Season 2 - Ep. 16 | Daring to Build a More Sustainable World with Kate Brandt and Sophia Mendelsohn

Redefiners Podcast
Hosted By:
September 07, 2022 | 36 min
Our guests
Kate Brandt, Chief Sustainability Officer, Google
Sophia Mendelsohn, Chief Sustainability Officer and Global Head of Environmental Social Governance (ESG), Cognizant

Sustainability has quickly risen to the top of corporate agendas as shareholders, investors, employees, policy makers, and other stakeholders demand action against climate change. Yet only 26% of employees believe their organization has a clear sustainability strategy, according to our research at Russell Reynolds Associates. In this episode, we talk with not one, but two passionate leaders in the corporate sustainability space—Kate Brandt, Chief Sustainability Officer at Google and Sophia Mendelsohn, Chief Sustainability Officer and Head of ESG at Cognizant—about how they’re leading by example at two of the world’s biggest tech companies.

Both came to the CSO role in very different ways. For Kate, it was exploring the tidepools and redwood forests of her native Muir Beach, California before working for the Obama administration. For Sophia, it was working in export manufacturing in China and seeing firsthand how consumer demand could reshape markets. Yet both are united in their mission to embed sustainability into their organizations’ reasons for being.

Here’s a taste of what you’ll hear from Sophie and Kate in this episode, in their words (edited for length and clarity):

Kate and Sophia’s Redefiner Moments: From the White House to the interview room

KB: One of the greatest defining roles in my career was when President Obama got elected in 2008. I had the privilege of working on his campaign, and like so many people, went to Washington right after the election to find if there was an opportunity for me to contribute. I was part of the transition team and then, in the very early days of the 2009 White House, joined his climate and energy team. That is still one of the most defining moments of my career.

SM: I was in a really pivotal job interview. The interviewer asked, "If you get this job, how are you going to reduce our impact on climate change?" And I said, "That's the wrong question. Your first question should be, 'How can we reduce climate change’s impact on our business?'”

Because answering that question will require you to know what elements of your value chain and strategy are most at risk. And knowing that will provide the business case to get back to your original question.

I looked over at my future boss's face from across the room and I realized that was an opportunity for sustainability practitioners to really redefine the business dialogue on this topic from altruism to practicality.

On the role of the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO)

SM: Part of the role of the Chief Sustainability Officer is to be able to look at data beyond the quarter. You're constantly driving towards running the business for the foreseeable future and its long-term value proposition. You're pulling in data from all these different places: the climate change data, a lot of which comes from Google, its geographical products and data sets, as well as shifting consumer preferences. And these two data sets together make the full story. One data set is the earth and what it's telling you. And one data set is the human response to that—what your consumers and clients are going to want in the future. The more we see the manifestations of the climate crisis, the more we're going to see a shift in consumer preferences.

KB: I have the privilege of working with our CEO, Sundar, and his team, and many other leaders across the company. And what we really think about is, how do we lead at Google, but also, how do we support our partners? How do we enable everyone? And I think that vision is critical and unifying for us. It speaks to how we think of ourselves as a company, our core mission of organizing the world's information and making it universally accessible and useful.

For me, it's about continuing that longstanding dialogue and how we've thought about sustainability strategically at Google, and placing it at the core of our role in the world and how we want to show up for our users.

On advice for others looking towards a career in sustainability

KB: The number one thing I always say is that there is not one path to these roles. And I think that's actually a good thing, because given the breadth and depth required to do this work, we need people with really varied skill sets. I've had the privilege of working with sustainability leaders who come from engineering backgrounds, who come from business backgrounds, who come from policy backgrounds. In fact, I think the thing that has served me the best is coming from a diverse background—of having worked in the public and private sectors, having had different opportunities to work on these very complex systems-level challenges—and then bringing that into these roles.

SM: Sometimes I feel like the chief sustainability officer is constantly trying to give their job away. And I say this to young people because I don't want everyone gunning to be a professional sustainability practitioner. What we want is everyone gunning to bring sustainability into their professional career. The second thing I say is buckle up. It's a wild ride. It may feel like moonshots and long-term goals and getting to work on your passion, and it is, but it's also the day-to-day grind of constantly testing yourself and your sustainability strategy to make sure you are bringing long-term value on a day-to-day basis.



Kate Brandt
Chief Sustainability Officer, Google

Kate Brandt serves as Google’s Chief Sustainability Officer and leads sustainability across Google’s worldwide operations, products and supply chains.  In this role, Kate partners with Google’s data centers, real estate, supply chain, and product teams to ensure the company is capitalizing on opportunities to strategically advance sustainability.

Previously Kate served as the Nation's first Federal Chief Sustainability Officer. In this capacity, she was responsible for promoting sustainability across Federal Government operations including 360,000 buildings, 650,000 vehicles, and $445 billion annually in purchased goods and services.

Prior to the White House, Kate held several senior roles in the U.S. Federal Government including Senior Advisor at the Department of Energy, Director for Energy and Environment in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, and Energy Advisor to the Secretary of the Navy.

Kate is the recipient of the Distinguished Public Service Award, the highest award the U.S. Navy can give to a civilian, for her work helping the Navy go green. Fortune Magazine named Kate to their 40 Under 40 list in 2021 and Outside Magazine also named her, in honor of the magazine’s 40-year anniversary, as one of 40 women who has made the biggest impact on our world.

Kate serves on the boards of EVgo, BSR, Restor, and the Corporate Eco Forum.

Kate received a Masters degree in International Relations from the University of Cambridge where she was a Gates Cambridge Scholar. She graduated with honors from Brown University.

Sophia Mendelsohn
Chief Sustainability Officer and Global Head of Environmental Social Governance (ESG), Cognizant

Sophia Mendelsohn is the Chief Sustainability Officer and Global Head of Environmental Social Governance (ESG) for Cognizant, one of the world's leading professional services companies, transforming clients' business, operating and technology models for the digital era. Sophia is responsible for leading the integration of ESG considerations into the company’s thinking, decisions and actions.

Cognizant’s vision is to become the preeminent technology services provider to the leaders of the world’s Global 2000 companies. The company’s ESG program is an important part of achieving that vision and aligns with clients’ and investors’ increasing focus on ESG.

Prior to joining Cognizant in 2020, Sophia was the first Chief Sustainability Officer at JetBlue Airways, Head of Sustainability at Haworth and held an ESG role at the Jane Goodall Institute in Shanghai, China.

Sophia has been recognized for her leadership and commitment to corporate citizenship, receiving the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Leadership Award in 2016, and the Climate Leader of the Year award by Ethical Corp. In 2020, she was named one of the top 30 people leading the climate charge by Bloomberg.

Sophia speaks Mandarin Chinese, serves on boards and advisory councils and holds a Master of Science in Sustainable Management from Columbia University.

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If you’d like to learn more about Sustainable Leadership, check out Redefiners host Clarke Murphy’s new book, Sustainable Leadership: Lessons of Vision, Courage, and Grit from the CEOs Who Dared to Build a Better World. With stories from 35+ CEOs at world-leading companies, including  Adidas, Heineken, Duke Energy, Natura & Co, Maersk, Mahindra Steel, and Salesforce, Sustainable Leadership is essential reading for for sustainability experts, entrepreneurs, and next-generation leaders in addition to CEOs and boards across industries. Order your copy here.

If you like this episode, you may also enjoy our conversation with Aurélia Nguyen , Managing Director of the Office of the COVAX Facility.

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