When Jessica Wingert came to Fuqua for her MBA (Class of 2014), she knew from the outset that she wanted to transition into a corporate sustainability career after graduation. Through diligent networking, she landed a position as the first Sustainability Manager for Land O’ Lakes. Now, she runs the company’s sustainability programs for facilities and operations nationwide. Her passion for making the food and ag sector more sustainable globally drives her to keep pushing the sustainability agenda with Land O’ Lakes and its supply chain partners.
We asked Jessica about her career to date in this Q&A.
What sparked your interest in sustainability?
I went to Georgetown for my undergraduate degree, and Washington DC just has such a social impact focus. There are so many ways to get involved. It really piqued my interest. When I came to business school, I was really excited about the opportunity to make change happen from the corporate realm. Overall, I love this mix of corporate sector and sustainability and impact.
What was the most exciting project you’ve done at Land O’ Lakes?
Just as I joined Land O’ Lakes, one of our dairy manufacturing sites achieved ISO 50001 certification (the energy management certification), and also received a Superior Energy Performance silver certification. We were the first dairy manufacturing company in the U.S. to be certified, so that was a really exciting moment for our company. But we didn’t have the resources to go through that same process with every one of our other dairy manufacturing locations. So, my big project was to take a close look at ISO 50001 certification requirements, figure out which components were most relevant and meaningful for our facilities, and then create our own version of an internal energy management system, which we rolled out to all dairy manufacturing locations across the country. It’s been in place for two years now, and it continues to evolve. To make it a more holistic system, we’re adding water management into the program in 2018 so it won’t solely be focused on energy anymore.
Why should future MBAs get involved in sustainability?
I think it’s going to be increasingly rare for MBAs to end up at companies that don’t have some sort of sustainability platform in the future, and I think being able to really understand the unique sustainability challenges and priorities for businesses is going to be a differentiator for MBAs as they are being considered for employment. Even if the role you’re looking at is not technically in the sustainability function, it’s going to be important that you understand sustainability issues.
What is the future looking like for sustainability and Land O’ Lakes?
We have a farm focus at Land O’ Lakes, and water is a really big part of that. We’re a farmer-owned co-op, which is a pretty unique setup compared to a lot of other companies. Because of this, we have a unique opportunity to build relationships with our producers. “Farm to fork” is really how our business is integrated. We’re doing a good job of starting to tell that farm story, and I think you’re going to hear a lot more about it in the coming years because people really want to understand where their food is coming from.
What has been the most rewarding and most challenging part of your job?
My role at Land O’ Lakes was created when I joined, so I’m the first person to have this role. In that sense, my job feels very entrepreneurial–I get to create programs in the context of a very established company. It’s very satisfying to see the outcomes when I know that everything that’s happening is because I’m here.
The biggest challenge is struggling to build the business case for many of our sustainability projects. Farming is inherently a very strategic and sustainable operation, but we do have stakeholders who have traditional mindsets. The challenge is trying to translate the benefits of what we’re trying to do, and get stakeholders on board.
What kinds of issues are arising in the sustainability field and how are they being addressed?
The big thing that comes to mind for me is the need for transparency. You can tell pretty quickly by looking at a company’s sustainability report or their website to see how transparent they are. Customers and consumers are getting more savvy, and are able to see past the “greenwashing.” I think the most impactful companies today are the ones who are saying “we didn’t hit our goal, but here’s how we’re going to address it.” You can have all of these sustainability programs and platforms, but if it’s not authentically tied to the company and its values then people are going to be able to see through that.
Any advice for MBAs interested in sustainability?
I would encourage MBAs passionate about sustainability to be willing to look at roles that don’t have sustainability in the title. There are so many people that I work with on a daily basis whose jobs have direct and significant sustainability impacts, but they aren’t necessarily sustainability professionals. From business unit leaders, to logistics, to procurement, to packaging–these roles all have sustainability implications. It can be really hard to get a sustainability department role right out of school, so finding a company that holds the same sustainability values that you have, and finding a role where you can make an impact is going to be very rewarding.
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