How Women Get Green Jobs (#1): Cast the Net

I’m often asked how to get a job in the sustainability arena. So I decided to put the question to someone who should really know.

“There are opportunities everywhere…and there’s a role for everyone,” answered Nancy Sutley, who, as Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), arguably holds the top sustainability job in the US—that of advising the US President on environmental sustainability.

Like so many of us, the CEQ chief, who recently keynoted WNSF’s West Coast Summit, didn’t train formally for the position. Instead, armed with an MA in public policy, she moved from the private sector to government, from Washington, DC to Los Angeles and back—as one thing led to another and another.

The main thing, Ms. Sutley advised me, is that “there’s a ton of things to do in government at all levels, in business or businesses looking to break into this field. There’s lots of investment in energy, new forums, nonprofits, the environment. Cast a wide net.”

In my experience, Ms. Sutley’s counsel is both optimistic—and realistic. There are many ways to skin a cat. For instance, I started by forging a sustainability ‘beat’ as a business journalist; then building a sustainability communications practice, while drawing on my earlier academic career to create and teach university-level sustainability curricula; then co-founding and running the nonprofit WNSF (that’s the short version).

Three popular routes to sustainability work include: landing a mainstream job in something seemingly unrelated, like human resources or information technology, and building sustainability practices into it; going (back) to school for a degree or a ‘sustainability certificate;’ creating your own sustainability job.

Meet Cynthia Cheak, Annika Jensen-Lamka and Susan Reeve, each of whom exemplifies (at least) one of those paths. All three women just completed the executive certificate program at San Francisco-based Presidio Graduate School of Sustainability Management, where, as a member of the advisory council, I recently participated in the program’s master class, as each student shared inspiring results of a final project:

Ms. Reeve, a former international program director, has started an environmental nonprofit organization from scratch, raising $100,000 so far. Ms. Jensen-Lamka, a fulltime PR executive, fabricated a course-long project to launch a business making eco-friendly toys and dog beds from recycled materials; after her skeptical husband ran the numbers, he’s urging her on to make it a reality. Ms. Cheak, a former program manager at Dell, chose one of three job offers at a third-party logistics company, Jabil Inc., where she can parlay her program management and IT background to help embed sustainability practices into the company.

Whether starting your own firm, joining one that already exists or blending the two, “Be an entrepreneur,” counsels Jacquelyn Ottman, author of recently released The New Rules of Green Marketing. “Get some freelancing skills–proposal writing, lead generation, project management, and figure out how to make it on your own.” She’s successfully forged that path for about two decades.

From my own experience, I’d advise five L’s:

  • Lead with your talents
  • Lean on your strengths
  • Learn everything you can
  • Look for friends
  • Listen to your heart

Or, as the CEQ’s Ms. Sutley coaches: “It’s about finding what interests you.”

Tell Us: What’s your road to sustainability?

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