Sustainability as a profession is coming into its own, and women are at the forefront. Fifty-eight percent of sustainability executives in large companies are female. And when Heather Clancy, executive editor of GreenBiz, made her list of 25 badass women shaking up the corporate climate movement, she had problems trimming the list down to 25, not filling it.
During a GreenBiz webcast last week, "Women in Sustainability: Moving from Beginner to Badass," three sustainability professionals, at three different stages of their careers, sat down to talk about how they got there, the skills others need and the future of the industry.
Finding a way into the sustainability world
There are many ways into a sustainability career. Ezgi Barcenas, global vice president of sustainability at Anheuser-Busch InBev, started out getting a degree in engineering before shifting to the public sector. When making the switch to the private sector she looked for a highly regulated industry where she could use her skills from government work. She has been at AB InBev for seven years where she also leads a team.
"We are probably the last generation of sustainability professionals that found themselves in a sustainability profession without a sustainability degree," Barcenas said.
As if to emphasize the shifting landscape, Taylor Price, global manager of sustainability at the AptarGroup and the youngest panelist, acknowledged her master's degree in environmental management from Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. Price also mentioned taking a few classes in the business school while at Duke because her goal was to enter a corporate environment where the world moves fast and she could affect change more immediately than in government.
But all the panelists agreed you don’t need a specific degree to do well in the sustainability world.
"It’s about skill-building and getting a skillset that enables you to unpack the challenge and address the opportunities for collaboration and leadership," said Eunice Heath, corporate director of sustainability at Dow.
Affecting the industry from the inside
Of course, once a woman gets into a sustainability role, she has to overcome a new set of issues and problems. Heath wants women to take control of their power and use it to combat the problems in the industry. She challenges men to step out of their comfort zone and come to a women’s meeting or mentor a woman.
"There's no better way than to have male allies understand what women go through day in and day out," Heath said.
Each woman talked about the diversity and inclusion programs, efforts and communities her company fosters. Price wanted to be more intentional about sharing stories internally and Heath stressed the importance of action plans and strategic programs to go along with those stories to address racial injustice, not just domestically, but globally.
Barcenas mentioned AB InBev's Buy a Lady a Drink partnership between Stella Artois and Water.org, which works to bring clean water to 3.5 million women and their families across the world.
Having that understanding that when women are doing well in our organization, the organization is also going to do well is really what has underscored a lot of our work in advancing women in the space.
Price agreed that when women and girls are elevated and have access to resources, the world gets better for everyone around them. Aptar took that lesson into the organization. The AptarGroup partnered with Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on making workplaces better for women, by providing resources to women in businesses and education on topics such as unconscious bias to employers.
"Having that understanding that when women are doing well in our organization, the organization is also going to do well is really what has underscored a lot of our work in advancing women in the space," Price said.
Affecting the future
Once inside the industry, each woman emphasized her role as a change agent.
According to Price, sustainability needs diverse voices, with diverse life experiences all working towards the same goal of a better and healthier planet. Her experience as a millennial Black woman is a strength to the sustainability industry. Barcenas echoed that line of thinking to encourage women to overcome their insecurities.
"Learn something from everyone," Barcenas said. "Put your hand up. There are many allies out there."
Heath has been ushering in new generations of sustainability professions for the entirety of her 25-year career. She is an executive liaison for Dow to the National Society of Black Engineers' Summer Engineering Experience for Kids program and an ambassador for the company to Historical Black Colleges and Universities to expose her sustainability work to students with a variety of economic and racial backgrounds.
"My goal is for that young boy or young girl to see that they too can have a career like we have," she said. “They too can be change-makers."