Fahmida Bangert has served in transformational roles in higher education: establishing the Diversity at Bren Fund as class chair during her time at Bren, working to achieve ambitious sustainability goals at UC Berkeley and Stanford, and helping shape sustainability careers in the industry by serving as a board member and board chair for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Today she is the Vice President of Sustainability at ITRenew. Fifteen years after graduating from Bren, Fahmida shares her story and perspective on a career in sustainability with the MESM Class of 2021 as graduation speaker.
What inspired you to earn a graduate degree in solving environmental problems?
Before I came to Bren, I’d had six years of work experience: first in financial services, and then in software. Eventually, I realized that my personal interest in the environment had nothing to do with the job that I was doing, and that if I kept on going, my career and my passion would always be disconnected. Inspired by what I saw was possible, I took a leap of faith to back to school and learn more about it.
I decided to pursue the Master of Environmental Science and Management because it was a program that would give me a broad view of environmental problems, but also very specific solution pathways. I believed I’d be able to merge my passion for environmental protection with my career.
I took a leap of faith 18 years ago to return to graduate school because at the time I felt that high tech and environmental sustainability were misaligned, and I wanted to explore an integrated approach to institutional change.
Why did you choose Bren?
Bren captivated my imagination right away. I chose it for three reasons. First: the people. When I met with the faculty and the current students, they were so approachable and focused on solutions. Second: the location. I’m a visual learner, and when I saw the beauty of the place, I just knew that I was going to be able to absorb what I learned easily in this setting. Third: I love the UC system. I appreciate the public institution’s ability to create a leadership cohort that can solve the problems of the tragedy of the commons, so to speak.
The second year master’s group project was also attractive to me. Coming from the working world, I understood the value of teaming up with other students to develop a solution for a real-world client. I knew it would be an important experience.
When you graduated from Bren, you stayed in higher education—first working at UC Berkeley and then at Stanford. What did your work involve at these institutions?
My first job at UC Berkeley came from the final presentation of the master’s group project I worked on, which was on how institutions can be carbon neutral. After our final presentation, literally as we got off the stage, I was approached by someone from Berkeley who asked if I would be interested in doing this kind of work in a large institution. I’d never imagined continuing to work for a university, but I was interested right away.
My first job out of Bren was doing climate action planning for UC Berkeley. I knew that Berkeley was going to be the model campus, and that if we did a good job, the chances of our work being replicated were very likely. And that’s exactly what happened. By 2008, we had created a model with solutions for how the campus could reach the goal of 1990 carbon levels by the year 2014. The campus was able to achieve this goal, and the work became a model for the entire UC system.
At Stanford, in my foundational role as sustainability director, I really got to drive institutional transformation using programmatic tools for sustainability to become a core value. My team worked on the whole solutions gamut: energy efficiency, infrastructure planning, water conservation, zero-waste planning, renewable energy procurement, and behavior change programs, as well as establishing Stanford University as a living laboratory of sustainability. By the end of 2021, Stanford will be 80% below their peak level emissions, which took a tremendous amount of planning, resource engagement, and institutional commitment.
Beyond that, I was very heavily involved in a sustainability consortium and I was able to grow my team and support a lot of professionals in the higher education sector. I really had a chance to not just work with them, but to see how the sustainability career path evolved for many of us. For four years, I was a board member of Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) and chaired the board for two years. AASHE is the national consortium for higher education institutions that focuses on how to institutionalize sustainability in those organizations. I was able to lead that forum in my extra time.
You recently returned to the tech industry at ITRenew in the position of Vice President of Sustainability. What inspired you to return to that industry?
I took a leap of faith 18 years ago to return to graduate school because at the time I felt that high tech and environmental sustainability were misaligned, and I wanted to explore an integrated approach to institutional change. Now, I’m taking another leap in reconnecting with tech because the ever-booming tech sector is now well aligned with the sustainability mission. It’s an exciting and important time to be able to take what I’ve learned and applied in higher education industry into the sustainability work happening in big tech.
As the information and communication industry (ICT) grows, so does the large and energy intensive data center infrastructure responsible for tremendous carbon emissions from their direct emissions as well as supply chain. Transforming this industry from linear (take/make/waste) to circular (redesign/reuse/recycle/replenish) is critical for a sustainability economy as well as the United National Sustainable Development Goals at large. Through my role with ITRenew and its global hyperscale partners, I'm looking to integrate and implement zero carbon, zero waste and circular business frameworks to calibrate our collective missions with a zero to low carbon economy. This approach is intensive, and I believe an imperative for this decade of climate action.
How have sustainability career paths changed since you started out, and where do you think they're heading?
When I started out, sustainability positions were relatively low in organizations; there was a bottom-up approach. I always believed that sustainability is a top-down and a bottom-up institutional change. So I focused a lot on making sure that the leadership was always involved and getting their buy-in. It was maybe a 50-50 split in energy that went toward convincing people and then actually doing the work.
Now more companies than ever see the importance and they are creating sustainability roles, even directly in the C-suite. Sustainability career paths have exploded. With that, though, the market has become more and more competitive. The growth in interest for these jobs has even exceeded the supply. Senior managers who don’t come from an environmental management background are interested in environmental jobs as well. So, overall, the interest is higher at all levels, and the competition is stiff.
The other change is the skill sets have also evolved. Interdisciplinary education is still really, really important for environmental problem-solvers to have a cross-sectional understanding. But in terms of how to apply it, the sense of urgency has grown exponentially. So you need to find ways to do the work faster than before.
What advice do you have for graduates who are entering this competitive workforce and for students who are looking to make the most of their time at Bren so that they can differentiate themselves when they graduate?
Today, as a lecturer and mentor at Stanford, I always tell my graduates to work in sustainability, even if your job is not immediately about sustainability. It’s completely all right to start somewhere that doesn’t have “sustainability” in the title and aim in that direction. A career is a journey. It’s not a straight line. In most cases, it’s a winding road. Whatever our roles are, if we are working with the sustainability lens, that's already making a contribution. Keep the big picture in mind, and don’t worry about the title of your job.
I also encourage graduates and students to network in a very thoughtful way—not necessarily the quantity of networking, but the quality. Networking is so important, especially in an evolving subject like sustainability. You can find people to learn from, people to share your work with, and people who believe in you and your work and establish mentorship.
Today we recognize the importance of diverse leadership and the synergy between climate action, diversity and equity, and social justice. Higher education has an important role to play in not just taking on these issues, but in championing them and leading by example.
When you were one of the class chairs at Bren in 2006, you and a few other students established the Diversity at Bren Fund. On the 15th anniversary of that fund’s founding, as a leader in your field, what role do you think higher ed can play in growing opportunities and inclusivity for students of color?
A lot has happened, in a sense, in the last 15 years in terms of awareness. At the time I was leaving Bren, there weren’t a lot of examples of female leaders in sustainability, and there were no or very few examples of people of color in this work. This is a known phenomenon that the environmental movement in general doesn’t have a lot of people of color, and I had to find ways to overcome the unseen barriers and set examples for myself and others.
Today we recognize the importance of diverse leadership and the synergy between climate action, diversity and equity, and social justice. Higher education has an important role to play in not just taking on these issues, but in championing them and leading by example. It’s a space where we can acknowledge where things are, understand differences, make up for dialogues that have been missing, and create opportunities for everyone in an equitable fashion. When we make that happen in our research, our ideas, our representation, and in execution on our campuses, we show the rest of the world what can be done.
What inspires you to keep solving environmental problems?
I have known since middle school that a changing climate was upon us and that we had to act to be good citizens of this beautiful planet. I was given the training and opportunities to craft a mission-oriented career in sustainability with much support from my mentors and family. While achieving meaningful results for the organizations, I've learned to thrive in complexity. The magnitude of environmental issues demands that we stay focused for the long haul and align all our good intentions and skills. So, solving complex environmental problems to me is a confluence of this realization, of preparation, and a calling. The growing momentum fuels my inspiration.