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How 12 Emerging Leaders are embarking on sustainability career journeys

These students and young professionals are poised to make an impact in the field.

Employee standing up and speaking to a group of coworkers who are sitting down at a meeting table

Photo by fizkes on Shutterstock.

In early February, more than 1,200 sustainability professionals gathered online for GreenBiz 21. And each day after the mainstage talks and panels, a few of my GreenBiz Group colleagues and I hopped onto Zoom to convene with 12 students and young professionals poised to become sustainability leaders of the future.

From marketing to engineering, the GreenBiz 21 Emerging Leaders represent a variety of professions in the sustainability field. The program aims to elevate, cultivate and support the next generation of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) leaders in sustainable business. During the three-day event, they hopped into roundtable discussions, offered insights in the event chat and learned about the ever-changing sustainability field.

"GreenBiz 21 reaffirmed that there are multiple paths when navigating a career in sustainable business," said Anna Koskol, an Emerging Leader who serves as an environmental educator at Hudson River Park Trust in New York City. "It was reassuring to see people like me, from various backgrounds, working so passionately for a more sustainable world."

To learn more about the Emerging Leaders' experience at GreenBiz 21, we asked them the following:

  • At this point, how has attending GreenBiz 21 helped you learn about the sustainable business career path, from navigating to overcoming the barriers that exist for you and your peers?
  • Was there anything particularly impactful that happened during your time at GreenBiz 21?
  • What made you hopeful or inspired during GreenBiz 21?

Below are the responses from 11 of the 12 Emerging Leaders, lightly edited for clarity and length, and presented in alphabetical order by last name.

Kristina Chu headshot

Kristina Chu 

Senior Environmental Analyst, Gradient 

GreenBiz 21 brought together so many different organizations and individuals sustainably transforming business, allowing me to see that everyone has a unique career path. I very much left feeling like I have the power to ensure my future career aligns with my values for sustainability and justice. Furthermore, I learned that I am not alone in my mission to create a greener, more equitable world. Attending conferences like GreenBiz 21 serve as perfect soil and ground to grow meaningful connections and partnerships!

I was deeply moved by the keynote session "Why Advancing Equity is Everyone's Job" with Jarami Bond, Michele Moore and Kimberly Lewis. [Editor's note: Jarami Bond is the chief storyteller at Bond Studio, a visual storytelling company, and senior advisor for the recently launched nonprofit GreenBiz.org. Michele Moore is the CEO of nonprofit Groundswell. And Kimberly Lewis is the CEO of Havenz Network.] It was beautiful and empowering to see female leaders center friendship and solidarity in the movement towards equity. One phrase that has stuck with me in the past few weeks following the conference is: It is about the process, not the end goal. 

I am inspired by my fellow Emerging Leaders. Our calls at the end of each conference day showed me that we stand in solidarity, and the future is bright. We hold such beautiful, collective power to think critically, show up with empathy and build towards liberation and justice. I am grateful and honored to be a part of this new community.

Natalie Gray headshot

Natalie Gray

Systems Specialist, Omnidian

GreenBiz 21 was a whirlwind event. For me, it reinforced the notion that all of us — whether sustainability specialists, Indigenous advocates, city employees, Emerging Leaders — are individuals using our circles of influence to affect the changes we believe will benefit life on Earth for generations to come. I’m happy to see these circles of influence increasing for many deserving thought leaders as a result of GreenBiz conferences and networks. 

When I worked in the Mayor’s Office of Policy and Innovation at the city of Seattle, I would often hear the phrase, "Nothing about them without them," meaning not to work on a project without engaging the people it would impact directly. Too often, we explain our work in environmental sustainability "for the sake of our young people" or "for the next generation" or say "we have to get everyone on board to make it work" but then fail to engage with the young people and the "everyone" we claim we are working for. 

Giving those most impacted the resources they need to do the work — people with the drive, the flexibility, the imagination to innovate — not only invests in the longevity of your company and life on Earth but reminds us that young people are not just the leaders of tomorrow, as we often say they are, but the leaders of today, too.

Anna Koskol headshot

Anna Koskol 

Environmental Educator, Hudson River Park Trust

GreenBiz 21 reaffirmed that there are multiple paths when navigating a career in sustainable business. Listening to the stories of GreenBiz 21’s speakers and my peers in the Emerging Leaders cohort, I learned about the interests, obstacles and motivations that led each of us to this point in our careers. It was reassuring to see people like me, from various backgrounds, working so passionately for a more sustainable world. GreenBiz 21 allowed me to experience firsthand the power of diverse representation in the sustainability field. I believe wholeheartedly that a key to preparing tomorrow’s leaders for a greener future, especially BIPOC youth, is to expose us to the fullest spectrum of [science, technology, engineering and math] careers and leaders. I look forward to sharing these stories and career opportunities with the youth interns that I mentor at Hudson River Park to help embolden them to be their wildest dreams.

I was particularly interested in the discussions around plastic packaging and waste throughout the event. Plastic pollution is a problem greatly impacting the health of NYC waterways. Hudson River Park has therefore prioritized efforts to reduce plastic pollution through a program called Park Over Plastic that educates and empowers our park community to combat plastic pollution together. While leading Park Over Plastic, we have faced innovation gaps or times when there isn’t a viable replacement for some single-use plastics. At GreenBiz 21, I was encouraged by speakers discussing ideas for creating a circular economy and prioritizing a systems approach as a financially, environmentally and socially smart business model.

Overall, I was most inspired by the organizers and members of the 2021 Emerging Leaders cohort. I am grateful to have met such passionate, supportive people, and I feel all the more prepared to be a change-maker in my community. Together we can do more!

Jessica Levine headshot

Jessica Levine

Strategic Engagement Coordinator, The Recycling Partnership

At GreenBiz 21, I learned that businesses are starting to focus more on people — both employees and the communities they serve.

When considering strategic objectives, I learned that businesses are focusing on how they can be proactive rather than reactive. Businesses are either beginning to or refining their processes around investing their best resources to positively influence not just the economic impacts but social impacts of their business. Businesses are propelled to consider how their business objectives and performance impact not just their target audiences but all people.  

In addition, businesses are recognizing that supporting their people (staff) can result in a diversity of thought that is much needed and desired innovation in all levels of business. My takeaway from this is that my perspective and voice matters, and it’s important that I speak up and out when inspired to because I can make a difference. 

During the conference, I was also inspired by the fact that I was not the only young professional passionate about understanding the intersection of [diversity, equity and inclusion] and sustainability and taking action toward equitable systems change. I felt inspired and empowered to catalyze systems change in my sphere, knowing that I have the support of a community made up of passionate movers and shakers, trailblazers, allies, activists, advocates and community members. These industry stakeholders want to make change happen for good.

I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the GreenBiz 21 cohort of Emerging Leaders and look forward to pursuing continued growth and learning through the opportunity.

Danii Mcletchie headshot

Danii Mcletchie 

Environmental Systems Engineer, Campbell's Soup

The speed networking sessions allowed me to meet so many different people who were tackling sustainability from their own angle. I was able to get great advice from people who have made strides in the career path that I'm currently in, and I know some of those connections will last for a lifetime.

As I'm at the beginning of my sustainability journey, the best piece of advice I was given was to look for ways to make any job I do sustainable, rather than just looking for a job with "sustainability" in the title. These small words have completely changed my outlook on how I was approaching things and reminded me not to get caught up in buzzwords. 

It was very inspiring to know that from emerging innovators to large corporations to young entrepreneurs, there were people from different walks of life, continuously working to create a positive sustainable impact so that humanity has a chance of surviving in a better way.

Screenshot of GreenBiz 21 Emerging Leaders during Zoom call

Emerging Leaders meet with GreenBiz staff during GreenBiz 21 conference.

Are you a student or early-career professional who is interested in the circular economy? Applications for the Circularity 21 Emerging Leaders program are open until May 17. Apply here.

Camille Minns headshot

Camille Minns 

Assistant for Climate & Energy, Ceres

The sustainability and climate space has always been of interest to me, and I have no doubt that this is where I want to develop my career. This is a broad and dynamic field with numerous opportunities and approaches, and I’m proud to work in this area. I’m a staunch intersectional environmentalist, and I believe that companies should work to become the same. If they are to be considered sustainable, businesses must ask themselves, "What are we sustaining?" If it is not healthy communities and the planet, but instead the same systems and behaviors that have placed us in this precarious situation in the first place, then we’re on the wrong track. There may not be many people who identify as I do in this space, but that’s changing and therefore, I won’t stop learning, lending my voice and doing my part.

I believe this [is] also the feeling of the cohort of authentic, brilliant Emerging Leaders I was fortunate to be a part of. This cohort is a microcosm of the young people out there asking the critical questions, innovating and disrupting spaces, and speaking up. The discussions we had, the passion and ideas are all inspiration and fuel to keep me going.

I thoroughly enjoyed the conversations on climate action and social justice, regenerative agriculture and the need to rethink plastics. The launch of GreenBiz.org, however, was one of the more impactful parts of this conference. I love any opportunity to see more BIPOC in the environmental and sustainability field, and spaces like this play a tremendous role in making that happen.

Aayushi Mishra headshot

Aayushi Mishra

Scientist, EA Engineering

There were quite a few impactful events that took place during the three-day conference. I met with dozens of interesting people, ranging from students to company CEOs. Regardless of the seniority of the individual, each individual had intelligent, articulate and thought-provoking questions and ideas. We kept extending our sessions to continue discussing ways to make systemic changes, and at the end of each conversation, one thing was clear — while the sustainability/ESG/CSR sector is booming, the people making up this subset are unique. We want to question every process that we have normalized and understand ways to make it more sustainable. Up until now, this was something I’d assumed would happen one day in the near future. Attending this conference proved that the "near future" is now.

I feel hopeful about businesses embracing the concept of a circular economy. This was one of the key areas discussed throughout GreenBiz 21 — it was particularly interesting to see how many unique ideas people had during breakout sessions and in the one-on-one networking times. It was repeatedly emphasized that while recycling is an excellent way to combat waste management, simply stopping there isn’t enough — purchasing durable items and reusing them is a more sustainable way of living. One of the sessions I attended, Sewing Circular: Strategies in the Fashion Industry, discussed how people can transition away from "fast fashion" towards more resilient pieces of clothing that would last several times longer. GreenBiz 21 made me hopeful about our global society adapting and shifting from a linear to a more circular economy.

Michaela Ritz headshot

Michaela Ritz

Production Assistant, Gotham Greens

Attending GreenBiz 21 as an Emerging Leader made clear to me that I would love to start my sustainability career doing on-the-ground fieldwork at a grassroots level, implementing the tenants of sustainability with members of a place-based community. In hearing from small groups and big companies, the common strand was the need to build relationships, foster respect and meet people where they are to value the knowledge they carry inside them. My impression is that starting at the foundation and building upon what is established is the best way to build trust and promote broader cooperation in our sustainability goals. 

My fellow Emerging Leaders all share that desire, and it was encouraging to know I now have 11 other passionate and thought-provoking young professionals to call on; they have the drive and curiosity to build professional networks and living spaces we want to see exist in an ideal world. Listening to my peers revealed that barriers are only as limiting as we give them the power to be, because if I ever feel alone in an experience or setting, I know they have probably lived a similar experience and overcame it. We all are aware that learning from each other and honoring our differences is a great asset to be leveraged in solving challenges that seem overwhelming. GreenBiz 21 for me raised more questions than it offered answers, but that is the beauty of being invited into a forum where you can grow.

Hearing Indigenous perspectives was a memorable and critical part of GreenBiz 21 for me. Beyond diversity and inclusion discussions, it was eye-opening to be confronted with how even our best intentions in achieving sustainability can be limited due to warped understandings and socially ingrained narratives. Colonialism, commercialization and co-option are still present in today’s sustainability structures, and I found it refreshingly honest to hear that brought to the fore. So many individuals, in grassroots orgs and major corporations alike, are well-intended to do good in the world but this can’t exist without introspection and paradigm shifts. Listening to Tara Houska, Sherri Mitchell and Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin afforded the opportunity to hear from those who have a historical legacy in this work, and GreenBiz 21 made those connections possible.

[Editor's note: Tara Houska (Couchiching First Nation) is the founder of Giniw Collective, an Indigenous women, 2-spirit led grassroots, frontline effort to protect the planet. Sherri Mitchell is the founding director of the Land Peace Foundation, an organization dedicated to the global protection of Indigenous land and water rights and the preservation of the Indigenous way of life. And Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin is president of the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance, which has the mission to scale up regenerative agriculture supply chains.]

During the rapid networking sessions, I interacted with so many people from different parts of the world who were joining the conference at different times of the day, from home, work, in between commitments, and while supervising children. In this difficult time for society and our planet, I am reminded that there are plenty of dedicated, hopeful and talented people who are committing themselves to making sustainability a reality every day, even in the face of big setbacks and limited time. There is always a brighter horizon and something to look forward to. 

Juliae Riva headshot

Juliae Riva

Student at University of Oregon, Planning, Public Policy & Management & General Social Sciences

The GreenBiz 21 conference was a much-needed uplifting, motivating and inspirational three days. I loved having the opportunity to meet people from around the world, who are also passionate about finding solutions to climate change. Through speaking with my fellow Emerging Leaders, I learned that the sustainable business world is filled with the constant pursuit for new knowledge and information to guide our actions. From learning about plastic in oceans to tree equity and racial justice, my passion for sustainability deepened, and I was in awe of peoples' pursuits. Being in a community where everyone has one common goal and passion was incredibly inspiring to me, especially given that everyone is taking different routes to tackle various problems. I am so appreciative that I was able to listen and learn, and have my eyes opened to the greater sustainability community. Everyone I met was kindhearted, welcoming and supportive — and it left a profound impact on me that I will carry with me as I graduate from college and start my sustainability career.

Sydney Thomas headshot

Sydney Thomas

Corporate Citizenship & Sustainability Reporting Fellow, DTE Energy

I found the entirety of the GreenBiz 21 conference to be impactful, despite the challenges of a virtual environment it fostered connection and learning in a way I haven’t experienced this year. In particular, the networking platform, providing the opportunity to hear career advice and connect with leaders in sustainability, was wonderful. Most importantly, meeting the fellow Emerging Leaders was a rare opportunity to connect with other young professionals across the country during COVID-19.

Additionally, I found the sessions on circular economy influential on my current work, reminding me to look at the entire value chain of operations. Considering how to reduce Scope 3 emissions, helping suppliers go on your sustainability journey, and how to reduce the impact of the life cycle of your products, while encouraging your consumers to uptake sustainable behavior change as well.

Each and every keynote speech during the conference left me feeling inspired. The keynotes echoed the overwhelming demand from communities, consumers and even investors for sustainable, equitable change. There was a tremendous call to action, not just inspiring messages from all the keynotes, and most moving [call to action was] from Sherri Mitchell, Tara Houska and Dr. Katharine Wilkinson from the All We Can Save Project. [Editor's note: Katharine Wilkinson is co-founder and co-director of the All We Can Save Project.]

I also felt hopeful by the repeated acknowledgment of privilege, not just by individuals, but corporations, including Microsoft. Learning about their ambitious emissions targets, not only to be net-zero but carbon negative by 2030, removing the carbon emissions they have generated since their start in 1970. As told by Vanessa Miler-Fels, [director for energy innovation and impact at] Microsoft, "Those who can afford to move faster, and go further, should do so." I’m hopeful that other corporations will recognize their privilege and ability to set and accomplish increasingly ambitious targets.

Coco Wang headshot

Coco Wang

Digital Marketing Specialist at Changing Habits Solutions

Attending GreenBiz 21 provided me an industry insider view into sustainability. Though business leaders often express the increasing demand for future leaders in sustainability, there exist many barriers for ambitious and passionate young professionals like my peers and I [when it comes to] understanding how we can best make a positive impact. Through roundtables and panel discussions, I learned the specific struggles in sustainable business; whether it is the climate knowledge gap or making sense of various reporting standards. Identifying these current issues allowed me to better understand my role in accelerating our path to sustainability. Additionally, my experience at GreenBiz 21 reaffirmed my passion for corporate governance, strategy, equity and youth leadership.

Another take-away from GreenBiz 21 for me is a strong feeling of hope and inspiration. From my day-to-day work and social media feed, I can’t help but get frustrated and disappointed by how much our world is not doing what is necessary to save the planet. But that has changed after connecting with my peers and young leaders who share these frustrations and aspirations for a better world. There is a whole lot that young leaders can mutually learn, share and support in this emerging community, and I am inspired to lead our community to enact this potential. Putting Black and Indigenous people as well as youth in the forefront of this conference has also demonstrated the industry’s openness to learn and unlearn. Environmental issues are complex and sustainability is no-doubt difficult to navigate. But I am confident that, with our generation, our world is capable and prepared to tackle these issues head-on.

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