterintuitive, but I think that considering sustainability factors into everything that we do, that should be routine."
Ingraining sustainability into the very fabric of society takes extraordinary effort from both the public and private sectors, and Yadav says she is on a lifelong journey to bring that to fruition.
— Owen Poindexter