State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Alumni Spotlight: A Journey From Climate Conservation to Corporate Consulting

Alicia Kurnia Liono began her career in wildlife conservation, working with organizations like the Zoological Society of London and the World Wildlife Fund. But after exploring her options and meeting some financial decision-makers who were involved with environmental conservation, Liono decided to transition to consulting and sustainable finance; she became a fellow for organizations such as the Sustainable Finance Initiative, KPMG, 17 Asset Management and AccountAbility.

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Alicia Kurnia Liono

Looking to learn more about the intersection of sustainability and finance through ESG investing, Liono enrolled in the Master of Science in Sustainability Management (SUMA) program at Columbia University. During her time at SUMA, Liono served as a Global Energy Fellow, a pro-bono consultant for Net Impact and Impact Investing and a member of the Sustainable Finance Professionals Network and Business Management Club. She also volunteered as a mentor for the Women in Consulting community.

Since graduating, Liono has been working in nature strategy advising for the Pollination Group, counseling financial institutions and corporations on developing and delivering science-based sustainability, climate and nature strategies, and managing related risks and opportunities. Liono shares more about her experience in the Q&A below.

With a background in wildlife conservation and biology, what inspired you to pivot to sustainable finance and consulting? 

I was fortunate enough to attend a prestigious high school in Jakarta, Indonesia, with the tuition fee covered by my father’s employer. Being among students and their wealthy families, I learned that money is a crucial driver for many. I have always had a deep fascination for wildlife, and despite being advised to pursue environmental conservation only as a hobby, I decided to enroll in an environmental biology–focused undergraduate program in the U.K.

There, I met these inspiring professionals who work to bridge the gap between financial return and environmental impact, and this resonated with me. The turning point influenced my decision to pivot from a career in wildlife conservation non-profits to ESG consulting/sustainable finance.

After several years of consulting experience, what encouraged you to pursue a master’s in SUMA?

I knew that I did not want to stop at a bachelor’s, but I also wanted to work for several years first before enrolling in a master’s program to better select one that would be most beneficial for my career in the long term. During my time at KPMG, I worked on a wide range of sustainability projects for clients across various industries.

Despite thoroughly enjoying all the projects I participated in, I still yearned to gain firsthand knowledge and experience in ESG investing. After researching programs in the U.K. and the U.S., I decided to apply to the SUMA program primarily because of its broad and flexible curriculum, faculty of predominantly seasoned industry professionals and extensive and supportive alumni network. Living in New York City was, of course, also a lovely bonus.

Can you share how SUMA contributed to securing several sustainability fellowships and freelancing opportunities during your time in the program?

The first factor was hands-on consulting projects with real clients via group-based class projects, the Integrative Capstone Workshop, and student-led clubs like Sustainability Management Net Impact (SUMANI) and Columbia Impact Investing Initiative (CI3). As an international student, adding U.S.-based client consulting projects to my portfolio of overseas professional experience was still valuable because they gave me a more well-rounded resume for potential employers.

The second factor was the SUMA program’s strong reputation and alumni network. Many of the hiring teams in companies I had interviewed for either already employed at least one SUMA alum, knew someone who was a SUMA alum or student, or had heard about the SUMA program, especially in New York City.

You were also a 2023 Global Energy Fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia. How did this fellowship contribute to your studies and professional experiences?

As part of the fellowship program, we get the unique opportunity to meet with clean energy and energy policy professionals from various regions of the world. Meeting and hearing from various industry experts deepened my understanding of the current and emerging energy-related regulatory and market landscapes in the U.S. and abroad.

Additionally, being part of this fellowship program has introduced me to other graduate students I otherwise would not have met while at Columbia. I appreciate the diversity, in terms of ethnicity and graduate program designation, of the fellows who range from master’s students at SIPA and the law school to Ph.D. students at the engineering school. The smaller size of the cohort and the frequent events have also enabled me to form deeper friendships, and I am immensely grateful to now call several of the other fellows my close friends.

What advice would you give to students interested in sustainability consulting?

For current and prospective students looking to find a job post-graduation, I suggest identifying the types of roles you want to hold and the types of companies you want to work for. Then research what hard and soft skills and professional experiences they typically seek. Finally, use all of the resources available within and outside the university, which will give you those skills and experiences by the time you graduate.

My advice would be the same for those keen on a career in consulting: Understand what employers are looking for in candidates, develop those skills, gain first-hand professional experience while at university and build professional connections with individuals who work in the companies you want to apply to. Plan and do all of these as early as possible in the SUMA program.

The Master of Science in Sustainability Management program, offered by the School of Professional Studies in partnership with the Climate School, is designed for current and aspiring leaders who wish to pursue a career in management at the intersection of business and the environment.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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