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Combining sustainability with your career

Mar 1, 2022

L-r: Jonathan Belair, MBA '07; Paulina Leung, HBA '04; and Sarah Chapman, BSc '10.

L-r: Jonathan Belair, MBA '07; Paulina Leung, HBA '04; and Sarah Chapman, BSc '10.

There’s no denying that sustainability is having a moment. Although the idea is far from new, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement have shifted the focus to social issues and shown that collective action can create change.

That’s why the timing couldn’t be better to consider a sustainability role, or to bring a sustainability lens to your current career. At a recent sustainability-focused Industry Insights event, Western and Ivey alumni working in roles related to sustainability encouraged the next generation of leaders to seize the opportunity.

“I feel like sustainability is what digital was pre-2000. I truly believe that people can be phenomenal leaders in sustainability by starting today. You are not behind the curve. You are not too late,” said Jonathan Belair, MBA '07. “A lot of people in leadership roles in sustainability are still learning. It’s evolving so quickly and most people can’t keep up so it’s really exciting.”

Belair is Founder and Managing Partner of LIOS Partners, a private equity firm that supports the sustainability transformation occurring within our food and agriculture system, and was one of three speakers who shared advice and highlights from their career journeys. The panel also included Paulina Leung, HBA '04, Chief Sustainability Officer at Emterra Group; and Sarah Chapman, BSc '10, Global Chief Sustainability Officer at Manulife Financial Corporation.

Insights on sustainability careers

Hosted by Ivey Alumni Relations and Western Alumni Relations, the discussion was moderated by Jenni Denniston, HBA ’04, Director of Ivey Alumni Relations. The idea for the Industry Insights series came out of a conversation with Sarah Dawson, Director, Alumni Career and Lifelong Learning at Western. 

“In light of so many people making career changes during the pandemic, we wanted to collaborate on an event highlighting what it’s like to work in one of the fastest-growing industries, and the varied career paths that one can take to be successful in them,” said Denniston. “We decided to start with conversations about technology and sustainability, and hope to do additional Insights events this year.”  

Career changes were part of the journey for some of the panellists. Chapman had been involved in neuroscience research related to concussions and, seeing the link to sports organizations’ responsibilities, pursued a PhD in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). She has since worked in advisory roles helping organizations with CSR strategies, as well as in-house consulting roles, such as her current role at Manulife where she oversees Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) standards and issues.

Belair began in investment banking and switched to private equity investing. When an opportunity arose in corporate development at McCain Foods, he saw how the company valued sustainability and tried to support its growers, and that was the impetus behind him later launching LIOS Partners.

Leung said she was tempted to pursue a more traditional business role after graduating from Ivey, but decided to join her family’s waste management company, Emterra Group, first on the business development side and now in the newly created sustainability role. She’s leading the company’s transition to a circular economy services company where it focuses on ensuring end-of-life materials are reused in downstream manufacturing processes.

The power of purpose

Although their career paths to sustainability roles may not have been linear, all the panellists told how rewarding their sustainability roles have been, and stressed that society is on the cusp of a huge shift toward sustainability.

Belair said as consumers increasingly prioritize sustainability, large organizations are starting to take action in reducing their environmental footprints and that will have a ripple effect.

“There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity to think proactively around footprint and how you engage with consumers, and stakeholders, and talent,” he said. “I think there are some really big movements that are about to happen in certain industries – food and agriculture specifically – and that will drive an important ripple effect through the value chain.”

Leung said new government regulations are creating opportunities for organizations to increase their sustainability initiatives. One example is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), a policy that makes companies financially responsible for the disposal of post-consumer products in hope of encouraging them to design products that are less toxic, more recyclable, or more durable, to avoid the waste costs.

“A lot of companies’ commitments are very much tied to regulation and that’s another really good trend happening around the world,” she said. “Government is creating a lot of new opportunities and many companies may not have gone there previously.”

And as ESG is being embedded in organizations, Chapman said sustainability will be integrated into almost every role. Already at Manulife, the concept of sustainability is integrated into day-to-day work. Some examples include the risk team assessing climate risk or the underwriting group considering how air pollution affects mortality and morbidity when thinking about life and health insurance.

She encouraged everyone to consider how they can add a sustainability lens to their roles.

“Look at being an active voice in your own organization right now. Figure out how you can embed this in your current role, whether it’s sales, marketing, communication, finance – there are so many areas that are critical to organizations’ success in their sustainability journey,” she said. “Finding in your current role that deeper purpose is something that I think is really important.”

The first event in the Industry Insights series focused on Technology and the alumni panel included Mike Andrade, BESc ’86; Laura Bryce, BA (MIT) ’07; and Patrick David, HBA ’03.

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