Celebrating women in sustainability

March was the month dedicated to women around the world, providing an ideal opportunity for Marcela Navarro, head of customer innovation at RBS, to explore the new role that is emerging for women in sustainability.

International Women’s Day on 8 March put a fantastic focus on the role that women play in all walks of life, but as the month comes to a close I would like to pay special tribute to the incredible work that women do, day in day out, in pursuit of sustainability and business. And never forget, the two are undeniably linked now green and CSR have moved from the fringes of corporate life into the heart of our boardrooms and business models.

Much has been said in recent years – quite rightly – about the growing number of women who are securing high-profile sustainability positions in major corporates around the world. Fiona Ball, head of responsible business at Sky; Bea Perez, chief sustainability officer at Coca Cola; Hannah Jones, vice president of sustainable business and innovation at Nike; and Penny Hughes CBE, chair of the Sustainability Committee at RBS are all pioneers in this space. And there are many more women now stepping onto the sustainability stage, destined to see their names up in LED lights one day too.

But leading the sustainability agenda from within a major corporate is not the only way that women in business can help shape the firm of the future. There is now another group of women leading the way in sustainability: the female innovators and entrepreneurs who are developing the products and services that large corporates need in their supply chains to help drive resource efficiency, and to bring the kind of diversity and innovation they need to tackle the sustainability challenges they face today.

True sustainability

So why are more and more women in business turning their hand to sustainability solutions? To answer this question it is worth defining what I mean by sustainability.

I believe true sustainability means being relevant to your people and your community, your business and market and above all to your customers, in the long-term and on each level. This is the original definition of sustainability. If we move away from sustainability meaning green or CSR a much more powerful definition of sustainability can re-emerge; long-term relevance. 

The more we embrace the concept of long-term relevance, the more we embrace the role that key drivers such as diversity and innovation can play in sustainability. Business and society are stronger if they are open to ‘difference’ and ‘new’. This opens the door to people asking the right questions, at the right time, about the true value of what they are doing – for people, communities and the planet – which defines the type of products and services we offer and the kind of businesses that we run. And I believe this approach to business is perfectly suited to the female psyche.

Women care about people, planet and profit. We are mothers; raising future generations. And we are suffragettes; bravely creating social change.

Innovation Gateway

If you list the traditional female qualities – empathic, humane, collaborative, honest and holistic – you start to sketch out the qualities you need to lead a sustainable business. Historically these qualities have been dismissed within the business world as soft, potentially weak and typically female. But now business is embracing diversity and social inclusion as key drivers these qualities are being valued as real commercial assets, based on very positive, tangible results.

One example of these real results, delivered by female innovators and entrepreneurs, is the RBS Innovation Gateway, an initiative I launched in March last year. Diversity and inclusion are at the heart of her concept. Technology is often seen as a male world, but not in the Gateway. The Gateway set out to help RBS save more energy, water and waste across the bank’s estate of 2,500 buildings across the UK. To find the best people and the best ideas, I wanted to open the doors at RBS to everyone, including female innovators and entrepreneurs.

Over the last 12 months the Gateway has attracted a stream of brilliant women with brilliant ideas – dedicated to the pursuit of social and environmental change. Within forty days of the Gateway launch, RBS received 141 submissions from innovators and SMEs all over the world, including one woman from Perth in Scotland, and one woman from Perth in Western Australia.

Sixteen concepts and market-ready innovations were selected for testing on the RBS estate. More innovations were selected by RBS’ corporate partners, Carillion and BaxterStorey. From the total number of successful innovations nearly 20% come from SMEs founded or co-ran by women.

Sandra Sassow

Sandra Sassow is the CEO and co-founder of SEaB Energy. Based in Southampton, SEaB is an award-winning manufacturer of small scale micro power plants – made from converted shipping containers – which use a patented microbial-based technology to convert food waste into energy.

Sandra’s innovation is rapidly building a global reputation, with awards from the UK government and the NASA-backed sustainability initiative ‘LAUNCH: Beyond Waste’. SEaB has been named as one of the most innovative, fastest growing Cleantech companies in Britain and one of five most promising women-led companies from a global pool over 100 businesses. And Sandra is now working on an exciting trial with BaxterStorey, RBS’ corporate caterers.

Here we share some of Sandra’s female words of wisdom: “Distributed power generation is changing the balance of power by allowing everyone to create their own source of energy. We are game changers in the circular economy, to make sure that everyone has access to sustainable energy in remote areas. Good people can grow and nurture themselves into challenging roles, you just need to create the space for them. I like the challenge of having to convince, create and establish something from scratch. The biggest challenge is to put your ego aside, not let your own pride get in the way, and just side step and get out of the way to ensure your reach your end goal.”

Carol McKown

Carol McKown is the CEO at RAISE Energy Solutions based in Atlanta, Georgia. Five years ago Carol saw the need for a new socially responsible energy brand, with a mission beyond just selling light bulbs. So Carol set out to make replacing old technology easy and affordable. To achieve this, RAISE is focused on educating people about environmental and social impact, inspiring companies to take responsibility for the sustainability challenges now facing people and the planet.

Carol said: “I believe that perhaps because I am a woman, I tend to look at the world from a mother’s perspective. My company is not only here to help Mother Earth, but to make the planet more liveable in a practical way for mothers around the globe. We all want the same thing for our children; a safe and healthy environment, education and opportunity. We all want our children to thrive and that is the premise behind RAISE Energy. 25% of people on the planet do not have electricity and the 75% of people who do, waste it! RAISE Energy Solutions is created to solve both problems.”

Tanya Ewing

Tanya Ewing is the CEO of Glaze & Save. Based in Perth, Tanya is a serial entrepreneur who was recently awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Technology by Edinburgh Napier University. Glaze & Save is a secondary glazing system consisting of a polycarbonate sheet held in place with magnetic strips. It eliminates draughts and reduces heat loss. Tanya and her team have just fitted 49 windows at Argyll House, a Georgian RBS building just off Regent Street in central London.

Reflecting on the role of women in the Gateway over the last 12 months, Tanya said: “Innovation and change only succeeds when there is an incredible leader at the heart of the project. The Gateway is making corporates reconsider if their ways of working are actually the best ways, and fit for purpose, and this wouldn’t have happened without Marcela.”

New possibilities

I’m honoured that a female entrepreneur of Tanya’s stature has given me such credit. Tanya, Carol and Sandra are perfect examples of the new possibilities that open up for major corporates through diversity and innovation. Corporates usually do not have the time to innovate themselves and create the disruptive ideas and technologies they need to meet their sustainability challenges. Equally, this kind of activity is traditionally seen as a risk. But by embracing diversity and innovation major corporates can bring new and different ways of working into the business in a controlled, risk-free environment. We need more diversity, and we need more female innovators and entrepreneurs who are creating sustainability solutions that are relevant, in the long term, to individuals and businesses, customers and communities.

I believe successful businesses today need the combination of purpose, partnerships, possibilities and people. Corporates with a true sense of purpose to remain relevant over time to their customers and communities have a phenomenal opportunity to create a significant number of possibilities leveraging the diversity and innovation that comes from women, like Sandra, Carol and Tanya. 

So, as the month of March comes to an end, let’s look forward to a future where diversity, innovation and sustainability take on an increasingly important role within business, and women continue to lead this new and vitally important shift in corporate culture.

Marcela Navarro is head of customer innovation at RBS. In March 2014, Marcela created and launched the RBS Innovation Gateway. which aims to help RBS save more energy, water and waste across its estate of 2,500 buildings, uncover a wave of awe-inspiring innovations and help accelerate their access to markets. Diversity and social inclusion are at the heart of the Gateway.

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