When the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) COO Mahesh Ramanujam joined the organization, he told senior vice president of community, conference, and events, Kimberly Lewis, that he planned to push her out of her comfort zone. “He asked me to put together my 90-day plan, my three-year plan, and my vision for building a more diverse and equitable community for the council and the movement,” Lewis recalls. “In my three-year plan, I wanted to build back the romance and acknowledge some of the leaders in the industry, knowing that I really felt that women have been a huge part of the history and the success. I really wanted to create a forum to celebrate women leaders.”
That forum took shape as the Women in Green Power Breakfast, an annual event held at Greenbuild complete with Beyonce’s girl power anthems greeting everyone at the early hour of 7 a.m., tables stocked with seasoned industry leaders and young women alike, and meaningful speakers touching on the importance of mentorship and the current barriers women in the industry face. Plus, when a professional purchases a ticket to the breakfast, a student or young professional attends for free. I caught up with Lewis to talk about the event and USGBC’s continued efforts to empower women in sustainability.
gb&d: So once you knew that you wanted some type of forum for the women in this field to come together, how did the specific idea of holding this breakfast come about?
Kimberly Lewis: As I begun to think about women within the green building movement, I realized that we’ve had a few deaths of legacy leaders. I realized that we needed to have succession planning and a connection between generations. What I was hearing from our emerging professionals and our student leaders is that there are these great global leaders that they see on the stage at Greenbuild and whose books they read and whose blogs and articles they follow, but that they don’t ever have time to connect with. That was my challenge—to try to figure out how to bring these generations together to learn, to share, and to provide an opportunity for next-generation leaders to have a place to confront today’s leaders and connect with them and create relationships and dialogue that they wouldn’t normally have. And so, with those two issues, that’s how the Women in Green Power Breakfast came together.
gb&d: And what has the response been like from some of the women that have attended the event?
Lewis: I think the biggest thing is that they want more, and the second response is that they really want USGBC to lead by example. We’re talking about women in leadership, and they want more transparency from us as far as what we’re doing and what’s next for the movement. USGBC is known as an organization that delivers on its promises through immediate, action oriented, performance. So, we as an organization have been focusing on providing platforms and opportunities for women leaders to mentor. This action, moving beyond just talk, is well worth celebrating.
gb&d: I understand that at Greenbuild 2014, there was a call to action for USGBC to do more to further bridge the gender gap within the sustainability field. Knowing this and what you just said, what other initiatives is USGBC working on with regards to women in green?
Lewis: As an organization, they want us to lead by example. We have been doing that; internally, we have provided an executive coaching platform for our middle-management leaders and our millennial students to help them get a vision and a plan for their lives and to really focus and get directed on where they’re moving as leaders. We truly believe that everyone is a leader and that everyone has a call and a purpose for their lives; that’s why they’re here at USGBC. They could be anywhere else, but they’re here focusing on the call and the mission, and so, how do we get them really focused and understanding what the journey is individually?
We’ve launched the USGBC ADVANCE Social Equity Program powered by USGBC Emerging Professionals, a framework for helping underserved and underrepresented communities in greening the places and spaces they love. USGBC-NCR Emerging Professionals held a kickSTART at Calvary Women’s Services, an organization that provides housing and education programs to homeless women in DC, to make their facility and operations more sustainable, healthy, and cost-effective, allowing them to better meet the needs of the women they serve.
We’ve also been working to support other green building councils around the world to offer conferences that convene the leaders and inspire and create the opportunity for first-class education and business within the tradeshow floor. To that end, we wanted to incorporate the global conversation for women in green, too. So we’ve launched Women in Green Power Breakfasts in Brazil, Guatemala, and just recently in Europe. It’s really empowering to be able to have that global conversation and bring our best practices and that conversation to other countries.
gb&d: Why do you think that mentorship is important in sustainability, specifically for young women?
Lewis: I think I want to go back to our vision as an organization—buildings and communities will regenerate and sustain the health and vitality of all life within a generation. I feel very strongly that women sometimes are missing in the conversation and that what’s important for me is that we continue to push that next pipeline, that next batch of young women leaders so they can take their role within the green building industry. We have to understand that without us, the movement can’t continue to go forward because we’re missing a huge population of voices, of perspectives, of diverse opportunities, and connections. Women think and work differently; we think collaboratively, and we understand how to bring the best of everyone together. For this movement to regenerate and continue to sustain, we need all hands on deck.
gb&d: What advice would you give to more established women with leadership roles in the industry with regards to being a mentor and guiding younger women toward realizing their dreams?
Lewis: We have a responsibility. Before we start saying, “This corporation isn’t creating access” or “There aren’t enough women in leadership”—each woman who does have opportunity or does have access has that opportunity to lift someone up. We need to be identifying the next influencers and the next gifts and talents that we can cultivate and shape. And it’s tough: just holding down our current positions and being able to continue to move forward and work in our own world and on our own purpose. But giving and investing isn’t convenient, and it’s not easy, but if you’re living your purpose, a part of that is giving.
In the organization’s continued effort to bridge the gender gap within the sustainability field, USGBC launched Bringing Up Girls last year—a mentorship program presented in conjunction with the Girl Scouts that starts at the beginning of the proverbial pipeline in order to build STEM-related confidence in girls at the pivotal age of 12 or 13. Here, I talk to Fleming Roberts and Cecilia Shutters—co-founders and program leads of the Bringing Up Girls program and members of USGBC’s communications team—to learn more.
b&d: How did this awesome program come about?
Cecilia Shutters: We started a little over a year ago. Fleming and I work in communications and advocacy, and we found that we were collectively having an experience where we didn’t see as many women in positions of leadership as we hoped. It became this reality we were all experiencing, so we started talking about what we could do to try and move the needle and make a change. From there, we started doing an inventory of what the state of gender equity was across our industry through conversations with different folks and realized it was a pipeline issue. We went all the way back to what we see and what research shows to be the initial problem, which is coined as the “confidence gap.” A lot of times in STEM-related conversations in schools, girls around the age of 13 start to drop off in interest and testing results within STEM fields. So we decided to dive into how to get more women into STEM professions that will ultimately lead to better outcomes. Many of the professions in the green building industry—engineering, construction, architecture—these are STEM-related fields. If there are more women in the pipeline from the beginning, that will result in better talent in our industry.
From there, we thought about how we know a lot about sustainability, but who knows a lot about girls at this age and how to develop that confidence. And, how do we connect those two? Fleming has a niece in the Girl Scouts, so we reached out to the Girl Scouts Council of the Nation’s Capital, and they were really interested. One of their big focuses is environmentalism and environmental stewardship, but it’s also in the STEM conversations and how to get girls to continue their interest in math, science, and technology.
gb&d: So how does the program work?
Fleming Roberts: We had almost 20 girls total, in and out, and 10 stuck it through to the end and were honored at Greenbuild last year. Conversations ranged from teaching them about green building and sustainability to discussing more personal issues like what it takes to be a leader and how to nurture your own confidence, and then how to connect the two: what does it mean to be a sustainability leader? Most of those meetings and conversations took place around the office; they would come in, and we’d have speakers and do activities together. We also went to Girl Scout camp with them, which was super fun. We did a gardening project and a lighting retrofit; we made s’mores in solar ovens. I think the big takeaway from all of this was that the girls got to see women represented in these STEM fields and talking about their jobs; they can be it if they can see it.
Shutters: The program itself is hinged around a Green Apple Day of Service project. The Girl Scouts were paired one-to-one with our USGBC staff mentors to develop an idea—a big, bold idea for sustainability in their communities. So they planned the project at each meeting, and at camp, we had subject matter experts who called in to answer specific questions that they had about their projects. We had someone talk about water retrofits, a landscape architect who ended up drafting some plans in response to one of the projects. It’s been really cool to connect real life professionals to the vision these girls had that we asked them to bring to the table and then to watch them actually execute those projects and engage other kids that age, and adults for that matter.
gb&d: What’s been the best part of spearheading and participating in this?
Roberts: We realized how much people, particularly women, want to help each other and that help is there if you want to reach out for it. It is a lot to ask your colleagues to come in several Saturdays, but they were so willing to do it and so happy to do it. It’s the type of thing that makes you take it back to your own life; there are probably women who would help me if I were to ask. It’s been a really interesting culture of giving that we’re taking away and realizing exists. Seeing our colleagues watch their mentees speak about their project to the group, and their eyes are just full of such pride and adoration, it’s really cool.