Tony Christopher Costa Rica Summer '07 traveled to Switzerland, Boston, and China last year to represent aluminum giant Alcoa on the "Future Leaders Team" of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). At the meeting, he and the other members of this elite training program worked to create a roadmap for reaching a sustainable world by 2050.
While Christopher was chatting on the balcony during a break in Shanghai with team participants Rainy Shorey from Caterpillar and Daniel Lieberman from Chevron, the conversation turned to international travel and study abroad. Christopher mentioned he had been on an SFS program in Costa Rica while an undergraduate at Denison University, and he discovered that both Shorey and Lieberman had studied with SFS in Kenya, albeit in different years (Shorey in summer 1996 and Lieberman in spring 1999).
This chance alumni reunion may seem surprising, especially considering that the 28 group members come from 28 different companies and 14 countries, but it is not unusual to see SFS alumni at the forefront of environmental leadership. Since 1981, nearly 15,000 students from universities across the U.S. with a keen interest in the natural world have studied with SFS at field stations around the world.
"I wanted to get my hands dirty and get some research experience. The SFS program was highly recommended by students and by the environmental studies program at Denison,"" said Christopher, now a business analyst for sustainable products at Alcoa and MBA candidate at Case Western Reserve. ""I had an amazing time. I remember one Saturday morning we went to do some volunteer tree planting. We ended up hiking up a small mountain with no trails; there was just a guide with a machete in front of the group. We were hoisting each other over rocks and after two or three hours, we reached an old coffee plantation and we began planting. It was an experience that built a lot of teamwork and camaraderie for the rest of the summer and gave us a pretty great view of the country."
SFS field station sites are based in rural and often remote locations, and students have the opportunity to work side-by-side with local community members on urgent problems. "When working on a big picture concept like 'Vision 2050' with the Future Leaders Team," said Christopher, "having a fundamental understanding of how things work on a local level really helped. Living in a small town in Costa Rica and studying with SFS allowed me to see how large scale decisions and trends, like government regulations and the global marketplace, affect daily life there."
"In 1996, we didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about sustainable development the way we do now, but I was interested in how we could make doing what is environmentally correct valuable, both economically and socially," said Shorey, environmental health and safety manager at Caterpillar. "Resources are finite and people have real economic needs, so how can you make it valuable for people who live in an ecosystem to protect it?"
"I learned in Kenya that sustainable use was more realistic than strict conservation," said Shorey. After discussing the plight of farmers with crops destroyed and family members killed by elephants, she realized that there must be a balance between protection and use of natural resources. "How do you tell this farmer that elephants are more important than his family?"
Post SFS, Shorey received her PhD in fisheries and wildlife biology from Michigan State University, conducting research on genetic diversity in Canada on ross and snow geese and working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service to manage continental goose populations. She came to Caterpillar in 2007 to join their environmental, health and safety group, working on both local and global projects. "The private sector was less familiar to me than academic and governmental sectors, but the issues and people are the same. Businesses are now not only looking at how to pay for internal environmental projects, they are now seeking out the business advantages and opportunities in sustainable development."
Reflecting on how his time studying with SFS in Kenya influenced his career path, Lieberman said he had an "increased interest in resource management and development issues and became dedicated to working on issues that could make life better for future generations." His most poignant memories from Kenya are from the time he spent in the local community, building a road to bolster anti-erosion efforts and reading stories in English to a standing room only audience of children at the nearby schoolhouse.
Upon his return from SFS Kenya to Brandeis University in 1999, Lieberman took an interest in the emerging evidence on greenhouse gases and the possibilities of implementing a cap and trade system. His thesis on the topic landed him a position at a consulting company, where he provided technical assistance to companies and governments in Africa and Europe. When the European Union announced plans to commence emissions trading in 2005, he advised post-communist Eastern and Central European countries on how to best prepare for participation. In 2007, after receiving an MBA from George Washington University, he joined energy giant Chevron to advise the corporation and its subsidiaries on greenhouse gas management, working to incorporate carbon considerations in investment decisions. "I help our global businesses become more proactive about recognizing the risks associated with greenhouse gas emissions, and I contribute to better, more comprehensive, decision-making. Of course, measuring and reducing our life-cycle footprint is a big part of that."
Greenhouse gases and cutting carbon emissions were frequent discussion topics during the WBCSD Future Leaders Team meetings, along with other sustainability issues like water efficiency and transportation, as participants grappled with how an expanding population can thrive in a resource-constrained world. The program kicked-off at the WBCSD annual meeting in April 2010 in Montreux, Switzerland. Participants then worked on individual and group projects, meeting up again in Boston to work with experts in innovation from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the final meeting in Shanghai, the projects were presented to the WBCSD council members, which include CEOs from 200 major corporations.
“The Future Leaders Team is a training program, but it is also an opportunity for emerging business leaders to network, learn from one another, and contribute to their own companies,” said Lieberman.