Emerging sustainability leaders envision breakthroughs

VERGE Emerging Leaders
Kathryn Cooper Photography
Kevin Lee, a GreenBiz 16 Emerging Leader and green business associate with the San Francisco Department of the Environment, alongside VERGE 17 Emerging Leaders Diane Brown and Laura Patino.

Think back to when you took on your first sustainability role. What skills, knowledge and experience did you need? Who helped along the way? How did you get where you are today? 

When entering the increasingly competitive job market, barriers exist for all young professionals, but some careers follow a clear progression: Get a degree in a discipline, apply that knowledge in an entry-level position, work hard and climb the corporate ladder.

In sustainable business, however, the journey is not as simple. Jobs in sustainability departments are hard to come by. Oftentimes, it helps to work at a company in a different function before moving vertically to a sustainability role. And it helps to have an established professional network to give you your first break.

Additional barriers to entry may exist for people of color, women and individuals from low-income communities,  including varied access to cultural capital, peer support and mentorship opportunities.

We launched a program earlier this year to help empower the future generation of sustainable business leaders and address some of these barriers. In September, GreenBiz Group welcomed our second cohort of Emerging Leaders (see the first group here).

The program, sponsored by United Airlines, provided 10 students and early-career professionals with an all-expenses-paid opportunity to attend our VERGE 17 conference and expo in Silicon Valley.

The goal is to ensure that individuals from various backgrounds with a passion for sustainability can connect with the GreenBiz community, identify mentors and find an entry-point into a sometimes-elusive field. We also seek to welcome perspectives and backgrounds that are underrepresented at sustainability events yet critical to a more equitable and inclusive future.

United Airlines sponsored the Emerging Leaders Scholarship at VERGE 17. "We strive to ensure that the United family is as diverse as the communities we serve around the globe," said Natalie Mindrum, director of environmental strategy and sustainability at United Airlines. "Sponsoring the VERGE 17 Emerging Leaders program was a natural extension of our goal to foster a welcoming environment where people of diverse backgrounds can work together and build a more sustainable world."

GreenBiz Group asked each Emerging Leader how attending VERGE 17 woulld help them navigate the barriers that exist for them and their peers as they begin their careers. Their answers, below, are edited for length and clarity:

Diane Brown

Diane Brown

Given changing qualifications and needed skills, It’s very difficult to fit the exact qualifications of any job. Instead, young professionals must rely on showing potential, but this is difficult to show in black and white on a resume, cover letter or a LinkedIn page.

Thankfully, VERGE provided a relaxed environment where my peers and I could connect with sustainability leaders. The program gave me an outlet to demonstrate my potential and share my experience and future goals. I also learned where the sustainability movement is headed, which will allow me to direct my career path to be at the forefront of the sustainability movement instead of, say, four years behind. — Diane Brown, Independent Contractor, Applied Sustainability Group

Jennifer Craft

Jennifer Craft

It can be difficult to make meaningful professional connections when you’re a student or young professional, but VERGE 17 was a great platform to connect with established professionals. I was encouraged by the number of powerful initiatives addressing the environmental, economic and social facets of sustainability and how willing the individuals behind these initiatives were to speak with me about relevant clean energy topics. One of the greatest benefits to my attendance was growing my professional network and gaining confidence with networking. — Jennifer Craft, Bachelor of Arts, Environmental Studies and Political Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Jon Espitia

Jon Espitia

The biggest barrier I see is the relatively small size of sustainability departments. Young professionals looking to pursue careers in sustainability may feel discouraged by the number of jobs out there — I know I was.

Something I learned at VERGE, though, was that a job doesn’t need to have sustainability in the title to effect change. The common thread among top executives at VERGE was that none of them (or very few!) had started off in the sustainability field. The advice they gave me was that the most successful sustainability officers know how to translate their sustainability goals across functions and integrate them into various departments’ goals. That experience comes from working in other departments. — Jon Espitia, Masters, Environmental Management, Duke University

Lillian Mirviss

Lillian Mirviss

As I transition out of my master's program and into a professional career, one major barrier I've encountered is translating the theory of the classroom into practice in sustainable business.

My main takeaway from VERGE, though, is that there is inherent value in understanding sustainability from a non-traditional perspective. I learned that one of the most important things we can do in our careers is learn to speak the language of all the departments within a company. Having a unique background is therefore essential. For example, those of us with science backgrounds can use the R&D lens and those with economic-heavy educations can turn environmental initiatives into financial benefits for the company. — Lillian Mirviss, Masters, Environmental Science & Management, University of California, Santa Barbara

Hoi Fei-Mok

Hoi Fei-Mok

For women and people of color, many systemic barriers prevent entry into sustainable business. These barriers include minimal access to educational opportunities, lack of a network to find and apply for jobs and insufficient mentorship in a rapidly changing field.

VERGE connected the diverse Emerging Leaders cohort with top business executives. We heard stories about how adaptable these executives have made their skillsets to be effective in different contexts. Hearing about their variable career paths will help each of us better prepare as we pursue our careers. Connecting the 10 of us also created a community where we can help one another and pass along opportunities. Given how important relationships are in sustainable business, providing these connections is crucial to help young minority professionals overcome barriers in their careers. —  Hoi-Fei Mok, Program Officer, ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability

Catherine Nabukalu

Catherine Nabukalu

One major barrier for young people in sustainable business is the lack of funding to test and apply creative sustainability projects as startups. Entrepreneurial youth generate sustainable solutions in key areas, but without funds to expand their creative teams, raise capital and train the market in applying or adapting to their new solutions, many remain at the idea stage.

At VERGE, I had the honor of meeting experienced professionals willing to mentor me about my career interests in business sustainability and share their unique backgrounds. I believe their wisdom and mentoring will shape my vision and general thinking about how to develop solutions that work for business and for society simultaneously. — Catherine Nabukalu, Masters, Environmental Studies, University of Pennsylvania

Devyn Parks

Devyn Parks

Since sustainability departments can be small and underfunded compared with other parts of any given organization, I learned that we must make unexpected connections and innovations in order to create job opportunities in the field.

For example, Van Jones’s inspiring speech about his Green For All Campaign made the unlikely connection between ex-convicts and at-risk individuals desperately in need of opportunities, and the growing green industry in need of qualified workers. Other unexpected connections I came across were using artificial intelligence to streamline efficiency and assist with product development, and using nanotechnology to tint windows according to the intensity of sunlight. As long as we keep innovating, connecting the dots and proving the social and financial validity of sustainable business, the sector will grow and there will be more opportunities for those entering the field. — Devyn Parks, Masters, Environmental Management, Duke University

Laura Patino

Laura Patino

It can be difficult for young professionals to identify a clear career path, as most sustainability positions available are reserved for senior and experienced individuals. In some organizations, I have found that sustainable practices aren’t even welcomed and can be viewed as a disruption of the status quo.

At VERGE, it was refreshing to see that many of the practices I believe in are not only being implemented today, but are also being pioneered by some of the major corporations and institutes in the country. Fostering new relationships with fellow attendees allowed me to see that there are various opportunities for growth but most importantly that there are inspiring individuals who are committed to helping young professionals succeed and develop as future leaders.  Laura Patino, Masters, Bioresource Engineering, McGill University

Soli Shin

Soli Shin

Employers often miss out on opportunities to hire talented individuals by discarding candidates who don’t appear to have the right amount of relevant experience. Crafting a compelling story for employers can help navigate this obstacle.

VERGE helped me hone my professional narrative in a way that makes sense for future employers. Talking about my writing background and financial services experience allowed me to draw attention to the fact that my story sounds like no one else’s and gave me a unique perspective to bring to the table when I was connecting with fellow attendees. — Soli Shin, Masters, Environmental Management, Duke University

Alfre Wimberley

Alfre Wimberley

Sustainability is an emerging field, and the academic environment that I’m coming from is typically better suited to prepare students for careers in traditional fields. There is a highly-varied path to enter the industry that often requires connections that many students and recent graduates, unfortunately, lack beyond internship and academic exposure.

Attending VERGE 17 gave me the opportunity to talk to representatives from companies in which I’m most interested, to hear how executives got to where they are, to learn more about the ways that I can break into the industry and to find ways to stay aware of opportunities within my local sustainability community. — Alfre Wimberley, Bachelor of Science, Environmental Science and Chemistry, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Know an early-career professional under 30 or a current student who has a passion for sustainability and multicultural inclusivity? We’ll accept applications for the GreenBiz 18 Emerging Leaders Scholarship through Dec. 8.

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