Master of Science in Sustainability Management graduate Tara Helms (’15) has a background in supply chain management in the energy sector and was drawn to the program as a way to shift her focus towards sustainability. Throughout her time in the program, Tara took advantage of various networking and certification courses and served as a Curriculum and Grading Assistant. Recently, Tara landed a new job with the new product development team at L’Oreal.
1. What drew you to the Master of Science in Sustainability Management (MSSM)?
After 6+ years working in corporate supply chain management, I was exposed to very detailed and technical aspects of demand planning, supply planning, inventory management, distribution, new product development and the systems that drive these processes. I started my career in the energy and utilities sector working for a smart meter manufacturer. When I relocated to NYC, I jumped industries and started working in the beauty industry. The difference in culture and environmental approach was staggering. The MSSM program coupled perfectly with my background and skill set to make the career switch back into a sustainability focused company or role.
Recently, I have accepted an offer with L’Oreal as a manager in their new product development team. So although I am going back into cosmetics, I am joining a company with a clear sustainability focus, and I will be working on one of their sustainable brands where I can collect best practices and implement those successes to product lines that are slower to change.
3. What do you think is the most important sustainability challenge?
Energy. Even with previous work experience in the energy/utilities sector, my exposure to the overall impact and challenges of energy generation, distribution, and emissions impact was limited. Through the program, I now have a very clear and in-depth understanding of the conflicts faced both globally and in the US market. With the anticipated retirement of fossil fuel generators and the nuclear fleet, it is now a prime opportunity to transition the energy sector to a more sustainable future. Also, having interned with Veolia Water North America, I’ve had considerable exposure to the water-energy nexus, which is critical to cities, agriculture, and private industry.
4. What skills and tools did you acquire through the program?
The most important tools I have gained were through the Green Accounting course I took, which was centered on monetizing the business case for sustainability. Since my undergraduate degree was in business management, I was already quite familiar with standard accounting principles. However, I learned that the perspective of the market is changing considering the fossil fuel divestment initiative and increasing reliance on ESG data to make investment decisions. Additional concepts of importance covered included life cycle analysis and the circular economy.
5. How have you applied what you’ve learned in the program so far?
Having an intelligent conversation about sustainability during the interview process is really the key to success. Everyone wants to know why I chose such a specialized degree and how it can be applied in the work environment. Since you are speaking with a variety of interviewers, some more advanced on sustainability than others, you have to tailor your findings to something relatable to each individual’s situation. I’ve been greatly impressed that I have been able to draw specific examples from class projects, or directly from class content, to engage on the topic in a collaborative way.
6. Beyond the classroom, what extracurricular sustainability related have you engaged in with your fellow Sustainability Management students?
I engage with my classmates through a variety of activities including but not limited to SUMASA events, NETIMPACT, and the professional development series. Last semester I attended the GRI G4 certified training course and this semester I attended the LEED Green Associate training. These are great “resume builders” and do prepare you for the basics in order pass certification exams. The SUMASA events are great, especially the panel discussion with fashion industry experts, to gain insider perspective.
7. What is your favorite class in the MSSM program so far and why?
This is a toss-up between Sustainability Science taught by Professor Jenna Lawrence and Global Environmental Markets taught by Professor Eron Bloomgarden. I took Sustainability Science in my first semester and it was pivotal in my comprehension of the capacities and dynamics of natural systems combined with anthropogenic impacts. Not only did I enjoy the topic, but Professor Lawrence is an amazing, animated teacher. Global Environmental Markets was so interesting because the topic was completely new to me and really provided an approach that can be widely adopted in different industries and sectors through different vehicles. I liked this class so much I became the Curriculum and Grading Assistant for it.
8. How do you intend to utilize your degree from the MSSM program to further your career?
It will be critical to join professional groups and pursue industry summits to stay current. Most of the students have a sense of comradeship in that we will be industry peers when we graduate, which means we’ll have a really great network to draw from, consult with, and grow with. In order to facilitate personal career development, I will need to promote education, awareness, and communication with my new colleagues. If I “walk the talk” they will be more inclined to do the same, i.e. lead by example. More importantly, I will need to influence cross functional stakeholders on sustainable value creation.
9. How has collaborating with your fellow students in projects in the classroom benefitted you professionally and personally?
Professionally it’s interesting to synthesize so many perspectives. Given the focus on the triple-bottom-line, it’s important to first think in a systems approach and simultaneously collect feedback from a diverse stakeholder network. My background in dynamic, global, and complex supply chain systems has already demonstrated clear organizational challenges. Adding the sustainability layer in an integrated way will require both a top down and bottom up approach with input from all levels, all departments, and external influences.
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.