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Last autumn, Karen Weigert, the new sustainability executive in residence at Chicago Booth’s Rustandy, assembled a panel of experts for the first Perspectives in Sustainability, a three-part series cohosted with Booth’s Career Services.

“At Booth more and more students are interested in sustainability, climate change, use of natural resources, and the world around us,” said Caroline Grossman, ’03, director of programs at the Rustandy Center and adjunct assistant professor of strategy. “That interest was the impetus for creating the Rustandy Center’s sustainability executive in residence role—so Karen Weigert can challenge Booth students to grapple with issues plaguing our planet, and to better understand where and how the business world can plug in to help.”

Weigert is the first-ever chief sustainability officer for the City of Chicago, current vice president of business strategy and regional operations at Slipstream, and nonresident senior fellow on global cities at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. 

At the first event in the series, Weigert and the panelists dissected the relationship between sustainability and economic growth. “You will be hard-pressed to find the kind of announcement that the mayor makes around sustainable energy that doesn’t include a job opportunity,” said Chris Wheat, ’10, the former chief of policy to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and now the director of strategy and city engagement for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s American Cities Climate Challenge. Innovation can lead to industrial development and job growth.

Panelist Brian Kramer, director of global sustainability at PepsiCo, added that a focus on sustainability can help make strides in technology and human rights. As an example, he described technology that could make it easier to identify forced labor and poor working conditions by getting an understanding of situations from remote workers or rural farmers using WeChat and worker voice technologies. “Those types of quick poll surveys can give us a lot of new information and get into areas where individuals may otherwise not be comfortable communicating,” said Kramer.

Sustainability issues cannot be solved solely on the supplier side; consumers have a role to fill as well. Trying to change how consumers behave is not always easy, Weigert said, and consumers may not understand the full impact of their actions—for example, they might think their recycling habits are more sustainable than they actually are. To resolve these gaps in knowledge, panelists encouraged increased communication between suppliers and consumers as a form of engagement and outreach.

Achieving sustainability goals can require utilizing the skills of people who may not necessarily have a background in sustainability. Wheat told the audience that he initially worked in management consulting. “I walked in and they said, ‘Chris, your first project is going to be working on energy.’ I said, ‘OK.’

“I don’t know anything about energy,” he revealed. 

Despite this, the skills he learned from his Booth education helped him succeed. “The classes that I use most from my time at Booth are Managerial Decision-Making and Managing in Organizations,” said Wheat. “I had great finance classes and great economics classes, but how you influence, how you speak, how you write become the critical elements.” 

Lauren Magnusson, ’15, who works in environmental, social, governance (ESG), trust and transparency at Walmart, suggested taking an analytical mind-set into sustainability work—using metrics and measurement to set reasonable goals. “Coming from Booth, you’re equipped with an analytical skill set from the get-go,” she said. “So take that to these conversations where people want to make big statements, and ask: Are we going to commit to this and set goals? How are we going to track progress?”

The Perspectives in Sustainability series, which also covered supply chain, retail, and food topics, served as a primer for Booth students who planned to participate in sustainability-focused business plan competitions in the 2019 Spring Quarter. 

“These are not challenges that arose in five minutes,” Weigert said. “They are not challenges that will be solved in five minutes. But a good [couple of] hours with some smart people can get you started.”

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