Sustainability Management alumna Mitika Bajpai is a corporate sustainability strategist in India and attended the SUMA program from 2015 to 2017. Over the last 8 years, Mitika has worked in Asia, Africa, and North America across the non-profit, consulting, academia, engineering and energy sectors specializing in urban sustainability strategy and reporting.
She was attracted to the international nature of the program, and its action-oriented approach to learning. The real yet futuristic ideas and concepts she learned at SUMA help her conduct strategy and thought leadership discussions within the industry.
What is your current job and what are the responsibilities associated with your position?
I am currently working as a sustainability manager at Reliance Industries Ltd., an Indian conglomerate. Here I look at co-creating the sustainability strategy and roadmap for several businesses within the Reliance group with a focus on natural and social impacts. I am part of the team responsible for creating the Sustainability Report and the Integrated Annual Report for the company’s energy, chemicals, retail, and digital services businesses. My role also entails engaging with external organizations, reviewing policy or thought leadership content and facilitating sustainability audits that help each business work towards creating societal value.
Do your current job responsibilities align with the professional goals that you originally had when you began the SUMA program? How?
Absolutely. Through SUMA I wanted to gain the tools to scale up sustainable development practices particularly in places with large populations. At work, I get to practice and play with the idea of scaling up key sustainability strategies and solutions, within very diverse businesses. I have the opportunity to impact the lives of millions of people through the company’s products and services. How to do this, is a question I have spent many sleepless nights working on.
It also feels rewarding to work in a country like India, where there is a huge political push, a seemingly “natural” business case to sustain economic growth, and the dire need to transform lives of large populations. Herein I see start-ups, industries, public and non-profit bodies explore innovative sustainable development models around circular economy, agricultural reforms, civic participation, energy security and transition, rural transformation, and more.
What inspired you to work in sustainability? Since when have you worked in sustainability (even if it did not have the name)?
I have been extremely fortunate to have mentors and teachers in my life, who have helped mold my sustainability journey. My 6th grade English teacher, through her unique teaching methodology, taught me to care for the human, and more than human world alike. She taught me to view life with an empathetic lens and enabled me to make conscious choices at a very young age. I realize this now – she seamlessly instilled in me the meaning of sustainable living. However, my career in sustainability started off unexpectedly. After studying engineering, I worked for a not-for-profit organization that took me to South Africa to work on youth skill development at a crucial time in the country’s political and economic trajectory. Here I met an inspirational mentor, Ms. Prishani Satyapal, and started working at her consulting firm. She got me actively involved, exploring ground realities – from slums to wildlife reserves, to city/municipal offices, to large corporations. My work here made me realize my passion for this field, and see its potential to transform the world we live in. Under her guidance, the most important thing I learned was to unlearn all pre-conceived notions I had about sustainability or CSI or development or any other similar terminology and focus on coming up with innovative and honest solutions to the world’s problems.
What has been your biggest challenge associated with sustainability in your current position?
Prior to this role, I was working in the consulting and non-profit space where I would make recommendations and proposal for other stakeholders to execute. Now that I am working within the industry, I can execute my ideas. This took a while to adjust to, and got me to think beyond projects in silos and truly look at the long-lasting impact that business can create. I had to understand the interdependence of economy, environment, and society, and implement integrated thinking for the group, not just for a project. This approach doesn’t allow one to enjoy short-term successes or “feel good” projects and can add to the complexity surrounding sustainability management.
What has been your biggest accomplishment associated with sustainability in your current position?
The outcome at the end of the annual reporting process is something I am certainly proud of. Not only because it was a tangible published product that we could share with the world, but also because the reporting process initiated several conversations with internal stakeholders and set the idea-to-execution process in motion. I didn’t realize this while studying, but reporting is an excellent tool to align sustainability targets and process with the business objective.
What skills has the SUMA program taught you that you think have proven useful to your current position?
I use my SUMA program learnings every day at work. Right from using the DPSIR framework to analyze the site-level solutions, to reviewing my CBA and Statistics class notes while going over the SROI calculation; from reading the ‘Water Management’ and ‘Financing Natural Infrastructure’ material (multiple times) while creating Natural Capital proposals, to looking at LCA and Supply Chain Management lecture notes while engaging with different stakeholders; from not getting stuck with “solving” when exploring technology options, to going over student analysis on Courseworks when benchmarking for the reporting cycle – the list is quite long.
Overall, the SUMA program has helped me articulate complex issues better and apply an integrated systems-thinking approach within the business. All this while opening up a network of brilliant (and approachable) sustainability leaders.
On the lighter note, all the mandatory course readings (and the discussions after) have improved my reading speed significantly – a skill that comes very handy!
What was your favorite class (or classes) in the SUMA program and why?
I’ll bucket my favorite classes in 3 broad categories:
• CBA and Corporate Reporting – my most used notes at work
• The Science of Urban Ecology and Hungry Cities – rooted concepts that help me with systems design
• Smart cities and Statistics – skills I could not work without
I also took an independent study course with Prof. Lynnette Widder, a course that brought together everything I love and am passionate about. Under her guidance, I looked at transforming systems in the 3 large cities I have lived in – New York, Johannesburg, and Mumbai – to help meet certain SDGs. This course gave me my 20-year plan and helped me understand my love for research and teaching.
What tips do you have for your fellow students who are looking for a job in sustainability?
A SUMA friend once told me that people love reading listicles, so here’s an attempt (and you can imagine the gifs):
• Sustainability concepts can be applied to any and every career. All you need is to ask questions you feel you can now help solve.
• Don’t restrict yourself to online application channels. Go out and meet people.
• Find people you can work with and/or for who connect with your vision or beliefs – you’ll be spending a LOT of time with them.
• Consider a brief but honest elevator pitch about what you enjoy doing in this space. Something specific enough for you to not come across as “lost”.
• The Columbia University and Earth Institute brands matter a lot when applying for jobs, so don’t be shy to use them.
• More importantly, take this time in SUMA to reflect on why you are in this space, and what can you uniquely do that the world of tomorrow needs.
What do you think is the most beneficial aspect of the SUMA program with regard to your career?
Apart from the knowledge, it is the SUMA network that I cherish the most. The program helped me build strong relationships with a large group of sustainability professionals from different specializations, career trajectories, and countries. In this niche and ever-evolving space, this network is very important for me to rely on and draw inspiration from.
The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. Visit the website to learn more.