Forging forward on the business of sustainability: Perspectives from experts, alumni and students

Earth Day

By Shruthikarthika Senthilkumar

Four leading experts in business and entrepreneurship, along with six undergraduate and graduate students, shared inspiring words and experiences during the Symposium on Energy, Environment and Sustainability (SEES) – April 2020 event.

The two-part series, focusing on “The Business of Sustainability,” covered diverse topics, ranging from business models and industry goals to water quality, energy solutions, e-commerce challenges and the role of public agencies.

SEES April 2020 was the second webinar event this spring held through UIC, and had over 180 registered participants, successfully expanding the network and audience from the SEES Spring 2020 event held in late March.

Part One on April 20th, the expert panelists — Carolee Rigsbee, Celeste Hammond, Harriet Seymore, and Judy Li — shared their perspectives and work on the intersections between business and sustainability and conveyed diverse career pathways in sustainability across the business sector. The session opened with a presentation on benefit corporations, followed by how oil and gas industries are working toward sustainability goals, and ending with the role of environmental entrepreneurship.

In talking about the importance of education and awareness about benefit corporations, Carolee Rigsbee, assistant professor from the University of Illinois-Springfield, and Celeste Hammond, UIC John Marshall Law School professor, explained many may not be aware of the “benefit corporation,” a relatively new option in for-profit incorporation.

Hammond noted, “Benefit corporations in Illinois create a specific public benefit… preserving the environment, improving human health, increasing the flow of capital to entities with a public benefit purpose, and the accomplishment of any other particular benefit for the society or the environment.”

Harriet Seymore, managing partner at Ayam Solutions, spent many years working with major players in the energy sector. She notes not only the challenges they face, but also the goals they work to achieve continuously.

“Sustainability in oil and gas fields focuses on maximizing cleaner oil and gas products, while minimizing impact on external environment and society,” she said.

Rounding the discussion for the day, Judy Li from the Energy Foundry demonstrated the role that entrepreneurs have in and the challenges they face at the intersection of business and sustainability and how the Energy Foundry supports their efforts by investing “venture capital in energy innovations, such as solar skins … and treepods … that are too early-stage for most other investors,” and yet these entrepreneurs have viable business models and often need startup funding to scale up.

One week later, on April 27, Part Two of the Business of Sustainability event highlighted the work of six alumni and students from Illinois universities. The lightning talks included Dr. Alessio Trivella (UIC Scholar ’17) on Corporate Renewable Power Targets, Katie Kollhoff (Northwestern University ’19) on Developing Sustainability-Based Company for a Material World, Parshan Pakiman (UIC ’21) on Sustainability & E-Commerce, Natalie Kerr (UIS ’20) on Mitigating Agricultural Runoff, Monica Mulica (UIC ’20) on Microgrid to Grid Solutions, and Veronica Tellez (UIS ’21) on Creating Sustainability through Society. The diverse alumni and student endeavors demonstrated opportunities to engage in research and work in sustainability and business as a student that translates to future career trajectories.

The two presenters on energy demonstrated the vast areas for addressing sustainability within the energy industry sector. Dr. Alessio Trivella showed that corporate power purchase agreements (CPPA) can be “effective procurement vehicles for firms that have committed to a renewable energy target, and that a dynamically optimized CPPAs portfolio can reduce energy costs significantly.”

The insights from the study can “help companies balancing climate goals and financial performance.”

Monica Mulica’s case study approach to microgrid to grid solutions offered insight into how “the grid framework helps with economic optimization, the effect of natural weather phenomenon, its relevance to finding solutions for power outages, and also helps to create a roadmap for opportunities.” B

oth of these presentations supported sustainability efforts for the business and energy sectors.

Two presenters offered opportunities in the water industry for sustainable approaches. Katie Kollhoff, CEO and co-founder of NUMiX, offered an engineering perspective to achieving cleaner water and utilizing the waste materials left over. “What we do is that firstly we create a large amounts of novel material, treat 2.2 billion gallons of contaminated water, and take the metal from the water and use it to harvest energy in windmills, etc,” she said.

Natalie Kerr, recent graduate from UIS, talked about her work on mitigating the impact of agricultural runoff and noted a chemistry approach as she described her research on filtering our nitrate by adding “a substituent in the water using the ACS principle of green chemistry which when reacted with the nitrate in the water produces a solution that is not harmful for the environment.” Both approaches are sustainable, provide clean water and no harmful waste, and are wins for the future of the water industry.

In today’s e-commerce world and even more so in this current COVID-19 risk environment, Parshan Pakiman, Ph.D. student at UIC, furnished insights on how packaging and packing can be optimized and sustainable as he discussed in his presentation the importance of leveraging “the box suite as a lever to better align two e-commerce objectives — reducing packaging material used to pack orders, and sustaining the efficiency of workers during high demand.”

It is not simply about reducing packing materials or packing more efficiently, but the optimal level between the two produces the most promising and sustainable results.

Veronica Tellez, current graduate student at UIS, furnished a theoretical overview of how sustainability and public administration need to work hand in hand utilizing different theories to “spread awareness of sustainability” by imbuing approaches to “organizational dynamics including hierarchical and community structures,” and underpinning “public administration and governance with autonomy, mutuality and reciprocity.” Her work offered a quick glimpse at the complexities of governance and sustainability.

For more information about SEES April 2020The Business of Sustainability Part 1 and 2, visit the SEES website at https://chicagocause.wordpress.com/sees-april-20/.  A recording of the webinar is also available online.

SEES emerged in Spring 2018 through a group sustainability minded UIC students.  Aiming to bring UIC student work together with experts from industry was the vision with objectives to build networks, identify professional mentors, and receive valuable feedback from outside expertise. Dr. Elizabeth A. Kócs, director of partnerships and strategy for the UIC Energy Initiative and adjunct faculty in urban planning and policy, continues to be the faculty advisor to the SEES program, which receives funding from the UIC Sustainability Fee to continue expanding the program and network.

About the author

Shruthikarthika (Shruthi) Senthilkumar (BS Architecture ’22) is the most recent SEES intern. Shruthi is majoring in architecture with a minor in sustainable cities. Her goal is to create and promote sustainable cities through architecture, for which she hopes her university studies will act as a catalyst. (https://energyinitiative.uic.edu/profiles/senthilkumar-shruthi/)

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