How these four women in sustainability kick-started their careers

women in sustainability walking through field
Photo credit: Holly Mandarich via Unsplash

I was ten years old when Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth ignited a widespread sense of urgency about the climate crisis for an entire generation. Years later, I credit this film for initially inspiring me to pursue a career in sustainability. You may resonate with this story — a Ted Talk, volunteer trip, or other experience that ignited a determination to use your skills for good in the world.

A lot has changed since that documentary first aired over a decade ago. The climate crisis has worsened, the sustainability industry has grown, and companies increasingly acknowledge their role and responsibility (and my climate shero is now @greengirlleah — see intersectional environmentalism). Although purpose-driven jobs have proliferated in the past decade, breaking into the space still isn’t easy, especially if you don’t know exactly what kind of position you’re looking for. 

As a young professional woman, I look up to the many accomplished women in sustainability for inspiration and guidance. I connected with four women leading the sustainability charge in different industries to gather some insights on how they got where they are today. Here’s what I learned.

Winding pathways to a sustainability career

Many in the corporate sustainability space would agree — there isn’t one path you must take in order to pursue a values-driven career. Lindy Mockovak, Senior Director of Purpose and Social Impact Communications at VISA advises, “there are many ways in [to the space] and different career paths, so explore them all to see what is most exciting and where your unique skill-set will be best put to use.”

      • Embed sustainability in your current role

Working in sustainability doesn’t mean it has to be a part of your initial job description. Andi Trindle Mersch, Director of Coffee, Tea, and Sustainability at Philz Coffee, shared that sustainability has been an official part of her job for two years, although she’s always been passionate about the subject. “My background and experience are predominantly in specialty coffee, but there was a point in my career I actively wanted to switch into something more CSR-oriented,” explained Mersch. “Philz is a values-led company, so coupled with my 23-years in wholesale specialty coffee, I was able to step into a role where I could actively push for things like a green coffee supply chain.”

      • Take advantage of the strong sustainability community

Of course, not everyone has two decades of experience to back a new initiative at work. Alison von Schlieder, Chief Of Staff, Sustainability and Foundation at Autodesk, recalls that at the beginning of her career journey “there were so many complexities and barriers to entering into sustainability,” but networking was critical to her experience. During undergrad, she was a chapter leader for Net Impact, the organization from which she ended up listening to James Curleigh (former President & CEO of KEEN Shoes) speak at a conference about his windy path to sustainability. This event was the springboard from which she definitively committed to finding a job aligned with her values.

Facing (and overcoming) barriers to entry

While finding a job in this space may not always be straightforward, there are steps you can take to help prepare yourself for success. Two key pieces of advice these women offered was to stay open to learning opportunities and to work for a company that aligns with your values.

      • Learn something new

Mockovak said one of the biggest challenges to landing her first sustainability job was that she “completed a liberal arts undergraduate degree, and did not have a background in environmental studies or a technical degree.” In order to pivot her experience and broaden her network, she pursued a graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of International Public Affairs, with a focus on environmental and energy studies.

      • Work for a values-led company

Tori Callahan, Head of Sustainability and Stakeholder Impact at Classy.org, received a degree in journalism and first worked as a staff writer for a newspaper in New Hampshire. One day, she saw a Craigslist ad for a marketing internship with a newly established online fundraising platform for nonprofits in San Diego. “I flew across the country for an internship… I wasn’t super acquainted with the nonprofit sector growing up, but what clicked for me was using storytelling as a way to support a values-led organization.” Now, nine years later, she’s leading the company’s corporate impact work, including their process of becoming a Certified B Corporation.

Closing advice for a purpose-driven career 

All four of these women in sustainability seemed to agree, it’s essential to continuously embed learning and networking in your sustainability career journey. The industry has a strong network, and these many testified that the relationships they built contributed to their advantage. “I used to show up to every single learning event. I volunteered at a lot of conferences, created a network, made friends. Then, years later, I was paid to be there, teaching the event,” recalls Mersch. 

And finally, be broad in defining sustainability or impact. “You can get a job at XYZ values-led company, and maybe move to a different team when you show your work ethic and passion you bring with you,” advises von Schlieder. Focusing on one company or job title might distract from other opportunities for people with a sense of purpose. These women stepped into their roles with experience in areas other than social impact. Wherever you are in your sustainability or social impact career journey, remember that companies need change-makers like you. Keep learning, attend sustainability networking events (there are plenty of virtual ones), and continue to fuel your passion to better the world.