The 5 L's and Other Tips for Women Seeking Green Jobs

The 5 L's and Other Tips for Women Seeking Green Jobs

I'm often asked how to get a job in the sustainability arena. So I decided to put the question to someone who should really know.

"There are opportunities everywhere … and there's a role for everyone," answered Nancy Sutley, who, as chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, arguably holds the top sustainability job in the U.S. -- that of advising the president on environmental sustainability.

That attitude would seem to be echoed by the broader employment trend in the U.S. The Labor Department reported earlier this month that although unemployment edged up from 8.8. percent in March to 9 percent in April, the economy added 244,000 jobs last month -- a figure that exceeded analysts' forecasts.

Like so many of us, Sutley (who was keynote speaker at the West Coast Summit of the Women's Network for a Sustainable Future last fall) didn't train formally for the position. Instead, armed with an MA in public policy, she moved from the private sector to government, from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles and back -- as one thing led to another and another.

The main thing, she advised me, is that "there's a ton of things to do in government at all levels, in business or businesses looking to break into this field. There's lots of investment in energy, new forums, nonprofits, the environment. Cast a wide net."

In my experience, Sutley's counsel is both optimistic -- and realistic. There are many ways to skin a cat. For instance, I started by forging a sustainability beat as a business journalist; then building a sustainability communications practice, while drawing on my earlier academic career to create and teach university-level sustainability curricula; and then by co-founding and running the nonprofit WNSF (that's the short version).

Three popular routes to sustainability work include: landing a mainstream job in something seemingly unrelated, like human resources or information technology, and building sustainability practices into it; going (back) to school for a degree or a sustainability certificate; and creating your own sustainability job.

Meet Cynthia Cheak, Annika Jensen-Lamka and Susan Reeve, each of whom exemplifies (at least) one of those paths.

All three women recently completed the executive certificate program at San Francisco-based Presidio Graduate School of Sustainability Management, where, as a member of the advisory council, I recently participated in the program's master class, as each student shared inspiring results of a final project:

Reeve, a former international program director, has started an environmental nonprofit organization from scratch, raising $100,000 so far.

Jensen-Lamka, a full-time PR executive, fabricated a course-long project to launch a business making eco-friendly toys and dog beds from recycled materials. Her husband, once skeptical, ran the numbers and now he's urging her to make the concept a reality.

Cheak, a former program manager at Dell, chose one of three job offers at a third-party logistics company, Jabil Inc., where she can parlay her program management and IT background to help embed sustainability practices into the company.

Whether starting your own firm, joining one that already exists or blending the two, "Be an entrepreneur," counsels Jacquelyn Ottman, author of recently released "The New Rules of Green Marketing."

"Get some freelancing skills -- proposal writing, lead generation, project management --  and figure out how to make it on your own," said Ottman. She's successfully forged that path for about two decades.

From my own experience, I'd advise five L's:

  • Lead with your talents.
  • Lean on your strengths.
  • Learn everything you can.
  • Look for friends.
  • Listen to your heart.

Or, as Sutley coaches: "It's about finding what interests you."

Images CC licensed by Flickr user Cristi B and Alex E. Proimos.