Emerging Leaders find inspiration in sustainability veterans, and one another

GreenBiz 20 Emerging Leaders with GreenBiz Group President Pete May
Flash Gordon
GreenBiz 20 Emerging Leaders with GreenBiz Group President Pete May – Standing [from left]: Sydney A. Covey, Monica Gordon, Patrick King, Pete May, Akash Kapil Gulati, Ryan Larson; Sitting [from left]: Nethra Rajendran, Denise Lee, Oluwaseyi Adaghe, Nidhi Shastri, Bryan Lewis.

Young people increasingly are leading the way on climate change and environmental justice by pushing governments and companies to take stronger action to address the climate crisis.

Some are working in advocacy and organizing. Others are pursuing sustainability-focused careers. Whatever their method, it’s vital for young people to be in the room where the connections and partnerships are made to mitigate the effects of climate change. 

"I think among Gen-Zers like myself, there is a growing sense of frustration that this message of urgency and personal responsibility isn't heard from these groups," said Denise Lee, a GreenBiz 20 Emerging Leader who hopes to amplify youth voices and incentivize governments and industry to increase their commitment to counteracting climate change. "It was not only eye-opening but uplifting to meet people at GreenBiz within the private sector who felt the same way as me."

This year’s Emerging Leaders Scholarship, sponsored by PwC, brought 10 young people to GreenBiz 20 in Scottsdale, Arizona.

PwC explains that it decided to sponsor the program "to bring awareness to the lack of representation of diverse leaders in corporate responsibility and responsible business leadership and to encourage efforts to help break down barriers that have historically held back diverse talent — we know we need to work across industries," according to Jeff Senne, responsible business strategy and implementation leader at PwC. 

"I was encouraged to see mainstage discussions around diversity and inclusion two years in a row at GreenBiz," Seene wrote by email. "It shows me that there is a growing understanding around the intersection of issues of belonging and parity, and social and environmental performance — illustrating the growing connections across industries to build a more inclusive vision of the change we are working to drive."

That was the intent when GreenBiz launched the Emerging Leaders program three years ago at GreenBiz 17.

After the GreenBiz 20 Emerging Leaders’ three days in Scottdale, we asked them a set of questions:

  1. How has attending GreenBiz 20 helped you learn about the sustainable business career path, from navigating to overcoming the barriers that exist for you and your peers?

  2. Was there anything particularly impactful that happened during your time at the conference?

  3. What made you feel hopeful or inspired at GreenBiz 20?

Some answered one, two or all three questions. But one theme rings through: As much as this year’s Emerging Leaders were inspired by the speakers and industry veterans at GreenBiz 20, they also found inspiration in one another.

Their answers, below, are edited for length and clarity.

Oluwaseyi Adaghe, Master of Environment and Business Candidate, University of Waterloo; Sustainability Coordinator, Javelin Technologies

Oluwaseyi Adaghe headshot
One of my biggest takeaways from GreenBiz 20 was the connections I made. Being able to converse with senior executives, directors and managers at top organizations and receive advice on my current projects and career journey was invaluable. It was also impactful to see the idea of corporate responsibility and community engagement be challenged during some of the sessions. I learned that in the pursuit of corporate interests, which are valid, corporations need to better prioritize their allocation of resources (human and financial) to effectively impact the communities they operate in a positive way. This will go a long way in ensuring the success of current and future endeavors related to climate adaptation, environmental justice, supply chain responsibility and the circular economy. As I continue in my career journey and seek to do my best in contributing to a more sustainable future, my time at GreenBiz 20 has inspired me to be more critical and strategic with the business decisions, partnerships and projects I engage in.

Sydney A. Covey, Sustainability Solutions Manager, STRUCTR Advisors

Sydney Covey headshot
Attending GreenBiz 20 connected me with sustainability professionals I have idolized since the beginning of my career. Hearing their consistently unconventional journeys to sustainability in the business world, gave me assurance in my decisions up to this point. I also realized the biggest barrier to entry into sustainable business comes from within us and our willingness to be proactive in our career path. Once we start talking to other sustainability professionals, we begin to understand the intensive web that is within the sustainable business career path. I’ve always felt sustainability as a career didn’t have tracks, or even guardrails, to help guide you to success, but talking with sustainability professionals from organizations big, small, national and international, helped confirm my alignment of my passion and my career with confidence.

For me, the most impactful thing that happened at GreenBiz 20 was the cohort of Emerging Leaders. Often in sustainability, but especially in the built environment, sustainability professionals are a one or two-person team, which is both empowering and daunting. By the nature of my work, I become isolated from my peers or have problems reaching out to my counterparts at nearby firms because of the nature of "competition." When I look back on GreenBiz 20, the lasting relationships with professionals that align with my morals and understand what it is like to be in isolation on a high pedestal will have a lasting impact on my outlook on sustainability as a movement and my capacity to be an agent of change.

What left me inspired during GreenBiz 20 is the collective effort to push the sustainability movement forward. So much of the world of business is driven by having the competitive advantage over the next company that progress forward is stifled. In hearing corporations come together to learn from and celebrate one another gave me hope that "business as usual" in regard to CSR can become a collective movement, not a race to the top.

Nidhi Shastri, Social Media Outreach Manager, Plitzie

Nidhi Shastri headshot
I believe that as a woman of color in the sustainable business field, not only is it often hard to move up in a system that often works against you, but it is also hard to have these difficult conversations on diversity, sustainability and inclusion with the executives in companies and corporations. By being present at this conference, I was able to bring my whole voice to the table as a young woman of color and challenge companies to do better in their hiring and managing processes involving sustainability.

It was very promising to see how receptive most people are in the industry to make tangible change for connecting social equity and environmental sustainability in the corporate workplace. I still believe we have a long way to go in terms of really making our workplaces holistically diverse and sustainable. However, many people are making very strong strides in the right direction, such as executives like Daniel Lee [the corporate philanthropy leader] from Levi Strauss and Bill Wiehl from [ClimateVoice], both of whom gave wonderfully thoughtful panel presentations during the event. Seeing professionals question how we get materials for our consumers, whether it’s examining the dairy industry and economy with Chobani, or looking at how we source clothing material with Levi Strauss, the connections are being made, and it is incredibly inspiring to see.

I am most hopeful and inspired by my cohort of Emerging Leaders. It is an understatement to say that the GreenBiz Group has brought together an amazingly accomplished and intelligent bunch of people. Over the course of merely 2.5 days, I have made myself a new family of young sustainability leaders all across the country. I cannot wait to see what the future has in store for the small- and large-scale change we will all bring to this world, especially after being inspired by GreenBiz 20.

Ryan Larson, Federal Risk Manager, KPMG US

Ryan Larson headshot
Attending GreenBiz 20 eliminated my fear and naivete that large manufacturing companies, financial industry partners and the retail industry were slow rolling getting on board with sustainability. The greatest education from GreenBiz was being around chief sustainability officers (often housed in the CFO's office) of major players such as Starbucks, PepsiCo and MGM, and learning how they strive every day to achieve carbon neutrality, employee wellness and supply chain circularity at their large companies. In addition, learning about the growing network of venture capital firms, sustainability consultants and climate vulnerability assessors reinforced that the greentech and sustainability sphere of business is growing and the architecture exists to make it successful once the market catches up.

The constant buzz of camaraderie and selflessness from the speakers, attendees and my fellow Emerging Leaders paired with the passion for protecting the planet while pushing forward industry was highly impactful for me. Coming from the national security and financial industry sectors, which are inherently competitive and often pit you against your peers, this network of people sharing ideas, best practices and pathways forward was constantly humbling and inspiring.

Nethra Rajendran headshot
Nethra Rajendran, Bachelor of Business Administration, University of Georgia

As a college student, you hear a lot of contextual information about the field, but oftentimes do not get the direct exposure into understanding how these large corporations handle and implement sustainability. I was able to see that [during GreenBiz 20] and get a very holistic view into this process. I specifically loved understanding the behavior and social change that companies are creating in their internal and external environment. I can't wait to take this back to my campus and see how I can influence people to change through small behavior changes over time.

I loved hearing from the leader of the Arizona Youth Climate Strikes. It brought tears to my eyes. I lead youth strikes on my college campus and felt his passion, fear and hope all at once. Knowing that there are people out there that care as much as I do was so so powerful. 

Seeing how many individuals who think and care about the same things I do was so inspiring. I loved drawing inspiration from people in the field that are doing amazing work to change whole systems and ways of thinking. That is not an easy thing. People in sustainability are some of the most intelligent and brilliant in the world because they are working to change behavior, policy and consumer products all at once. I was so inspired by this holistic approach taken.

Denise Lee, Direct Air Capture Researcher, University of Toronto

Denise Lee headshot

In my research and nonprofits, I hope to amplify youth voices and incentivize governments and industry to increase their commitment to counteracting climate change... 

As a space for businesses to discuss sustainable strategy implementation, it was fascinating as a researcher to see how the process takes place in person. Upon understanding the role of corporations in acting against climate change, what happens next? I learned in great detail how that initiative requires buy-in from stakeholders throughout your supply chain, partnerships with other driven firms and plenty of feedback loops to ensure accountability is maintained.

The greatest takeaway from those discussions was how once the motivation for making a company greener is established, the subsequent steps can be challenging, but by no means impossible. There was a consensus that sustainability is the new normal. It has verified my decision to work in green business post-graduation and renewed my hope for what comes next. Let's keep moving forward.

Bryan Lewis, Business Outreach Consultant, E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs)

Bryan Lewis headshot
During the conference, I was reminded of just how important and underrepresented my voice (and the voice of people who look like me) is in the sustainable business space. Through my words, conversations, stories and experiences with others who attended I hope they felt that disparity as well and are engaged in dismantling the systems that allow for white straight men to dominate the corporate sphere.

The conversations with my fellow Emerging Leaders was easily the highlight of my experience at GreenBiz 20. These are some of the most authentic and well-rounded people I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know. In our brief time together, we set the stage for a bond that will last for years to come. 

What gives me hope is seeing other equity- and justice-minded folks who have dedicated their careers to unraveling the institutions that pollute our economy and exclude those less fortunate and rethinking how we integrate new ideas towards a more sustainable future.

Akash Kapil Gulati, Master of Environmental Management and MBA Dual Degree Candidate

Akash Kapil Gulati headshot
My time at GreenBiz 20 was an incredible experience. The more than 1,500 sustainability professionals in attendance left me with actionable next steps for promoting sustainable business practices. Learning from this group of like-minded peers and mentors, I can now communicate the proven benefits of corporate sustainability programs, the material risks associated with inaction and the moral and financial obligation of the private sector to take a stand on climate change. 

I was honored to be a part of the diverse cohort of 10 Emerging Leaders. This group opened my eyes to movements within corporate social responsibility and environmental justice that have fundamentally shifted my thinking. Moving forward, I will leverage technology, innovation and compassion as tools in addressing the impacts that some businesses are having on the communities that they operate in.

At GreenBiz 20, I was given the opportunity to learn from professionals who have been driving corporate sustainability for decades. Engaging in workshops facilitated by these thought leaders, I gained a deeper understanding of the history of the corporate social responsibility movement and left feeling deeply inspired to help shape its future and accelerate the clean economy.

Patrick King, Sustainable Households Manager, Urban Green Lab

Patrick King headshot
The people [made me hopeful and inspired]. It was quite the experience to be in the company of so many professionals and leaders in the field. What was truly inspirational was meeting and getting to spend time with the Emerging Leaders in my cohort and for that, I am extremely grateful. It was a thrill to meet young professionals, like myself, and gain insight into their thoughts and experiences both socially and career-wise. I felt like in a short period of time I was able to expand my knowledge and gain perspective, while also making connections that will be with me for a lifetime. There’s a lot of work being done concerning sustainability on the global stage but the real hard work is ahead of us all. It's comforting to know that I have many peers that are ready and eager to take on the challenges of the future and ensure its success benefits all people.

Monica Gordon, Master's Student, University of California, Santa Barbara — Bren School of Environmental Science & Management

Monica Gordon headshot
I live for the moments when I can put what I've learned to practice, and as a GreenBiz 20 Emerging Leader, I was allowed to do just that. Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to learn from amazing professionals, academics, scientists, researchers and peers who have a wealth of knowledge. Being able to attend GreenBiz 20 was amazing because no situations were being discussed in the confines of a classroom. For those three days, I was able to hear about real problems and discuss real solutions. My interests intersect environmental equity, placemaking and communications, and I found some of it all in Phoenix. Being in the middle of my graduate studies, this was almost necessary for me. I left GreenBiz both hopeful and motivated: hopeful about this sector's future and motivated to soon have my very own impact.

While the conference was nothing short of amazing, perhaps the most impactful experience was getting to meet the rest of this year's Emerging Leaders. They are the game changers that this industry needs — critical, compassionate and tremendously capable. I am more than excited to see more of their necessary work.

Want to be an Emerging Leaders at our upcoming Circularity 20 conference? We’re accepting applications until April 20. Apply here

Interested in sponsoring the GreenBiz Emerging Leaders program at a future event? Please contact [email protected]