How She Leads

How She Leads: Lori Duvall, eBay

Lori Duvall, Director of sustainable operations, eBay.
Courtesy: eBay
Lori Duvall, director of sustainable operations, eBay.

How She Leads is a regular GreenBiz feature spotlighting the career paths of women with influential roles in sustainable business. In this edition, GreenBiz senior writer Heather Clancy chats with Lori Duvall, director of sustainable operations at eBay.

Trained as an environmental biologist, Duvall’s formal introduction to sustainable business practices came at Sun Microsystems — a high-tech pioneer in green technology issues. There, she led the creation of OpenEco.org, an early community centered on strategies for energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions. At eBay, she has been at the center of innovations including the company’s Digital Service Efficiency dashboard, an initiative for relating improvements in electricity consumption to business performance. The interview was edited for clarity and length.

Heather Clancy: What got you interested in sustainable business practices, and how did your degrees point to this career?

Lori Duvall: I studied environmental biology, and I came to that interest through an affinity and love for the natural world. I grew up in Colorado and spent a lot of time outdoors and, honestly, when I went to school, I saw myself as — who knows? — a park ranger or a zookeeper or something like that.  

When I started out in my career, I spent quite a bit of time as an environmental consultant, focusing on air quality and criteria pollutants. At that time, a lot of municipalities and the [Environmental Protection Agency] were working on air pollution control plans. There was a lot of environmental modeling going on, so I did a lot of that work. I transitioned over time into jobs unrelated to the environment, doing work around technology in software, because I also have a real affinity for technology. That kind of grew up around me as my career progressed. 

This thing we call sustainable business really started getting some traction about a decade ago. I was lucky enough to be working in the lab at Sun Microsystems when the company decided to appoint one of the first chief sustainability officers. When he was consolidating a team, it made a lot of sense for me to join it, because I had a background both in environmental work and in technology. It's one of those things that makes perfect sense in hindsight.

Clancy: What's been your toughest challenge, and how have you tackled it? 

Duvall: It's continuing to stay relevant and to go deeper into the business. We work in a very dynamic industry. It takes constant work and effort to understand where the business is going and where it needs to go from a social innovation perspective. While it’s important to have a really serious core belief system that continues to drive you — and that's why you have a strategy — you have to be able to morph what you could be doing depending upon which way the business is going and how the external world is interacting with the business.  

Clancy: Can you give us an update on the DSE initiative and how it has influenced eBay’s operational practices?

Duvall: DSE has really changed the organizational dynamics between the core team who runs it, the platform infrastructure team, and how they interact with engineering, the other operational teams and the rest of the people outside of their team. It's enhanced their ability to engage more deeply with their internal “customers” as well as within the broader technology organization; it's given them a deeper vocabulary to do that. 

The tendency in any company is to treat all operational functions like the public works department: you don’t really pay attention to something until it breaks. DSE enables a much more rich conversation between that team, the people who make the software development decisions, and the people who are looking at how we configure our facilities. You can talk about revenue with one group, and you can talk about how much energy it's using with another group, depending upon what their function is.

Clancy: Has DSE changed much since its introduction about 18 months ago?

Duvall: As time has gone on, it certainly has been evolved and tweaked. This is the reason you haven't seen us do some external reporting for a while. We really wanted to dig in and evaluate how it had been doing, but also pull in some outside folks to audit how we were doing it, and explore how to fine-tune the methodology. We want to be sure that we all understand what is going into those numbers, and what is the impact of all those variables — in other words, what we do in response to the numbers. So mostly the same, but refining it.

Clancy: eBay has been very involved at the state level in advocating changes that make it possible for businesses to procure electricity in different ways than in the past. Your work in Utah, as an example, enabled the company to invest in alternative energy sources for its data centers. How important is this work and what advice would you give other companies thinking about this?

Duvall: I think we're not alone in realizing that there is this state-level, local-level work to be done. Most of the real accomplishments you're seeing, including the work that we did in Utah, is really at the state level. This is partly because the regulatory landscape continues to be extremely complex. It's even more granular than the state level. If there are multiple utilities in a state, there can be specific rules around a specific utility that have to be tackled.

I think you've seen the NGO community realize that they can be helpful in, if not simplifying the landscape, at least helping businesses build on each other's experience in doing these complex engagements. The biggest advice we give, based on what we did in Utah and just our ongoing work, is that you really do have to dig in and understand the specific jurisdiction where you're trying to do something.

We weren’t the first group to try to tackle that issue in Utah, but our initiative was successful because we did have the utility and a state senator at the table. All the key people in that decision were in agreement, and everybody had to compromise. I think you're seeing a lot of companies like ours who are trying to do this work, sharing information, trying to understand where they can learn from and replicating things in other states. This doesn't necessarily make the process easier or go any faster, but perhaps you get to the meat of the discussion faster than you used to.

Clancy: I know you're active on Twitter. How does social media shape your priorities? 

Duvall: I don’t tweet officially on behalf of eBay, although primarily what I tweet about is sustainable business and environmental things that I care about. I find that social media gives me a conduit to share a lot. I consume a lot of information, like I'm sure you do, and I share that out with people who might be interested.  

I have spent a lot of time in the last several years having one-on-one conversations with people about what they read and how it informs their work. So I think that social media is a great way to put it out there for people who are interested. I also think it helps people understand where I'm coming from on a daily basis.

Clancy: So far, who's been your most influential mentor?  

Duvall: That's a difficult question to answer, especially if you have spent most of your life reading a lot as I have. But especially given where I am right now, I would say Dave Douglas, who was the first CSO that Sun Microsystems put in place. Not only is he a really smart engineer and a great leader, but he also — I think very early — recognized this new wave we call sustainable business. He encouraged me to be as intellectually honest as I wanted to be about things. He also encouraged me to be idealistic, yet pragmatic.

Clancy: What advice would you give to someone interested in a career in sustainable operations? 

Duvall: It's essential to embrace the spirit of constantly learning. The good news is that sustainable business has turned into a very deep and broad subject area. What I say to a lot of people I talk to about this, especially grad students, is that it’s great to learn a lot about sustainability and energy and all of those topics that are the table stakes knowledge.

But they need to really think about what industry they find truly engaging and interesting, because to be effective in these jobs, you need to actually understand the business you're getting into. If you go into a manufacturing company, you would want to understand that supply chain, you'd want to understand the nature of that business. When I came to eBay, I'd never worked for a commerce company. I've had to learn a lot about just how the company functions in order to do the job. We have what we call here sometimes "jobs of influence." Our jobs are to go out and understand what the business is doing, and to layer on top of it our take on what it means to be a responsible business. So, you're never done going to school. 

Clancy: This might not be a question you can answer, but I need to ask how the forthcoming split of eBay and PayPal is affecting your strategy.

Duvall: We are a corporate-level function, and we'll continue to be so until separation happens. As far as how everything will shake out after separation, we're confident that we'll continue social innovation programs in both of the new companies. But the specifics of how the teams are going to be configured is something that is still being sorted.

Clancy: What's the most important priority for your team right now? 

Duvall: We're heading into the time of the annual cycle where we have to go into our annual reporting for next year. We are still the group responsible for all of eBay and for the annual report on progress for the social innovation team at large, which is something we’ve done in the second quarter every year, for the last couple of years. 

I'm heading into the annual carbon disclosure project season — carbon tax season as I call it. We have public goals we're tracking towards and we continue to do so on behalf of eBay. Certainly, as the company sorts out breaking into two companies, we’re looking at the two individual businesses and offering input as to what we think social innovation needs to look like. We have assurances from both of the new presidents that our work is important to them.