"Was this your dream job when you were in school?"
As the first chief sustainability officer for the city of Chicago, I was asked some version of this question many times. And the simple answer was actually "no." Not because it wasn’t an absolutely amazing job. It was. The role just didn’t exist when I was in college or getting my MBA.
And I’m far from alone. This summer I caught up with Amy Francetic, managing general partner of Bouyant Ventures, a new venture fund focused on climate. I talked to Garry Cooper, CEO and founder of Rheaply, a circular economy tech company. And I sat down with Bonnie Lei, the first head of environmental justice, employee engagement and ecosystems at Microsoft.
None of their jobs existed when they were in college either. Each one is charting a new course in newly created fields to transition the economy.
New roles, new bridges to build
New and inspirational job titles are emerging across the board. Chief sustainability officers are almost the norm when we think of the C-suite; Chief ESG officers are emerging now, too. These roles have new and distinct areas of expertise — and they are also bridge builders across organizations. The impact comes both from the deep knowledge in the role and the ability to align, refine and amplify the work of an entire organization. Sustainability in the city of Chicago came from many departments and agencies that helped deliver clean energy, create efficient buildings, invest in better transportation options and procure more outdoor space as well as many other initiatives. Through these actions we support a thriving community in an inclusive economy to create a healthier planet.
But roles don’t have to be new to deliver new benefits.
They are for entrepreneurs who create their organizations, intra-preneurs who shift the direction of established entities and policymakers.
While my title at the city was new, many of these "firsts" will be using expanded skills from a typical position. Francetic is an investor but her fund, Bouyant Ventures, focuses on "digital solutions for climate risk." The results of her deal sourcing and due diligence will be financial returns for her fund — all expected process and results for any investor — but also reduce emissions and deal with the impacts of a changing environment.
Cooper has a Ph.D. in neuroscience even though he is CEO of a circular economy company. In fact, he came up with the idea for Rheaply when he saw all the materials going unused in some labs but needed by others. Now he is leading a fast-growing organization that recently raised an additional $20 million and at the same time Cooper has become a global expert on circularity. There was no blueprint to be the CEO of a climate tech circularity leader, so he created it.
Collaboration redefines opportunities
Lei started her role as the first head of environmental justice, employee engagement and ecosystems at Microsoft less than a year ago, but she has been at Microsoft for over five years. Her first four years were spent leading Global Strategic Partnerships for AI for Earth, which focused on accelerating environmental solutions through partnerships focused on artificial intelligence. That work was built on grants to hundreds of organizations with a shared vision. She is building equitable partnerships including with the Just Transition PowerForce. Working globally with multiple partners to co-create a more inclusive, healthy future is the anchor to a new role.
Every sector matters
These "first" roles are in every sector — for-profit, nonprofit and government. They are for entrepreneurs who create their organizations, intra-preneurs who shift the direction of established entities and policymakers, who create rules that are fairer for people and the planet over the long term.
Some roles, such as engineering or running for office might have the potential for more direct impact on carbon, but we need to drive a culture and an economy across the board — and that requires everyone to be involved. We have never charted a course to decarbonize our global economy. So we need roles in all sectors deliver climate benefits for everyone.
What role will you make sustainable?