We’re inspired by the collection of voices lately advocating for advancement of a sustainable, clean energy future in the US and globally. Despite foreseeable challenges that a new administration presents to sustainable progress, the nation is stepping up to maintain momentum and act.

The best way to create change? Through leadership – and we need new sustainability leaders to step forward now more than ever.

There’s actually never been a better time to consider a career in sustainability. We chatted with Rachel Sowards, who has been recognized by BD+C as one of its 40 under 40 leaders, is an executive director at Paladino, and is a respected sustainability professional with over a decade of experience, about her thoughts on pursuing a career in sustainability.

Career in sustainability

What is one thing you’d like people to know before pursuing a sustainable career?

There’s room in this industry for someone who is in it purely to save the planet – we need that kind of passion. But most decisions about investments in sustainability are about business. So if you are interested in converting the non-believers, you must be prepared to flex your approach to satisfy their needs. Unless you want to be an activist, you better be ready to be a business professional.

What do you find most fulfilling about working in sustainable real estate?

How often do people get to be a part of the biggest commercial industry in the world, while also getting to act as a champion for the environment and human wellness? I’m surrounded by braniac engineers, creative genius architects and designers, and industry-shaking industrialists. My work brings together personal passions, technical innovation, and the intense gratification that comes from seeing a project go up that is actually good for the community and planet. I work hard every day, and I know my work matters. Not everyone has that privilege.

What are your daily challenges?

At a tactical level, we are constantly challenged to stay on top of the ever-changing technologies that make buildings more sustainable. You will never – not even for a second – know everything. So you must have an appetite for knowledge.

On a personal level, I am challenged to maintain my momentum in the face of businesses or industries that don’t believe that climate change is a priority. And showing them pictures of rising sea levels isn’t the answer – I have to not only believe that my mission matters, but I have to believe that the non-believers can be persuaded if I understand their motivations. You can’t guilt developers into anything – so I am constantly challenged to sort out what’s in it for them.

How do you excel in this industry?

Be enthusiastic! Be available! Be committed to great results! Staying aware, being flexible, and demonstrating a deep commitment to my craft has given me the ability to seize opportunities and excel in sustainability. It’s easy to see success as a “right time, right place” proposition but I completely disagree. You are in control of creating the right time and place – ask for extra work, say yes when there’s a new opportunity, raise your hand. The people who step up and raise their hands are the ones who succeed.

Any final advice?

You will not map your career with 100% accuracy. What you believe today will change completely, sometimes in a matter of months. Focus on your passion for sustainability but let the path unfold and enjoy the ride. You will constantly be challenged to learn about new industries and technologies, so ask a lot of questions, and admit it when you don’t know something – people are always happy to help in this business.

Being a change agent is about driving the conversation and making the case for sustainability to a variety of different audiences. Be genuinely curious about other people and ask questions. Making strong connections with partners, clients, activities, and the community makes collaborative problem solving possible and allows for everyone to benefit.

Learn the language of at least one secondary industry, so that you can incorporate sustainability in a way that genuinely adds value and gets you out of bed every day. Sustainability lives inside all endeavors, it’s critical to understand where you want to make your impact. Real estate, aerospace design, maritime management, food manufacturing, under water cartography – the list goes on and on.

Sustainability will be your foundation but the place where you create lasting impact will be your legacy.

If you have a question for Rachel, tweet her at @RachelHSowards or email her.

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