By Dean Yeh
In recent years, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has become a rising phenomenon in companies, which have begun to integrate sustainability into previously established business models. Broadly defined as a business initiative that monitors a company’s effects on environmental and social wellbeing, CSR has proven to be a beneficial practice in business operations, as companies have gained increasing comfort with and commitment to incurring short-term costs in exchange for longer-term social, environmental, and, critically, financial advantage.
In the early weeks of August, a diverse crowd convened at the Grohe Center Showroom in New York City’s Flatiron District in order to attend the GreenHomeNYC Sustainable Career Tracks event on Corporate Social Responsibility. This month, GreenHomeNYC invited a panel of four guest speakers whose careers are anchored in sustainability and who hold roles that stretch across an array of industries and professions: Heather Zanoni, Associate Advisor in Sustainability Services at KPMG; Amy Springsteel, Assistant Vice President of Corporate Responsibility at Voya Financial, Inc.; Mike Schwartz, CSR Analyst at EcoVadis; and Harry Etra, Director at CodeGreen Solutions.
Heather Zanoni: From Habitat for Humanity to the “Big Four”
As an Associate Advisor in Sustainability Services at KPMG, Heather has made her way from her first job with Habitat for Humanity in her “hometown” to one of the “Big Four” accounting firms in New York City. KPMG has their own sustainability department and also deliver sustainability consulting to their clients, helping them to “make the business case.” Additionally, as a logical extension of the firm’s expertise in corporate auditing, they also audit sustainability reporting for their clients. As the number of companies publishing CSR reports increases and the business environments in which companies operate call for greater transparency, there is a stronger and stronger need for firms like KPMG and people like Heather to review the information and data for accuracy and to ensure companies’ compliance and credibility.
Heather’s educational background includes an undergraduate degree in Architectural Studies and Urban Planning at the University of Pittsburgh. However, she was hesitant to continue this focus in graduate school due to its heavy design aspects. Returning to her earlier interests in sustainability, Heather decided to enroll at the New School in their then recently established graduate sustainability program, where she was involved in a number of projects, the most pivotal of which was the Solar Decathlon, a Department of Energy competition that produced the first net zero housing units in Washington, DC. After three years with the Stone House Group, a facilities management and engineering firm, Heather moved to New York as an Associate Advisor at KPMG, where she has been for the past year.
Heather’s advice for sustainability careerists who are graduating and entering the job market is to have patience. Because CSR is still a relatively new idea at large established firms like KPMG, graduates don’t usually get hired directly out of school. In order to successfully enter the sustainability field, she recommends
applying to many different locations in a large geographic area, without limiting the job search to just one city; broadening your horizons and applying to many different types of positions; and getting initial experience in smaller firms and then expanding based on those experiences. And don’t forget to: “Network!!! Get to know as many people as you can!”
Amy Springsteel: A Diverse Journey to a Diverse Position
A Fortune 500 financial services company, Voya helps Americans plan, invest, and protect their savings in order to better secure a financial future in retirement through investment and insurance solutions. The company has over 7,000 employees, 13 million customers, and $11 billion in revenue (2015). According to Amy, Voya Financial dropped the “S” (Social) in CSR because the company focuses on integrating responsibility throughout the entire organization, and wants to delineate this initiative from the notion of philanthropy, which already has a longstanding history within the company. Importantly, CR is company-wide commitment that goes well beyond Amy’s office. Voya Financial will launch its Four Corporate Responsibility Pillars in mid-September, which will detail the company’s diverse and far-reaching commitment to ethical, economic, social, and environmental responsibility.
Unlike Heather, Amy’s journey to her current job began before universities were offering sustainability programs, and she made many stops on her road to her current position–from education to fundraising to branding to corporate responsibility. A lifelong learner, Amy studied marketing at NYU, acquired a GRI certificate, and is currently enrolled in the first cohort of SASB’s Fundamentals of Sustainability certificate program. Still, even with all her experience and training Amy pointed to networking as key to her career successes.
Amy’s role at Voya includes developing strategies to integrate CR and helping business units and functional departments think sustainably about the ways in which they do business. Her job calls on the myriad of skills she has developed over the years, as she touches many bases in the course of an average work week: she needs to see the perspectives of both nonprofit and corporate mindsets; understand impact measurements; know how to create strategies; manage software systems; and motivate, inspire, and actively engage with other employees. And if that’s not enough, she must also be able to identify risks and opportunities; attract stakeholders; exhibit strong presentation skills; and be adept both at influencing senior management and encouraging businesses to change established policies.
Mike Schwartz: From Economics and Environmental Management to Supply Chain Consulting
EcoVadis evaluates company supply chains on how they manage their environmental, labor, and business practices and risks. Most of their clients are Fortune 500 companies, whose products can hold the potential to expose them to supplier-related environmental and labor risks, and EcoVadis strives to identify these risks and resolve them early on. The Four Pillars at EcoVadis are diverse, but also exhibit a singular focus on risk; they include Environment (Protection of Biodiversity and Natural Systems); Social (Ethical Labor Practices and Human Rights); Ethics (Fair Business Practices); and Supply Chain (Sustainable Procurement). The company’s consulting process is rigorous: it starts by collecting a list of suppliers from its clients and then reaching out to those suppliers to gather basic information. Next, suppliers receive an online questionnaire asking them to detail their supply size, industry, and geographical location, and to upload the necessary documents to help support their answers. EcoVadis collects stakeholder information from more than 500 reliable sources, and then analysts like Mike analyze the answers and audit the supporting documents. The end product is a Scorecard and Performance Monitoring, where EcoVadis ranks the suppliers’ CSR performance, and notes their strengths and weaknesses.
Mike’s education began with Economics as an undergraduate student, but his lifelong interest in the environment led him to graduate school at UC Santa Barbara for a Masters in Environmental Science and Management. After graduating with his professional degree, Mike relocated to New York, where he initially received an internship at a small company. The internship eventually turned into a full-time job that lasted two years, and then, through lots of networking, Mike made his way to EcoVadis. His single biggest piece of advice for job seekers is to “talk to every person that you meet and to do whatever you can to stay in touch with them. You never know which person could be that one connection to your first job.”
Harry Etra: From Recycling to Real Estate Consulting
CodeGreen Solutions, founded in 2005, is a national provider of LEED, sustainability planning, and energy efficiency solutions to the commercial real estate sector. Half of its employees are electrical or technical engineers, while the other half are involved in CSR consulting. Starting within the LEED program, the company built its CSR practice over time. Its engineering and sustainability services include energy and water performance, sustainability reporting, building audits/engineering services, and building certifications. In addition to their work with large real estate firms and Fortune 500 Companies, CodeGreen has also served as a technical advisor to the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. Three aspects of sustainability inform the work of CodeGreen: Environmental (Waste, water, energy, emissions, certifications, etc.); Social (Stakeholder engagement, employee satisfaction and benefits, human capital, etc.); and Governance (Corporate structure, anti-bribery, open policies, checks and balances, etc.)
Harry was an early CodeGreen employee and has been a part of its growth to more than thirty team members across the country. “Things change all the time, and sometimes you just need to wait for an opportunity to show up,” said Harry, who has always been passionate about sustainability. He recalled his early days, noting that “every picture of me from age eight to ten is doing recycling.” After graduating college (where he was instrumental in getting light bulbs upgraded in the dorms) with a degree in History, he worked for an internet marketing company. He took the LEED Green Associate Exam, networked as much as possible, and eventually found his way to CodeGreen.
What’s in Store for the Future?
As more and more companies adopt new ways to incorporate sustainability principles into their business strategies, CSR has offered a promising future for the corporate environment—and a promising future for new jobs and career paths. Heather anticipates burgeoning opportunities in ESG investment reporting and management. Harry sees a future in WELL buildings as the next frontier after LEED. Mike expects that growing numbers of startups will create new jobs. As opportunities for employment in sustainability fields continues to grow and evolve, so do educational and training programs in the field. Amy pointed to FIT’s new program in sustainable packaging as a good example. The trick is to stay informed and up-to-date, keep up with your contacts, and realize that each road to success will take a different set of turns—three factors this evening’s speakers demonstrated so well.