MS Student Takes Sustainability to the Skies

by |March 6, 2014

MS in Sustainability Management student Sophia Mendelsohn

As head of sustainability for JetBlue Airways, current Master of Science in Sustainability Management student Sophia Mendelsohn is responsible for reducing the environmental impact of one of the largest airlines in North America. While this can be a challenge, the financial and scientific skills she has gained through the program provide her with a solid foundation upon which to base the company’s sustainability initiatives.

1. What is your current job and what are the responsibilities associated with your position? 

As head of sustainability for JetBlue Airways, I am responsible for creating and executing organizational changes that reduce our environmental impact. JetBlue is preparing to lead the industry in a world with reduced natural resources. The strategies I set are all expected to return financial and natural resource savings. I execute shifts designed to focus JetBlue’s corporate culture on sustainability, shape customers’ connection to the brand, and prepare the airline to address climate change’s potential consequences. These actions save jet fuel, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and lessen our waste output and energy consumption.

2. What drew you to the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program?

Leading a sustainability function in a corporation means demonstrating how environmental considerations are synonymous with financial safety. I applied for the MSSM program to help me do that, by strengthening my science and finance skills. Having a solid scientific understanding of climate change (including water cycles and the physics of greenhouse-gases) means I can lobby senior leaders for bold action on these issues effectively. Deepening my financial sophistication means I can work with colleagues to prepare business cases that answer and satisfy questions and requirements, before they are even asked.

3. What inspired you to work in sustainability? 

I worked and lived in China for a decade, where I saw first-hand the social consequences of financial decisions — all of which materializes in environmental quality. China’s economic boom lifted nearly a billion people to a higher standard of living, aiming to catch up with industrialized countries’ consumption. I actively participated in this, running factories in China, procuring materials like wood and chemicals. It became obvious that the short-term gains had long-term consequences and a national, collective action was needed. Sustainability work is that action.

4. What has been your biggest challenge associated with sustainability in your current position?

In general, the largest challenge all sustainability officers face is the political polarization of topic. This creates “supporters” and “doubters” in companies, and can relegate the topic to a periphery subject. Sustainability workers must prove to the corporate landscape that climate change policy is not the same as environmental policy, and that natural resource conservation is a social and financial benefit. At all costs, we must stop associating sustainability planning with “saving the earth” and “going green.”

5. What has been your biggest accomplishment associated with sustainability in your current position?

At JetBlue I have brought sustainability into the culture, joining it with corporate social responsibility so that both seamlessly become the face of JetBlue’s overall responsibility platform and social “license to operate.” This takes the form of bring sustainability up to the level and attention of the CEO and his teams; integrating the topic into their everyday thinking, speeches and goals, all of which filters down to command change. I established a closed-loop recycling system for over 50 airports (in our 84-city network) and 400-plus flights a day. The system collects up to 30 million cans and bottles a year, saving JetBlue money while capturing valuable aluminum and plastic. I created a self-financing composting system in our major airports, keeping an estimated 300 lbs. of compost out of landfills, where it would otherwise produce greenhouse gases. I have also added required and weighted questions on sustainability to all our outgoing supply-chain requests for proposals.

6. What is an example of how you have applied something specific you have learned in the program thus far to your job?

Earth’s Climate Systems with Professor Benjamin Cook was immediately relevant to my work. This class helps you understand and summarize climate change science. I adapted slides and papers from this class for CEO presentations, JetBlue press releases, and public statements. I can’t recommend the course enough.

7. What is your favorite class in the MSSM program so far and why?

Again, Professor Cook’s Earth’s Climate Systems was my favorite course because of its immediate applicability.  Through this course students can understand climate change on multiple more levels than the average internet or news source allows. That means one can speak with a sense of authority on the topic in your average meeting room and conference panel (being careful to know your boundaries, of course).

8. How do you intend to utilize your degree from the MSSM program in furthering your career?

I will use it to continually add financial metrics and scientific frameworks to JetBlue’s sustainability programs and strategies.

9. What tips do you have for your fellow students who are looking for a job in sustainability?

Be prepared to talk about the change-management, diplomacy, and negotiations skills that sustainability leadership requires. (At this point, every hiring manager expects that you will be able to justify the business case and return on investment).

10. What do you think is the most beneficial aspect of the MSSM program with regard to your career?

Access to Columbia’s professors immediately proved to be a valuable and otherwise hard-to-find resource for consulting on policy, regulatory positions, and public-speaking. In the long-run, the network and reputation of the MSSM program will enhance my legitimacy and reach.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Continuing Education, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more.    


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