Category Archives: Education
Net Impact Leadership Team member Melissa Small sat down with Cynthia Wilkinson, director of Supply Chain Sustainability at Staples, to hear about how she ended up in her current role, her passion for sustainability and advice that she has for current Net Impact members looking to pursue a sustainability-focused career.
How did you first become interested in sustainability?
I’ve always wanted to make a difference. It was always one of those things that was really important to me. When I was doing work in supply chain, we starting talking about how to make buildings more green, and that initially started the ball rolling on my interest in sustainability. I began thinking about how I could focus more on sustainability in my own life. Eventually, those conversations and my own personal interest morphed into a full-time role in sustainability.
How did you make the transition from a purely supply chain role to a full-time sustainability role?
Before my current role, I was the director of Global Facilities Design at Staples. In that position, I started having dialogue with some of the sustainability experts within the company, such as Mark Buckley, Vice President of Environmental Affairs. This led to integration of sustainability into that role. From there, I let my boss know about my interest in sustainability, so that when conversations started happening at the highest levels of the company and opportunities arose, I was thought of for those opportunities. I’m a firm believer that luck favors the prepared.
Can you walk me through a typical day in your job at Staples?
There’s really no such thing as a typical day. Right now my work focuses on sustainable packaging. Since it’s a fairly new subject for a lot of businesses, my job generally falls into two categories. First, I work on analytics and team capabilities to tell the story to our business leaders about how sustainable packaging can help us achieve our sustainability and business goals. Second, I tell the story and engage with our own internal cross-functional partners and vendors to start to drive that change.
What is the most interesting and fun aspect of your job?
There are so many interesting and fun aspects – I don’t know how to choose! Since it’s all so new for us, while it’s challenging, when we start to make progress it’s really exciting because we are making an impact not only on our own company, but globally as well. In addition, having dialogue and learning about sustainability issues from people both within and outside the company allows me to gain other people’s perspectives, while at the same time share the possibilities that I envision.
You mentioned it’s a challenging job, what would you say makes it the most challenging for you?
The pace of progress. Having come from a manufacturing and supply chain background, I’m used to driving results quickly. In that area, quick results are imperative. However, with sustainability there are a lot of changes in direction, so flexibility and resilience is key. I am always thinking we should be going faster. It’s hard to pace myself to the pace of others.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
I would like to have successfully driven packaging reductions and built capabilities for Staples and have moved onto the next sustainability challenge within the company.
When did you first become involved with Net Impact Boston? What keeps you involved?
My first introduction to Net Impact was when I was asked to speak on panel at the annual Net Impact Conference when Staples and International Paper held a competition at the event.
I’ve always been interested in working with younger generations to open up possibilities to them. I was fascinated to learn that Net Impact has that connection and want to help drive the message of linking business to sustainability.
What advice do you have for our Net Impact Boston members who are reading this?
The possibilities are endless. Keep your options open, particularly by considering a business route and bringing sustainability with it. Be one of those tempered radicals that change sustainability at an organization from within!
Sustainability is an exciting place to be and very rewarding. You spend most of your waking hours at work, and if you don’t like what you do you are wasting your life. It’s really easy to love my job when I have an opportunity to make a global impact with the work that I do.
Finally, I would say that sustainability is an “and” not an “or.” If we get more people thinking this way, it will accelerate our change and progress. It is those who are coming out of school now who can help us because they are already living their lives in a more sustainable way.
Net Impact President Barbara Seymour caught up with NIB member Ian Lavery last month to find out how he went from an 18-year-old kid maybe studying the brain and psychology in college to the go-to guy for sustainability questions at Cate Street Capital.
Was there a trigger that made you want to work in an environmental field?
My calling to the environment started in undergrad in California. It’s pretty simple actually. I went to school surrounded by beautiful redwoods. I fell in love with those trees. And I wanted to do something to protect them. So I decided to become an environmental studies major. But even back then I had a sort of stubborn streak of practicality. I thought if I double-majored in econ I might have better luck finding a job. Luckily this proved true, after I graduated I entered the world of environmental consulting.
What made you leave the working world and go back to school?
The shifts that I was seeing in the industry and in the world. During that time climate change really emerged as a global issue. Renewable energy became a big player. I saw a real opportunity for businesses to incorporate environmental challenges and opportunities into bottom-line decisions. But I wanted to have more credibility and a greater understanding of the levers at work—GHG reduction plans, carbon counting, tax credits . . . I decided to go back to school and concentrate on business development and energy. Whenever I had a choice, I focused on sustainability issues.
When did you become involved with Net Impact?
I joined my grad school chapter at MIT my first year. It was an obvious choice among hundreds of outside-the-classroom opportunities. I became the President of our chapter my second year. From there I joined the Boston professional chapter and focused on marketing. I still go to events when my commute allows—every job has to have some downside. Net Impact is one of the reasons I am in the great job I’m in today.
So what is it exactly that you do?
My work is quasi private equity; we operate portfolio companies with the goal of developing clean tech projects in New England and beyond. Solar to plastic recycling, to biomass energy production facilities – I analyze it all. I apply my environmental background, hard business skills and passion for sustainability to analyzing potential deals. In other words, I do project development in the clean tech space.
I love the full-scale pitch with detailed economic analysis. Thus far, my most interesting project has been converting an old oil boiler at a paper mill we own. Right now the boiler is being retrofit to work with natural gas; once completed, we’ll save money, reduce emissions, produce more paper and create some additional jobs at the mill. It’s a soup-to-nuts example of project management and a win-all-around situation. It’s rewarding to see ones work come to fruition this way.
The most challenging aspect of my job is that we’re simultaneously developing 6 or 7 startups. Of course, things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes you do a ton of work and when you have to step back and go in a different direction; it can feel like you wasted time. But you gain a lot of important knowledge of the industry and that can be applied next time you are faced with a similar situation.
What advice do you have for other Net Impacters career searching right now?
Consumer electronics firms develop products to meet the needs of customers. The same needs to be done in whatever space you want to go into. Develop your skills to meet the needs of your future project manager.
Between MIT and Cate Street I had another job, an anaerobic digester project to turn recycled waste into energy. Unfortunately the project fell through though after about a year. I stumbled into an old colleague and chatted with him, which is how I eventually ended up at Cate Street. The point is that networking is invaluable. Every job I’ve ever had came through networking. By virtue of being a part of Net Impact, career searchers have already taken an important step. Use the Net Impact network – it’s a powerful group. Especially if you are looking for something a little bit down the line, say after grad school or just knowing that in a few years you will be ready to move on from your current position, you have a chance to be forward-thinking. Go to the events, learn about the careers and sectors out there and the skills that will be needed. Develop those skills!
You’ve been a Net Impact member for many years now, and served on the Board of Net Impact Boston. What impact has your membership had on the work you do and how you do it?
Being a part of that group and being exposed to all the different elements of sustainability has made me the go-to guy for sustainability questions at work. Whether it’s a green house gas report, a question about energy efficiency, or just a desire for a good back-and-forth about a Washington policy under debate, my colleagues seek me out. Working with Net Impact teammates helped me sharpen my skills, ask important questions and learn to explore areas I might not previously have considered.
How can you use your career skills for social or environmental good?
What companies and organizations are hiring for careers with impact?
What skills and experience do you need to land a job in this field?
Find answers to these questions and more, at the Boston Career Summit 2013, taking place at the Hult International Business School in Cambridge, MA.
More information is available on this page.
The 2013 Net Impact Boston Career Summit brings together local professionals, job-seekers and graduate students who are looking to connect with businesses and organizations that are committed to social and environmental impact. A collaboration among local Net Impact Chapters, the Summit will feature exhibitors from the for-profit, nonprofit, and government sectors. Don’t miss this opportunity to build your knowledge and network for jobs that address the triple bottom line!