Leadership
Women in the Sustainability Trenches Impart Wisdom to Next Generation of Change Champions

In a packed ballroom at SB’22 San Diego, women leading sustainability for three very different organizations explored how today’s leaders can engage and empower tomorrow’s generation to lead us to a flourishing future.

On Tuesday at SB’22 San Diego, the second annual Women’s Leadership Lunch took place with a packed ballroom and palpable positive energy. Moderated by The Guardian US reporter Dani Anguiano, women leading sustainability efforts for three very different organizations explored how today’s leaders can engage and empower the next generation of sustainability professionals to lead us to a flourishing future.

When asked what role women are playing as leaders and individuals driving sustainability agendas, it was noted that women are more often ready to make commitments — and anecdotally observed that this year’s networking lunch attracted double the attendance of last year's. In the face of incredibly complex issues such as climate crisis and the Sustainable Development Goals, women tend to lean into a collaborative spirit and bring different stakeholders together. Jen Duran, in the newly created role of VP of Product Resiliency and Sustainability at Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health, commented that women “own multi-tasking and get efficient” — and added that over half of employees at the 150-year-old company are women. She posited that with these transferable skills, women are uniquely positioned to provide efficient solutions to complex issues. Chantel Adams, EVP of Consumer at the women-founded and -led WE Communications, built on that by noting that sustainability is the field in which the majority of leaders are women.

Reflecting on some current challenges turned the conversation to ongoing efforts to embed diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Larine Urbina — VP of Communications, US and Canada at Tetra Pak — shared her experience helping her male-dominated, Europe-based company’s leadership understand and get comfortable with the basics of DEI — for example, what it means to recruit women. Beyond the basics, Adams pointed out that “climate change is a top concern and more so for women of color. We are advocating as a voice for women who aren’t there. These women are asking tough questions about how commitments are going to impact a wider community.” Duran acknowledged that young women of color need to be “met where there are” in terms of education curriculum. Adams agreed and admitted that, though WE has a robust college internship to recruit new emerging talent and a partnership with HBCU Hampton College to teach sessions with real-world examples, the agency needs to “go deeper for rising stars” among junior employees.

The conversation returned to personal experiences. Recounting career mentors, advice and lessons learned, Duran said that she was fortunate to have a female manager — a SVP of R&D — in a male-dominated field, who shared her challenges with “imposter syndrome.” Duran found her manager’s transparency about her own vulnerability to be surprisingly refreshing and revealing — something that made a significant lasting impression. Urbina feels that she herself is in a transitional period yet recognizes the importance of engaging with younger women: “This is a big responsibility — and am I living up to that responsibility? You always have someone behind you [who is younger] that is always looking up to you.” Adams recalled that she is a living example of why representation and deliberate action in the form of mentorship matters, as she has a cohort of peers that have helped her with tough career decisions. “It should be your true honor to help [female mentors] see themselves through your eyes,” she said.

The discussion then steered to how sustainability is still not well understood in some organizations. Duran indicated that sustainability is increasing in strategic importance — the continued growth in the number of sustainability executives, teams and individual jobs is opening everyone’s eyes as to how we drive transformative change. However, Duran admitted “we haven’t done a good job of making sustainability easily understood to the public.” She feels it’s about coming together as industries to standardize, so progress can be shown and external entities can be held to account. Urbina noted that there is much to be done in terms of where sustainability as a function fits into an organization — regardless of in which discipline it lies (such as Marketing Communications or Sales) — because there are many ways to drive sustainability throughout an organization (e.g marketing, communications, R&D, recycling, food waste). “You don’t have to be an activist to have impact,” Urbina asserted.

Adams brought up education and skilling — particularly, the results of the past two decades of STEM education in school systems. She noted that young people aged 18-34 are aware that there are more ‘green’ jobs than people to fill them; and there is an opportunity for the sustainability field to build an educational pipeline.

The lunch discussion ended with some advice for emerging sustainability leaders:

  • Recognize what role each young professional can play.

  • Shed “imposter syndrome” and the notion of “fake it until you make it.” Instead embrace a collaborative mindset.

  • Learn from emerging leaders. Encourage them to be brave and committed to their values.

After all, we need help from the next generation of passionate professionals sooner rather than later.

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