As a teacher, I am motivated by helping people find ways to use their skill sets to be part of the solution. All of my students feel strongly about how they can help the future of the planet. - Terri Walters, SRS Division Faculty, Leeds School of Business and President, Katevan Consulting, LLC
The number of sustainability consulting and corporate ESG roles is growing rapidly. The Leeds SRE Certificate and SRS Track prepare undergraduate students for these jobs through classes such as Sustainable Operations and Fundamentals of Ethical Leadership, which train them in the key issues and skills needed to drive sustainable change in the business world. Learn more about the program from a current faculty, who herself is a sustainability consultant, and a recent graduate now working at one of the Big 4 on their ESG team.
Lily Burdick (MSBA'21, with the SRE Certificate)
ESG Consultant at a BIG 4 firm
Why did you choose to work in ESG consulting?
I majored in accounting and I wanted to use my skills in a career that felt meaningful. ESG is a large idea with the potential to make an impact at a level where it really matters. Personal responsibility for recycling, composting and riding my bike matters, but the corporate level is where the majority of negative impacts are developed so that is where I wanted to focus.
What skills did you develop in school that you use in your work?
One thing that is overarching is leadership. In the ESG space there is no place for people who aren't willing to be outspoken, lead, go into new territory, or step up. You have to be able to stand up for what you believe is the right path of action and guide others and take them with you.
Was there a class that you found most helped prepare you for your current role?
Integrated Reporting, which I call "accounting for sustainability". If they wrote a text book on how to do my job it could be used for that class. I use what I learned in that course every single day.
Other sustainability classes gave me interesting perspectives and have helped me distinguish myself from others. From Sustainable Venturing I learned how to work with smaller groups that don't have a lot of funding. The SRE Certificate helped me develop subject matter knowledge and allows me to speak to ESG more confidently as a broader topic.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
My role gives me a clear idea of how I can progress along a clear path. I was in the first group of campus hires to join the ESG and Sustainability team at my company. It was the first time they had hired college students and I came into the team at a unique time. When I joined, the entire team was 20. It is now over 100 and on track to be at 400+. I was able to connect with the people who built the team when it was still small. What I work on now is experiencing as much as I possibly can in this role.
What are your most and least favorite things about your role?
My favorite part is getting to do something different every day. I am not sure any two days have been the same. I also love the fact that I get to learn so much. That is also the pain point for me because of how fast the industry is changing. I never feel like I’m at the top, which excites and empowers me and also exhausts me.
Why are ESG work opportunities growing now?
My company wants to be first to market and to make the biggest investment in ESG consulting because it is urgent to slow down global warming. My team is not focused on the negatives, but on what we can do now. If you look at the other pillars of ESG, there is a movement across society to focus more on social impact, too. Mental health, DEI, human rights, and more are all part of the conversation now in ways they didn’t used to be. Some of this comes from the new proposed climate rules from the SEC which are pushing businesses to include ESG as part of their strategy. ESG is increasingly ingrained in everything we do. It used to be that ESG was its own business entity but now it is hard to succeed in any career with having that focus.
What advice do you have for current students?
The field is changing all the time. Keep your eye on articles, watch the news, read everything that comes out.
SRS Division Faculty, Leeds School of Business and President, Katevan Consulting, LLC
You started in sustainability consulting before it was in such high demand. Why did you choose this field?
I have a technology and politics background and worked with governments to develop policies, whether in pursuit of cleaner air or supply chain risk management, that used technologies to solve important problems. So my focus has been broadly on how to leverage a range of technologies across different markets to make our world more sustainable. Energy is core to our economy so I work on that issue quite a lot.
Tell me about your Sustainable Operations class and how it prepares students?
My goal is to help students understand the different elements within business that affect decisions around sustainability and how they impact one another, such as the relationship between reducing energy use and increasing profitability. I want students to get a sense of what they are going to see when they get into the workforce with companies having to explain their climate risks.
There are so many elements that contribute to sustainability, it can be difficult working with a company to get the full picture of how things are interrelated. Students are often surprised at how many things can be impacted by ESG work across businesses' value chain. Often solutions have synergies where one approach can solve multiple problems. To get those kinds of opportunities you have to understand the broader issues. The SRE Certificate does a good job providing that perspective.
What is one core skill students need for this work?
Being able to track where things are coming from and put some numbers around them, whether you are looking at energy use or climate risk, is critical. This comes down to some quant skills and comfort with spreadsheets.
Companies may say they are not energy focused but there are a lot of companies that have an energy footprint from their buildings, lights, and computers. These kinds of opportunities can fall through the cracks unless someone recognizes that they are business operation and finance/budget level issues. For instance, being able to show how saving energy impacts both carbon use and the money associated with that. It is easier to make your case to management if you have the numbers.
What are the challenges of going into sustainability consulting and ESG work?
We are talking about an area where there has been disruption and lots of innovation so I focus on teaching the issues and how to think critically about opportunities. Students need to be able to analyze, research and look at what's out there critically while keeping their goals in mind. In Sustainable Operations I give students the big picture and the tools to assess new opportunities through case studies of people who have been disruptive, and hands-on practice with tools like life cycle assessments.
What are your favorite things about your role?
I love being able to jump in, problem solve and move things forward in an industry while at the same time knowing I am doing something that is helping humanity and the planet. Knowing that what I am doing everyday is moving in the right direction is really rewarding.
Why are ESG work opportunities growing now?
What I see as the pivot point was the Paris agreement and the formal pledges that came out of that accord. Organizations were built up to put specific numbers and credibility around these and a substantial portion of Fortune 500 companies now have tangible public pledges. More recently, the SEC proposed rules that would require disclosures around climate related risks, across a company’s entire supply chain. This shifts what has been largely voluntary toward a requirement and puts companies in a new position of looking beyond their traditional business lines. The job growth both within those companies, and as a consulting field, is needed to help businesses move forward.
The pressure on business is coming from all directions. Increasingly, corporations have employees who believe sustainability measures are the right thing to do. Surveys consistently show consumers are willing to spend more for environmentally friendly products and to shop at places that share their values. Businesses that get ahead of this are able to position themselves better in terms of that market. Investors see that it's good business to move forward with ESG goals because it makes a company more energy efficient and gives it more control over the supply chain.
What advice do you have for current students?
The work of improving sustainability has to come from the private sector. Businesses are the way that this is going to move forward and the companies that are most successful are putting ESG at the center of their business strategy. Understand where the impacts are and where the opportunities are, then figure out how possible solutions apply to the bottom line.