John Viera, Global Director, Sustainability and Vehicle Environmental Matters at Ford Motor Company, recently shared his experience as one of the first sustainability business professionals in the corporate world.
Read on to learn how he applies his engineering background to his sustainability work, his unique “talents” that make him especially equipped to lead a sustainability organization, and why he’s passionate about delivering innovation to communities that need it most.
What project are you most excited about right now?
JV: Right now, I’m really excited about Ford’s Project Better World, which focuses more on the social side of sustainability, rather than the environmental side. The purpose of the project is to improve the human condition in underserved, global communities. To do this, multi-sector partnerships are developed between private companies, government agencies, civil society and NGOs.
One of our NGO partners is World Vision. In South Africa, we’ve worked with them to configure our pickup trucks to carry pharmaceuticals, vaccines, educational materials and more. They deliver these goods to villages that previously had no access to them. The trucks also facilitate the development of literacy and nutrition programs. Using the trucks allows these critical resources that improve the human condition to be accessible to those who otherwise would not have access to them.
We have pilots running in South Africa and India as well. In India, the focus is on education and reproductive health for women, particularly around HIV/AIDS awareness. In the Nigerian pilot programs, we also measure immunity levels for people living with HIV. For those vehicles, we’ve attached facilities that measure immunity levels and are currently looking to expand this program into Kenya.
This work ties back to the origins of Ford. Bill Ford, executive chairman, is passionate about using mobility to deliver goods and services to people, particularly in developing countries. He ties this back to the early days of the company, with his great grandfather, Henry Ford, developing the Model T to provide people with the ability to get goods and services for themselves in the city. Ford’s work in Project Better World is a similar concept.
I'm really excited about this work because our impact on people in these communities is very real and happening in real-time, not sometime in the future. It’s the here and now that excites me.
What inspires and drives you to work on sustainability?
JV: I’m an engineer by trade and have been fortunate enough to utilize that skill set to address environmental and social issues. A large part of what drives my work isn’t just solving a challenge, but the innovation required to solve these extremely complex problems.
I’ve been working at Ford for almost thirty-four years and been in a sustainability position for about ten years—a long time in the history of corporate sustainability! My first twenty-four years at the company were spent in the core operations, product development and manufacturing.
When I was invited to join the sustainability team, I was a little confused as to why I had received this offer! I knew about sustainability but wasn’t the most well-versed in sustainability at the company. However, it was explained to me that my extensive background in operations was what the company needed to implement sustainability successfully.
I took the role, thinking I would give it a shot for a year or so, and then move back to operations. Ten years later, and I haven’t left. I absolutely love it! It allows me to harness the energy I have to combine innovation and sustainability. In this role, I’ve learned that I can make a big difference, and I’ve loved it ever since.
Can you share something about yourself that would surprise us? Any hidden talents?
JV: I don’t have a specific talent like a strong musical proficiency, or something of that nature. However, I have specific attributes that might surprise some people, and that I consider talents.
I'm a perfectionist, which permeates everything I do. I have a drive for whatever I do to be perfect. When you think about sustainability, particularly about environmental sustainability, driving toward perfection could mean having zero impact on the Earth’s resources. My other strong attribute is frugality. I’m very frugal, both in my personal life and at work! Again, when you apply this to sustainability, this leads to innovating for the most economical solution.
I think both of these attributes have allowed me to successfully execute Ford’s sustainability programs. Even though they aren’t traditional talents, they’re attributes that work pretty well for leading a sustainability organization.
What do you work on in your free time?
JV: Family and friends are my top priority, though that wasn’t always the case. In the beginning of my career, I was more focused on climbing the corporate ladder. However, once I entered my late thirties, when a lot of my colleagues were beginning to retire, they sat me down and relayed the importance of valuing time with family and friends. I took that advice to heart.
Now, whether it’s taking trips with my family or social events during the weekends with friends, I make sure to set my social calendar before my work agenda. This is difficult in a global workplace, where work can be done 24/7. But it’s manageable if you make it a priority.
If you had unlimited time and resources, what type of work would you want to collaborate with fellow SB Members on?
JV: I want to collaborate with fellow members on work similar to Project Better World, where we’re aiming to improve the human condition. Social inequities and the growing divide between the rich and poor are really upsetting, especially when there is so much new innovation happening. The wealthy are able to take advantage of that innovation disproportionately.
There’s innovation happening in every sector—food, transportation, you name it. If I had time to collaborate more, I'd be collaborating cross-sector to harness that innovation to increase access to goods and services for everybody.
A lot of my focus and passion is for the social side of sustainability. Unfortunately, we’re lacking the proper metrics that could enable companies to prioritize social well-being programs. We have metrics for environmental sustainability, but I’d like to work with peers to figure out the metrics for social sustainability, as well.
Why is your participation in the SB Member Network important?
JV: When I started in the sustainability field ten years ago at Ford, I thought that everything I needed know and do existed within the confines of the company. Over the years, I quickly learned that sustainability at Ford isn’t the end-all-be-all; so much within the sustainability space is still unknown and being developed.
Being in the SB Member Network allows Ford to participate in an open platform with a network of companies from a variety of different sectors. Many times, the sustainability challenges Ford faces go beyond just our products and services. To come up with the best solutions for Ford, we have to interface with other sectors and entities that are aligned with the sustainable innovation mindset. SB provides that community.
Diversity in the SB community extends beyond sectors; the opportunity to speak with other Fortune 50 companies as well as smaller startups, and everything in between, makes for a much richer experience. This kind of organizational size diversity inherently leads to the creation of new ideas.
Anything else you'd like to share with fellow SB Members?
JV: I just want to say that I really appreciate the Sustainable Brands community not only for the collaboration it provides, but the fact that it's a fun environment. SB events stand out from other similar networks because, not only do you get a heck of a lot done, but you actually have a lot of fun as well! I’d like to thank all of the SB community members for not only being incredibly creative and innovative, but also fun people to be around.
There's an element of really looking forward to an SB event, that you're going to find awesome ideas and interactions, but also have a lot of fun too.