Heroes of Sustainability
This International Women’s Day 2018, we pay tribute to some of the extraordinary women blazing a trail in the transition to a sustainable future. Their successes are an inspiration for women and men everywhere.
On the surface, SpaceX may seem like a particularly glamourous rocket company, with a penchant for self promotion and a talent for blasting cars into space, but there is far more to the company than that. Their underlying vision has always been very clear – they want to radically reduce the cost of space travel in order to establish a colony of 1 million people on Mars. Why? If life on Earth is wiped out, whether through rampant over-consumerism, a deadly asteroid strike or a super volcano eruption, there will be a self sustaining human population on another planet as a backup.
Gwynne Shotwell is President and Chief Operating Officer at SpaceX, where she is responsible for day-to-day operations and company growth. Ultimately, the mission to make the human race a multi-planetary species will come down to her.
Gwynne’s big break – landing a coveted spot at SpaceX – came 15 years ago. Whilst working at a small space mission firm, she went to lunch with a close friend who had been lured to work at SpaceX. After their meal, he took her on a tour of the company, where she happened to bump into Elon Musk. They talked for three or four minutes, Gwynne recalls; “it was pretty random actually. I wasn’t looking for a job… I blurted out that he really needed a good business developer.” That afternoon, she got a call asking her to apply for a position as the Vice President of Business Development. She admits that she was initially unsure, remembering that “though I initially fought the idea of joining this endeavour, I was at the time a “part time” single mother, I came to my senses and leaped at the opportunity.”
Gwynne started at SpaceX in 2003 as employee number 11. Now COO, she has helped SpaceX to secure more than $7 billion with NASA and commercial contracts, successfully executed over 35 launches, and overseen the introduction of a family of reusable rockets.
An obvious inspiration to women in STEM, Gwynne believes that more still needs to be done too demonstrate that engineering is a great career path for women. “Make sure that you’re working on projects that will contribute to helping humanity in the future” she says. Perhaps one day, Mars will become the way that humanity proves how to live sustainably on Earth.
Rachel is the Managing Director for UK and Ireland at Renewable Energy Systems Ltd, the world’s largest independent renewable energy company. Rachel is responsible for RES’ business in the UK and in Ireland, a portfolio of over 1,000 MW of onshore wind, solar and storage projects.
After completing a degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering, Rachel’s first role after graduating was as a Research Engineer for British Telecom at their laboratory in Sussex, where she was involved in assessing the quality and performance of BT’s networks. After that she moved to JP Morgan to join the Derivatives Analytics group, creating pricing and risk assessment models for traders of financial derivatives. She was promoted to lead the Analytics team, before making a move to the renewable energy industry.
Rachel was initially driven by tackling the problem of energy being a limited resource, as well as her concerns about pollution from fossil fuels and the hazards from nuclear power. These days, she is motivated by her work in making renewable energy the cheapest form of all electricity generation. The main challenge that she has faced in her career has been in the politics around challenging the status quo, from dealing with vested interests within the energy industry, to introducing large industrial structures into rural areas. Although the renewable energy sector is generally more progressive and tends to attract people who want to change things for the better, it is not immune to sexist and macho behaviour. Her advice to young women entering the sector would be to target roles where you can be truly proud of your work, and to find a company whose values fit with your own.
Esther grew up in a rural farming community on the Kenyan coast, where heat and drought were devastating agricultural land. Passionate about agricultural science, she became the first girl in her community to earn her doctorate. She now works as a researcher at Auburn University, applying her knowledge to make crops more drought-resistant. For farmers struggling to adapt to climate change, an increase in yield and crop sales generates cash, including money that can be invested in a range of “climate-smart” farming techniques, that further conserve water and soil and sustainably increase production on small plots of land. As concerns about food security increase with the global temperatures, beneficial soil bacteria could be the next key tool for food security, helping farmers around the world conserve water, increase yields and improve nutrition under the changing climate.
In 2012, Esther founded Spring Break Kenya, an organisation that mobilises young university students into public service. That same year, she co-founded the Dr. Ndumi Faulu Academy with her parents, to ensure that all children in Kenya can have a quality education.
In 2014, she founded Oyeska Greens, an agriculture focused start-up that empowers farmers at the Kenyan Coast. Through it, she mobilises farmers in her community and leads efforts to make Kenya a hub for agriculture, green house technology, entrepreneurship and smart marketing using cell phone technology.
Esther was the first recipient of the Emerging Sustainability Leader Award and has been named by One World as one of the unseen powerful women who change the world.
Rupi Kaur is a Canadian poet from a Punjabi-Sikh immigrant family who is famous for her writing which discusses feminism on a multicultural and racial level, along with the adversity women face all over the world.
Rupi’s book “Milk and Honey” made it to the New York Times bestseller list and has sold $3 million worldwide. Her second book “The Sun and Her Flowers” debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times paperback fiction best-seller list in October 2017, and has remained near the top ever since. The New York Times have said that Rupi “writes movingly about immigration, domestic violence, sexual assault and other substantial subjects, though she follows quickly with self-empowerment affirmations to alleviate the sting.” Unlike many other poets before her, Rupi has taken to social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram (where she has 1.8 million followers) to publish her work and has now established herself as one of the most popular ‘InstaPoets.”
She’s dedicated passionately to the women’s empowerment movement and her writing highlights the strength of women whilst trying to defeat a stigma surrounding “feminism,” describing women as “resilient” or “extraordinary.”
Hannah Jones is Nike Inc’s Chief Sustainability Officer and VP of their Innovation Accelerator. Over the last two decades, Hannah has helped to transform Nike from a company that was synonymous with sweatshops, to a recognised sustainability leader using the following three strategic aims to drive sustainability and innovation: (1) minimise environmental footprint, (2) transform manufacturing and (3) unleash human potential.
Hannah believes that at Nike, sustainability is a “powerful opportunity to innovate” and that “by looking at innovation through the creative lens of sustainability, we’re able to deliver a portfolio of products and services with maximum performance and minimal impact on the environment.” Take, for example, the Nike ‘Flyknit’ technology which has helped reduce waste by nearly two million pounds since 2012. More recently, Nike have developed an innovative new ‘Flyleather’ range, made from 50% recycled natural leather fibre and which uses 90% less water in production. Hannah has said that it has the potential to be as “game-changing” for low carbon sportswear as it is 40% lighter and five-times stronger than traditional leather.
Google has pledged to power its global operations with 100% renewable energy, comprising 13 data centres and offices in 150 cities around the world. As Head of Energy Strategy at Google, it is Neha Palmer’s job to make that happen. “We want to run our business in an environmentally responsible way,” she says, “and energy consumption is the biggest portion.” Through the work of Neha and her colleagues, Google is now the largest corporate buyer of renewable electricity in the world.
Neha now has close to 20 years of experience in the energy sector. She started her career at Pacific Gas and Electric, a small utility serving homes and businesses in Northern California. She has also spent time on Wall Street at Goldman Sachs as an investment banker, focused on electric utilities.
Jo Fairley is one of the UK’s leading female entrepreneurs. She showed her determination and marketing flair early on, when she left school at 16 and went on to become the youngest ever magazine editor at the age of 23.
Jo is the co-founder of Green & Blacks, one of the world’s leading organic chocolate brands. Dreamt up on a rainy night on London’s Portobello Road in 1991, the name of the company came from a wordplay. ‘Green’, because it was organic and ‘Black’ because it was the darkest chocolate on the market.
The idea was always that the chocolate would come from well-paid farmers, using environmentally sustainable practices. In 1994, the company launched Maya Gold, buying cocoa directly from Mayan farmers in Belize. For this initiative, they were awarded the Worldaware Business Award and the UK’s first Fairtrade mark. When Green & Blacks started trading with the farmers there was no secondary education for children in the cocoa-growing villages. Now over 70% of the children in those villages go to secondary school. These days, Green & Black’s is a £100 million brand, stocked in shops and supermarkets worldwide. It became the world’s first global Fairtrade brand in 2011 and all of their products now have certification.
Jo’s mentor, Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, taught her that you could do good by doing business and this ethos can be seen throughout all of her ventures. In 2005, Green & Black’s was successfully sold to Cadbury’s. Following the sale, Jo opened a wellness centre, an award winning organic and natural food store based in Hastings and launched the Perfume Society, a subscription service for people who love scent.
Majora Carter is determined to make low income communities across the US more liveable, greener, and healthier than they are. The founder of Sustainable South Bronx, an environmental justice group, Majora seeks to mobilise grassroots environmental activism among the poorest and most environmentally oppressed citizens.
Majora grew up in inner city New York, at a time when people and businesses were moving out, leaving abandoned buildings and high unemployment rates in their wake. After completing her degree, she returned home and became involved in arts-related community development. She soon found herself in a tussle with the city over plans to privatise waste management. The South Bronx, where Majora was born, is home to a higher concentration of power plants, sewage treatment facilities, diesel truck fleets, and waste transfer stations than any other section of the city, and, not coincidentally, is saddled with higher asthma rates than any other community in the country. Successfully defeating plans to process 40% of the city’s domestic waste in the area, in addition to the 40% of the city’s commercial waste already processed there, SSBx embarked on projects that built a park on the site of a former concrete plant, enabled public waterfront access where the shore was once littered with industrial scrap, developed an ecological restoration workforce to protect and maintain the natural environment, and raised $1.25 million in federal funds for a bike/pedestrian greenway along the waterfront.
Environmental activism is rarely straightforward, especially when it comes to regeneration of urban areas. After leaving SSBx in 2008, Carter found herself on the other side of the debate when she took on a big business client that the community saw as controversial. Whilst some accused Majora of selling out, others defended her, saying that if corporations were going to be active in the Bronx, they “would prefer a Bronx environmentalist to be guiding them.” Majora herself once said, ” If we had located our power, waste, transport, and mega-agriculture infrastructure near wealthy people like we have with poor people, we would have had a clean, green economy decades ago.. .there is a misconception that to grow our economy we will have to do business as usual, because cleaning up the environment, mitigating climate change is just too costly. Well, I say the business of poverty is just too expensive a bill for humanity to pay any longer.”
Last month, Chile created five new national parks, spanning an area the size of Patagonia. This was the culmination of more than two decades of land acquisition by Kristine Tompkins and her late husband, Douglas Tompkins, former CEO of the outdoor clothing companies the North Face and Esprit.
Kristine began her career working for Patagonia in the 1960s, when she was 15 years old and eventually became CEO. At that time, Patagonia was a niche company making technical gear for rock climbers. Recognising that manufacturing inherently causes pollution, under her guidance the company was transformed into a pioneering apparel brand with a focus on activism, donating either 1% of sales or 10% of profits—whichever was greater—to environmental causes.
Her business accomplishments were a warm-up for her conservation work. After moving to Chile from California in the early 1990s, Kristine saw that vast tracts of land in Chile and Argentina were still untouched, but in danger of being overrun by private interests, extractive industries and corporations wanting to exploit the land for quick profits. Kristine and Douglas were driven by a need to preserve this wild land while bringing in tourists and related business, to try to promote sustainable local development. They sought to create private land reserves open to the public and new national parks across South America. They let cattle ranches go wild and reintroduced native species such as pumas and jaguars.
Their approach was not always been viewed favourably. The couple were deemed a national security risk and monitored closely by the army. They faced a barrage of criticism from locals, suspicious of their motives and bristling at what they considered to be a clumsy American land grab. As one Chilean journalist said “imagine if a super-rich millionaire bought a quarter of Northern Scotland and then informed the local populace that he was keeping it for their own good, because their government couldn’t be trusted to look after it?” The couple faced wild accusations, that they wanted to replace the local cattle with American buffalo and they planned to steal Chile’s water to sell it to Africa. They were also criticised for successfully agitating to prevent a huge hydroelectric scheme.
Over the years, the couple gained the trust of locals and government officials and have handed 1 million acres over to the Chilean Government to create the national parks. As Kristine says, “all of those who love the Earth can see how the threats to wild places and creatures are growing.”
To anyone working in the sustainability sector, Caroline Lucas needs little introduction. She was the first leader of the Green Party, elected in 2008, and in 2010 she became the UK’s first Green Member of Parliament. She continues to be a highly respected voice in Westminster, campaigning on diverse issues from the NHS to building new homes.
An academic before entering politics, Caroline completed her doctorate in 1990 and then went on to spend 10 years working at Oxfam. Her CV includes a stint at the UK Department for International Development, 10 years at the European Parliament and being elected as Oxfordshire’s first Green County Councillor in the 1990s.
Caroline has always had a fierce sense of justice saying that from a young age, she could not let something go if she believed that it was unfair. Reading the book, Seeing Green by Jonathan Porritt, was her lightbulb moment, spurring her into anti-nuclear campaigning at university. She was also involved in the protests at Molesworth Common and at Greenham Common
Caroline is one of the most articulate voices of the green movement and has been instrumental in raising awareness of the green agenda in the UK. She has always maintained that “sustainability isn’t just about bolting some environmental policies to an economic system that just carries on as usual. It’s a radical critique of the system.” She also advocates on behalf of woman, fighting for more equality and diversity in parliament where only 22% of MPs are women. That statistic puts the UK in 65th place in the world, behind Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan. As Caroline says, “politics needs more women, fired up and wanting to change things.”
Juliet Davenport is the founder and CEO of Good Energy, the first utility in the UK to supply 100% renewable electricity. She is passionate about business that does good and that delivers the needs of society in a purposeful way.
Studying atmospheric physics at Oxford University sparked an interest in how weather systems affect the planet. Whilst working in research of energy systems, Juliet noted that consumers wanted to do their bit for climate change, but there was no obvious way for them to do so. The idea for Good Energy, which brings a solution for businesses to combat climate change, was born in 1999. The company was set up to answer the question “why can’t energy creation be local and energy supply be low carbon?” Juliet started off working with lots of small, independent generators who needed a route to market. Despite a inhospitable political environment for small energy generators over the last decade, Good Energy now works with around 1,400 generators across the UK, who generate power using anything from agricultural waste to solar power, wind power and hydro power. Good Energy then buys that power, uses the grid to transport it and delivers it to other businesses and people’s home.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing and Good Energy has faced hiccups over the years. Most recently, they have been embroiled in a public spat with Ecotricity over control of company shares. Nevertheless, Good Energy is a clear commercial success, with a market capitalisation of £33 million and 300 people working for the company, headquartered in Chippenham. Juliet’s vision for the future is to growth the company five fold, whilst retaining their values and entrepreneurial spirit.
Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in 2012 by the Taliban for attending classes, is the youngest ever UN Messenger of Peace; these are distinguished individuals who have agreed to help focus worldwide attention on the issues tackled by the United Nations. Accepting the prestigious accolade, Malala highlighted the importance of education, especially education of girls, for advancing communities and societies. “[Bringing change] starts with us and it should start now,” she said, adding: “If you want to see your future bright, you have to start working now [and] not wait for anyone else.”
In 2013, Malala was named one of TIME magazine’s most influential people and was also awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament. In 2014 she became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition for her campaign for education, equality and peace for every child, everywhere.
Malala is currently studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University’s Lady Margaret Hall, whilst continuing her campaign for education through the Malala Fund.
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