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25 badass women shaking up the corporate climate movement

For International Women's Day, we recognize determined diplomats, compassionate policy experts and pragmatic executives. They are role models for any gender.

Fearless. Authentic. Ethical. Compassionate. Courageous.

Search for a definition of the term "badass" in your go-to online resource, and those are a few of the adjectives that bubble to the surface. "For me, badass is determined, a little bit feisty — but not too much — but tenacious," said Sally Uren, CEO of Forum for the Future, a nonprofit focused on inspiring the business model and systemic change need to accelerate the clean economy. 

"That's one thing I've really learned is that you've just got to keep going, and don't listen when people say, 'That's a really bad idea and it will never work.' To that, I say, 'Noted.' And then I'll go figure out how to do it anyway."

While corporate sustainability is one of those rare fields in which many women have risen to high-profile positions in the C-suite, in honor of International Women's Day, we thought it appropriate to recognize those who — like Uren herself — have been especially persistent in summoning their badass superpowers to muster corporate action against climate change.

Whether it's the unwavering diplomacy of public-sector leaders such as Christiana Figueres or the steely resolve of executives such as Apple's Lisa Jackson, this group is especially noteworthy both because of what they already have achieved and for their ability to directly influence future innovation and progress.  

Every list is subjective, of course. I'm especially gratified — and somewhat chagrined — to note that we could have very easily included at least 10 more individuals at the intersection of technology-infused, systemic business model change, women such as circular economy guru Ellen MacArthur or Google Sustainability Officer Kate Brandt (both of whom appeared on our 2018 VERGE Vanguard list). 

Before we get to the list, a special mention for a badass-woman-in-waiting, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg. With a simple gesture — the decision to skip school (#FridaysForFuture) to draw attention to the catastrophic impacts of climate change — Thunberg has raised awareness among her generation in a way no adult could have managed. In early 2019, she was invited to speak at the Davos gathering of the World Economic Forum, where she scolded world leaders for not being bold enough in addressing the climate crisis.  

"In five years, I hope I don’t work on the climate because that would mean that everything is OK," Thunberg told Rolling Stone for its March "Women Shaping the Future" issue. "But I probably will, and many other people will because of where we are at. We see the consequences of it today, and we will see it more clearly then."

Without further ado, here are 25 badass women at the center of the corporate climate movement, all of whom make very convincing role models for any generation.

1. Deanna Bratter (senior director, public benefit and sustainable development, Danone North America)

Previously sustainability chief for WhiteWave Foods, Bratter moved into a similar position for Danone NA when her former company merged with the U.S. operations of French food giant Danone.

In April, her team completed the B Corp certification task for Danone — turning the organization into the world's largest B Corp, a designation it still holds. Not only did Bratter assemble the right stakeholders to get the job done, they completed the process two years ahead of time. Next up: using the structure as a framework for innovation. "B Corp doesn’t just give you a certification — it gives you a benchmark to understand where you are, what your strengths are, what your opportunities are and what best practices potentially look like," Bratter told me in late 2018.

2. Audrey Choi (chief marketing officer and chief sustainability officer, Morgan Stanley)

Boasting deep public-sector experience, including a stint as domestic policy adviser to Vice President Al Gore, Choi spent her early career in business journalism as a foreign correspondent and bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal.

As Morgan Stanley's first CSO, Choi is responsible for promoting the idea of global sustainability through capital markets. "We believe that a truly sustainable business is financially, as well as environmentally and socially, sustainable," Choi notes in an interview on her firm's website. "Once you understand that, you begin to see that sustainability is not something that exists apart from — or in opposition to — business. Rather, it is an integral part of sound business." 

3. Helen Clarkson (CEO, The Climate Group)

The accountant-turned-humanitarian stepped up to lead the influential NGO in March 2017. Her mission: Help companies make the business case to focus on climate mitigation and other environmental issues. The Climate Group's work centers primarily on three signature programs: the RE100 (representing companies committed to transitioning entirely to renewable electricity); the EV100 (representing businesses committed to electric transportation by 2030); and EP100 (promoting the concept of energy productivity).

Clarkson is passionate about getting businesses to talk up solutions and successes. "The urgent task at hand is speeding up the process — making the changes needed for a zero-carbon future and pumping them with the adrenaline to match the urgency required," she wrote in January. You can count on her team to keep turning up the heat.

4. Christiana Figueres (Convener, Mission 2020)

As executive secretary of the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010 to 2016, Figueres was instrumental in leading the negotiations that ultimately led to the unanimous acceptance of the Paris Agreement in 2015.

She's still at the center of the movement with Mission 2020, a self-described "extended network" of diplomats, strategists and campaigners. The short-term objective is to drive certain breakthroughs in energy, transportation, infrastructure, land use, industry and finance by next year. The long-term objective is net-zero emissions by 2050. In her timespan, she's been involved with everything from artificial intelligence ethics to a board seat on Spanish infrastructure company Acciona.

"Now that we know the difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees Celsius of warming — including twice as much physical damage, twice as many people subjected to life-threatening heat waves and fires — we have one clear path to follow," Figueres wrote for Time in January. "We must focus every effort on striving for 1.5 degrees." 

5. Kate Gordon (director, planning and research, state of California)

After a career spent overseeing economic studies for think tanks (Paulson Institute), supporting academic research (Columbia University and Duke University) and nonprofit organizations (Center for American Progress), the environmental design and city planning specialist became director of California Gov. Gavin Newsom's Office of Planning and Research in January.

I tend to gravitate toward the hard issues: speaking to audiences not already convinced of the centrality of climate change to economic prosperity.
Her mandate is daunting: working at the "intersection of housing affordability, access to transportation and climate resilience," all imperative for the state's future growth.

"I tend to gravitate toward the hard issues: speaking to audiences not already convinced of the centrality of climate change to economic prosperity or in states or regions that have not been at the forefront of environmental or clean energy action," Gordon said in an interview for a University of California-Berkeley alumni publication. "I think that the ability to really listen to who is in the room and find pathways forward to achieve common goals will be really useful in my new role."

6. Kate Heiny (head of global sustainability, C&A)

Heiny spent eight years at retailer Target, including almost one year as director, before leaping over to Dutch apparel maker C&A in 2015. There, she works alongside CSO Jeff Hogue to innovate on many fronts.

For instance, last summer, C&A was the first company to earn Cradle to Cradle certification for jeans made out of sustainable, nontoxic materials that can be recirculated or composted at the end of their life. One year prior to that, C&A was first to market with a Cradle to Cradle T-shirt. C&A also had a front row seat in the creation of the Fashion for Good, an innovation platform for new models of production and reuse in the fashion industry.

A long-time supporter of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, where she is the chair, Heiny advocates the need for rivals to work together to catalyze change. "Figure out where your passion lies, seek to understand what sustainability means in that context, and then go from there," she told GreenBiz in 2013. "What's exciting is that there are no limits to sustainability."

7. Lisa Jackson (vice president, environment, policy and social initiatives, Apple)

The former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator has elevated renewable energy, supplier responsibility and water conservation to the technology giant's boardroom; she reports directly to Apple CEO Tim Cook.

From fighting deforestation to using robots to recover electronics components to procuring clean power, under Jackson's watch, Apple is using its influence to shape unprecedented programs. Last year, for example, it pledged $300 million to help key suppliers negotiate solar and wind contracts in places such as China where this has been difficult to pull off — the goal is to help Apple's supply chain procure at least 4 gigawatts of renewable energy by the end of next year. 

Indeed, for all Apple does on its own, perhaps its leadership on supply chain issues — and its unprecedented transparency about what's working and what's not — matters most. Over the past three years, its partners in creating iPhones, Macintosh computers, Apple Watch, AirPods, iPads and more have diverted at least 1 million tons of garbage from landfills, according to the company's 2019 supplier responsibility report published this week. It saved at least 7.6 billion gallons of water in 2018 alone.

8. Lise Kingo (CEO and executive director, U.N. Global Compact)

Prior to assuming her United Nations post in 2015, Kingo led corporate sustainability strategy as part of the executive management team at pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk. In her current role, Kingo has been instrumental in helping multinationals understand the inextricable link between human rights issues and sustainable supply chains.

So far, more than 13,500 organizations have become signatories to the compact, which advocates universal principals on labor, environment and anti-corruption, among other issues. Technically speaking, that means she heads the largest corporate sustainability initiative in the world.

There are many examples of where the private sector is already taking inspiring action on climate change, but achieving a just climate transition also requires respect for the rights of people.
"There are many examples of where the private sector is already taking inspiring action on climate change, but achieving a just climate transition also requires respect for the rights of people, such as communities facing energy insecurity and local communities displaced by renewable energy projects," she wrote for GreenBiz in December. "Actively integrating these types of interconnected considerations into corporate decision-making and strategy will be foundational to the long-term health of this planet — ultimately good for both society and business."

9. Isabelle Kocher (CEO, Engie)

The physicist who heads France's largest power and energy company is using three divining rods to guide Engie's future: "decarbonization, digitization and decentralization." And like other utility executives, she's steering through a rough transition as the sector reduces its reliance on fossil fuels for electricity generation — the company will exit 20 countries over the next three years.

Still, during 2018, Engie added 1.1 gigawatts of solar and wind generation capacity, with nine more GW to come by 2021. It has introduced the largest hydrogen-powered utility fleet in France, was the first to offer an alternative multi-fuel station and has invested in a green electric mobility service across Europe. 

Under Kocher's direction, Engie also has emerged as one of the largest corporate issuers of green bonds, with $8.12 billion since 2014. "Engie's customers seek to design and execute their zero carbon transitions with increasing urgency," Kocher said in a February investor presentation. "It is core to their strategic goals, but often not core to their operational capabilities." 

10. Janice Lao (director of corporate responsibility and sustainability, Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels)

Raised in the Philippines and formally trained in environmental change and management at the University of Oxford, Lao influenced the strategy of several companies in Hong Kong, including airline Cathay Pacific, before assuming her current role in 2016.

Lao was recognized in 2018 with a "Women of the Decade" award from the Women's Economic Forum. She is spearheading the hospitality company's plan to stop using single-use plastics by 2020. Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels owns properties in Asia, Europe and the United States, including the Peninsula Hotels portfolio.

11. Dawn Lippert (CEO, Elemental Excelerator)

In the past five years, Elemental Excelerator has awarded more than $30 million in funding to 82 portfolio companies that are accelerating the transition to clean energy, water, zero-emissions transportation and regenerative agriculture, and so on. Those startups have gone on to raise at $350 million more. 

Examples include microgrid player Go Electric, plastics recycling concern BIoCellection and carbon removal firm Opus 12 — all co-founded by women. Indeed, 26 percent of the companies in the Hawaiian organization's latest cohort boast female founders, much higher than what's typically supported by your average technology venture firm or innovation accelerator.

Living in the world as it is isn’t an argument against working towards a better future.
Lippert, a former Booz Allen Hamilton management consultant, said diversity and inclusivity — of gender, ethnicity, region and other factors — is a core consideration in Elemental's ongoing startup selection. "What we see is that leaders come in all stripes. They have different strengths. What is notable is that you bring your own life and world perspective to what you do." 

Lippert is also director of innovation and community for Emerson Collective, the investment organization led by Laurene Powell Jobs, and she's deeply involved in the state of Hawaii's quest to transition entirely to renewable energy by 2045.

12. Rose McKinney-James (managing principal, Energy Works; director, MGM Resorts)

McKinney-James has been shaking up the clean energy movement for more than two decades. As a lobbyist, she helped craft her home state of Nevada's first renewable portfolio standard in 1997 — it's still one of the nation's largest solar states.

A former commissioner with the Nevada Public Utility Commission, McKinney-James later served on the transition team for President Barack Obama, with a focus on the U.S. Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Another milestone: She is the first African-American to win a statewide primary in Nevada. 

The tireless advocate for energy equity and the role of clean energy in job creation currently lends her expertise to many organizations shaping renewables policy, including the Energy Foundation and the Alliance to Save Energy. She's also a director for MGM Resorts, where she shaped the hospitality company's renewable energy strategy alongside fellow badass Cindy Ortega.

13. Lisa Morden (vice president, safety and sustainability, Kimberly-Clark)

Managing corporate environmental, social and governance issues for one of the world's largest consumer paper products companies — not to mention aligning those plans with human health and safety priorities — is a daunting mandate. 

The organization behind brands such as Huggies, Kleenex and Kotex is at the midway point of its Sustainability 2022 strategy, informed in part by Morden's groundbreaking relationship with Greenpeace, forged in 2009 to address paper sourcing issues. In its June update, Kimberly-Clark reported absolute greenhouse gas emissions reductions of 18 percent against a 2005 baseline and a waste diversion rate of 95 percent. It's hard at work on watershed assessment, and it's frequently registered for its logistics strategy.

In the coming months, expect Morden's team to prioritize two issues upon which consumer products companies have made many commitments but have so far failed to deliver substantial progress: eliminating deforestation of old growth forests (the company was called to task in February for failing to use recycled content in toilet paper); and stopping the flow of plastics into the ocean (in collaboration with partners including Circulate Capital).

"By adopting a system-based approach with key partners, we can play a role in enabling the circular economy, one which is restorative and creates value," Morden said in comments accompanying the company's last update.

14. Sara Neff (senior vice president, sustainability, Kilroy Realty)

Over the past nine years, Neff has transformed the Los Angeles-based commercial real estate investment company — which manages about 13.2 million feet of property on the West Coast — into one of the most progressive firms in North America when it comes to embracing building designs that can withstand grid outages or demand spikes and that have far smaller emissions footprints than other commercial properties. 

In September 2018, Kilroy committed to achieving carbon-neutral operations by 2020 — an aggressive target it intends to meet through a combination of on-site technology investments of both solar panels and energy storage systems as well as offsite power purchase agreements. It was also one of the small group of companies that stood up behind the World Green Building Council's new campaign committing companies and businesses to owning, operating and developing net-zero carbon buildings by 2030.

15. Mary Nichols (chair, California Air Resources Board)

Appointed to her second stint as CARB chair in 2007 by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nichols is fighting back hard against the Trump administration's proposed rollback of fuel-economy standards — a move it has tied to a safety argument — and by its proposed interference with California's own tough emissions rules. 

"As U.S. EPA’s own scientists confirmed ... the existing program is cost-effective and successful," Nichols noted in remarks (PDF) prepared for a hearing in late 2018. "California and its partners are seeing ever-increasing numbers of cleaner cars, putting us on track to clean the air and address climate change. We should not suddenly slam on the breaks and go in reverse." 

With the state and EPA still wide apart in negotiations as of early February, the potential for a legal skirmish over California's ability to set its own rules seems all but certain.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex

16. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (U.S. Representative, New York)

A favorite target of conservative Republicans, the new Congresswoman from the Bronx known to many as AOC is the most prominent champion of the Green New Deal, a federal policy resolution for decarbonizing the United States that some in the Democratic party believe could become the framework for a wave of new infrastructure projects and clean energy investments.

The plan, which is scant on details, could create millions of high-paying jobs while advancing America's clean air, clean water and social equity agendas, AOC argues.

Living in the world as it is isn’t an argument against working towards a better future.
Critics have attacked — horrified with the notion that people should drive less or cut their red meat consumption, and questioning AOC's own habits of consumption. "Living in the world as it is isn’t an argument against working towards a better future," she tweeted in early March. "The Green New Deal is about putting a LOT of people to work in developing new technologies, building new infrastructure, and getting us to 100 percent renewable energy."

17. Cindy Ortega (senior vice president and chief sustainability officer, MGM Resorts)

When the local utility in Las Vegas, Nevada Power, couldn't meet MGM Resorts' clean energy requirements, Ortega filed for a divorce in order to develop that strategy independently.

The breakup was expensive: MGM will pay at least $87 million for the privilege of procuring power on its own. But it barely has looked back. Last April, the hospitality company announced a deal with developer Invenergy for a 100-megawatt solar project about 25 miles north of the Las Vegas Strip. After the project becomes operational in 2020, it should supply up to 90 percent of its 13 high-wattage properties in Sin City. And Ortega was among the hospitality executives to join the ban-plastic-straws movement in July, a move that will eliminate more than 100 million straws annually. 

18. Chrissa Pagitsas (vice president, environmental, social, governance; Fannie Mae)

Under her leadership, the Federal National Mortgage Association vastly has expanded the range of green financing options available for multifamily buildings. From 2012 to 2018, the company issued more than $51.7 billion in green mortgage-backed securities and $6.1 billion in green-structure securities. It was the largest green bond issuer in the world in 2017 and 2018.

Fannie Mae figures that the average building owner recoups their investments in energy efficiency and other environmental improvements within six years, while tenants have seen their annual utility expenses cut by 10 percent. "Green bonds serve as more than an excellent investment vehicle — they are designed to target significant environmental, social and financial benefits," Pagitsas said in Fannie Mae's March impact report.

19. Neha Palmer (head of energy strategy, global infrastructure; Google)

When it comes to procuring and consuming clean energy, Google is gigawatts ahead of most companies. It has signed contracts for an estimated 3 GW, compared with about 2 GW for Facebook and 1 GW for the likes of Amazon, Apple and Microsoft.

The lead strategist for the tech giant's energy team is an engineer with two decades of industry experience, who started her career at utility Pacific Gas & Electric and did time as an investment banker focused on electric utilities. Despite ongoing efforts to managing and reduce power consumption in its data centers, Palmer's team drives a hard bargain, but it's also creative — looking for ways to innovate with legacy utilities.

"One criteria we have is that these projects need to be new to the world," she said in July. "If you had a wind farm that had been in operation for five years, that’s not going to be a project that we’re going to buy power from, because it’s already a part of the carbon mix of the grid."

20. Alexandra Palt (chief corporate responsibility officer, L’Oreal)

One big theme that shapes L'Oreal's sustainability strategy is empowerment. While goals such as greenhouse gas emissions reductions, water conservation and zero waste are mandated, the French company grants local managers the autonomy to guide the best path for individual locations. "We have a culture where it's authorized to have initiatives to try new things, to find solutions, to propose solutions," Palt said in 2017.

Given its dependence on female consumers, Palt's keen focus on helping women around the world fight climate change is understandable, and it isn't skin-deep. The company was the first corporate sponsor of the C40 Women4Climate Initiative, where L'Oreal is funding research to heighten awareness. Palt, trained as a lawyer and human rights advocate, began her career with Amnesty International. "I would like to encourage women to become climate leaders, because we are going to be touched in a very specific way," she said.

21. Jennifer Silberman (vice president, corporate responsibility; Target)

The list of ways in which retailer Target demonstrates leadership is as lengthy as its merchandise mix.

Here are just two: As of mid-2018, it was still the largest on-site corporate installer of solar power in the United States, well on its way to outfitting 500 stores; and it continues to push hard to eradicate toxic chemicals from the items on its shelves. Indeed, the story of how it collaborated with rival Walmart on that issue should become a case study in how to introduce more sustainable business practices that have relevance for an entire sector. 

In late December, Target joined what looks to be another influential industry-led initiative, the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action. On the agenda: policies to guide the selection of more "climate-friendly" materials, the adoption of low-carbon transportation across the supply chain and support for more circular models of consumption that fight back against the "fast fashion" movement that sees clothing go out of style after just one season. 

22. Valerie Smith (managing director and global head of corporate sustainability, Citi)

Citi's $100 billion commitment to environmental finance in 2015 (an extension to a previous $50 billion commitment) has contributed to a lot of "firsts," including the first offshore wind farm in the United States, the first energy efficiency securitization and the first asset-backed green bond for the automotive industry.

"We are not yet at a time when all finance can be defined as sustainable finance, but we are at a time of such rapid market growth and high investor interest that this transition seems inevitable," Smith wrote (PDF) in a recent impact report.

The bank, a co-founder of the Green Bond Principles, took out its first green bond in January, a $1.12 billion transaction. And, lest we forget, the bank has moved quickly to embrace the reporting recommendations set forth by the G20 Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD).

Keep your eye on the bank's 100 percent renewable energy target, which it has committed to meet by the end of 2020.

23. Vien Truong (CEO, Dream Corps)

One of 11 children born to Vietnamese immigrants, Truong has made it her life's work to fight poverty and pollution, simultaneously.

As CEO of social justice organization Dream Corps and director of its environmental activism arm, Green For All, Truong has been deeply involved in developing local, state and federal policies that have ensured that the communities harmed the most by toxic chemicals or fossil-fuels emissions or other bad corporate habits benefit directly from fees and funds meant to mitigate those behaviors. For her work on climate equity, she received a White House Champion of Change award in 2016.

Today, she is using her voice and connections to convince companies to include these communities more deeply and directly in planning their climate action and strategies. "Step into your power," she urged during a plenary interview at GreenBiz 19 in late February.

24. Katharine Wilkinson (vice president of communications and engagement, Project Drawdown)

The author was a senior writer for the book at the center of Project Drawdown's mission, "Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming." The tome talks up 80 ideas for reversing greenhouse gas emissions: the top priority is technologies that help the world (especially emerging economies) kick the hydrofluorocarbon habit. HFCs are widely used in air-conditioning and supermarket cold cases. "These are the means of building a more equitable, healthy, prosperous, vibrant world," Wilkinson said during a plenary session at GreenBiz 17.

She's particularly passionate about empowering women and girls to act. Not only are they disproportionately affected by the side effects of climate change, such as floods and droughts, but they are also closer to the solutions, particularly farms. "Support women smallholders, realize higher yields, avoid deforestation and sustain the life-giving power of forests," Wilkinson said during a TED Talk in December.

25. Cathy Zoi (CEO, EVgo)

Schooled in geology and engineering, Zoi is an astonishingly well-rounded executive. She co-founded a software company, led a rural electrification company incubated by Sun Edison and served in the Obama and Clinton administrations — one of her federal government projects was helping pioneer the Energy Star program.

Under Zoi, EVgo has grown into the largest public fast-charging network for electric vehicles in the United States with more than 1,100 stations in 34 states serving 125,000 customers. The company plans to double its fast-charging capacity by the end of 2020.

Editor's Note: This article originally omitted the information for Sara Neff.

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