Strength in solutions: Emerging Leaders in sustainability see hope in just, equitable transition

Strength in solutions: Emerging Leaders in sustainability see hope in just, equitable transition

The Emerging Leaders at VERGE 18 onstage
Kathryn Cooper
From right: Oshae Mcrae; Cindy Cordoba; Matt Panopio; Karina Simpson; Iesha Baldwin; Alexis Cureton; and Sarah Luxton.

Now more than ever, young people are at the forefront of the environmental movement.

Not only do a significant majority of millennials and Generation X-ers believe in human-caused climate change, many also call for the institutions they're part of to take action. Greta Thunberg is leading schoolchildren to "Strike 4 Climate Action" across Europe; the lawsuit by 21 U.S. children and young adults who are suing the federal government over climate change is proceeding in court. 

Many are also looking to make climate impacts through choices in their everyday lives. That includes by pursuing careers in mission-driven organizations, especially in sustainability.

As the field expands — in terms of both jobs and in impact — a concern justifiably remains: that those in sustainability, leading the just transition to a clean economy for all, are including, well, all.

Individuals from underrepresented and marginalized communities often face barriers in professional development, and corporate sustainability can be a tight network that statistically imitates many other corporate power structures with older, white males at the top of the ladder. Ensuring that a diverse set of stakeholders is not only in the room but has a voice is crucial to making equitable changes in and for sustainability.

At GreenBiz Group’s October conference and expo in Oakland, California, VERGE 18, nine young career professionals and students had the opportunity to not only hear from but speak with other sustainable professionals to learn firsthand about the systems, science and technology driving a just transition to a clean economy — the transition that they’ll be leading in the not-so-distant future.

These early-career specialists and academics were participating in the fourth iteration of GreenBiz’s Emerging Leaders scholarship, sponsored by United Airlines. The program pays for transportation, housing and conference registration to enable a diverse cohort of students and young leaders to attend GreenBiz Group's events. There, they are able to connect with the GreenBiz community, identify mentors and maybe find a career entry-point.

"We take pride in our own diverse family at United Airlines and look for inspiration from these next generation of leaders who will work together to build a more sustainable world," said Maria Race, director of environmental policy and programs and sustainability at United Airlines. 

GreenBiz Group asked each Emerging Leader what attending VERGE 18 meant to them, and how they planned to put that inspiration into action in their work and career going forward. Their answers, below, are edited for length and clarity:

Cate Kandle headshot
Cate Kandle
Cathryn Kandle, BS, Sustainable Agriculture, Unity College

I left VERGE 18 with a sense of urgency, and yet the feeling that I was more equipped to address problems of sustainability within the food system. The speaker who had the most influence on me during VERGE was Daniela Fernandez, the woman who started the Sustainable Oceans Alliance. She explained how she took a leap of faith after college by moving to California to become a social entrepreneur. Part of me always thinks that whatever impact I make will be in the future — after I graduate, after I get my masters, after conditions are favorable. However, VERGE 18 drove home for me that conditions will never be favorable, and the world needs me to do my part right now. If I want to start a business or overcome barriers in my community, I am obligated to do it myself — and even more, I have the ability to make the kind of change I heard people speak about at VERGE. The best part of VERGE was seeing individuals creating a better future and making decisions in line with that future.

Matt Panopio, Master of Environmental Science and Management, Bren School of Environmental Science and Management

Matt Panopio
Matt Panopio

It is going to take the collective action of many with the application of rapidly evolving technology to make our world livable for the foreseeable future.

VERGE 18 was the perfect place for thought leadership and the exchange of ideas on climate solutions. I learned so much about how businesses are coming together to aggregate resources to reach 100 percent renewable energy, create multi-modal low-carbon transportation solutions for underrepresented communities, and find ways to reuse materials and cut emissions from resource-intensive supply chains. As a budding sustainability and energy professional, it was truly inspiring to see different industries creating opportunity for business solutions while considering their impacts on society and the environment.

After attending VERGE, I now know it is a critical step if we want to continue living on a sustainable and climate resilient planet.

Karina Simpson, Environmental Engineering Associate, City of Los Angeles Public Works

Karina Simpson
Karina Simpson

The most enlightening aspect of VERGE 18 was the plethora of ideas and startups to aid us in becoming a sustainable planet. These showcases were inspirational to hear and offered innovative ideas that I hope to see become standard technologies in the years to come. I was particularly interested in the circular economy track of the conference. I have a better understanding of the circular economy and look forward to implementing the circular approach with new projects at the city of Los Angeles. Moving forward, I will be working on environmental justice projects within the city.

The city recognized that underserved, low-income individuals and communities often bear a far heavier burden of environmental pollution, health impacts and economic health challenges than affluent neighborhoods. Pairing some of the new technologies presented at VERGE 18 in these disadvantaged communities could possibly reverse the effects of the pollution in these areas. VERGE 18 was an excellent opportunity for me to meet individuals with the same mindset and assist in building my professional network.

Sarah Luxton, Master in Public Administration, University of North Texas

Sarah Luxton
Sarah Luxton
VERGE 18 was my first time to participate in a conference and I was completely blown away. I have only just begun my career in sustainability. Over the last five years I been working in the government and I am currently serving as a sustainability coordinator for the city of Denton. Our community is like so many others in America that is culturally diverse and growing at a rapid rate. I am blessed to be a part of this community that also supports and strives to set an example in sustainability. But with each stride our community often meets new challenges. During the conference, I was able to meet with other community leaders and organizations that are setting the bar. These talented individuals have practical solutions and ideas that can be used to solve many of the problems my community is facing today. Sometimes I feel like the problems we are facing today are endless but then I realize, so are the solutions.

Vicky Wu, Master of Business Administration, McCombs School of Business

Vicky Wu
Vicky Wu
My greatest takeaway from VERGE 18 is that the future looks optimistic! I really enjoyed hearing about innovations in technology, renewable energy and the circular economy and am excited for the opportunities to improve business practices and build a better more responsible future. Businesses today are getting pushed from both internal stakeholders and consumers to be more sustainable, and the great thing is that the technology and impetus is there to make that happen!

I’m currently pursuing an MBA from the University of Texas and am excited to continue to drive sustainable business decisions. And I will say that the good news is that there are many other emerging leaders who are passionate about these initiatives. Many of my classmates and are cause-oriented and came back to school to look into impact investing, clean tech and innovative businesses. The future is looking bright and learning from business leaders at VERGE 18 only continued to assure that belief.

Alexis Cureton, SolarCorps EV Fellow, GRID Alternatives

Alexis Cureton
Alexis Cureton

My greatest takeaway from VERGE 18 was seeing how innovative financial models and national, state and city taxes can be applied to clean energy projects and programs. The number of projects yielded from public-private partnerships, on display, at the conference was astounding. In the research I am doing currently on electric vehicle adoption in California, the greatest barrier tends to circulate around financing, which includes state and county taxes as factors for vehicle purchases.

Moving forward in my career, as my exposure in clean energy development and transportation grows, so does the need to continue to be present and engaging in convenings such as VERGE. These offerings are not a panacea alone. It is going to take creative leadership, out-of-the-box thinking, and swift action from all actors in and outside of this space.

Cindy Cordoba, Ph.D. Program in Apparel Design, Cornell University

Cindy Cordoba
Cindy Cordoba
Beyond the inspirational nature of the talks at VERGE 18, I gained wisdom and practicality from the speakers as they shared ways in which they are deploying technology for designing ecosystems to facilitate companies and people to adopt sustainable behaviors. The greatest takeaways from VERGE 18 were access to information and tracking of products to facilitate extension of product’s lifetime; collaboration among the stakeholders to create closed-loop systems; and finding the markets for post-consumer materials. It was particularly important for me to identify research needs in circular models for clothing and textiles, as well as how my own research can contribute towards developing strategies to facilitate transitions to a circular economy. In my academic career, I plan to focus on work on post-consumer textile waste valorization through material analysis and closed-loop design. VERGE 18 reaffirmed the idea of working towards tools to convert intentions into actionable plans.

Iesha Baldwin, BA, Environmental Studies, Spelman College

Iesha Baldwin
Iesha Baldwin
The greatest takeaway that I received from VERGE 18 is to become excellent at solving one problem. Receiving this advice from many solution solvers encouraged me to become an individual that believes that I have the power, tools and resources to create a cleaner economy.

I plan to put the inspiration that I received from VERGE 18 into action by becoming a social entrepreneur and partnering with companies, individuals and organizations that have the desire to create clean economies.

Oshane Mcrae, Campaign Associate, Gun Violence Prevention at Center for American Progress

Oshane Mcrae
Oshane Mcrae

I often enter in discussions about climate change, the future of renewable energy, a green future, etc., with a mix of hope and cynicism. Sometimes I couldn’t help it: I would feel hopeful at times for a future free of pollution and indiscriminate extraction, and instead one defined with dynamism and synergy with nature. Then at others, I would rest my gaze on the status quo and our ever-warming planet and respond feeling despondent and anxious — believing that we didn’t possess the necessary resolve and would fall short in greeting the greatest challenge of our generation. That was, until I went to VERGE.

VERGE was a one-of-a-kind experience for me personally and professionally. Not only did I leave inspired and certain that we had the tools to create the green, circular and sustainable future that we so desperately need, but I left having connected with so many dedicated, bright and positive people who were similarly concerned and drawn to action. I left galvanized, having witnessed the many solutions of promise: a concrete startup that could capture the excess carbon in our atmosphere; a small business that finances green retrofits to low-income households in the Bronx; a startup turning landfill "waste" into usable building materials, to name a few. These examples and the people with the ingenuity and drive to bring them to bear left me speechless — then hopeful.

Be on the lookout for what our Emerging Leaders have to say about our upcoming conference GreenBiz 19.

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