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Women Supporting Women. Learn about the San Francisco founded Women in CSR Group

Our team recently learned about a fantastic initiative called Women in CSR. The group’s mission: “To create a supportive space for professionals who identify as women in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Sustainability to exchange ideas, create community, and share passions.” The organization does this via monthly (currently virtual) happy hours, workshops, and ongoing resource sharing between women. Originally founded in San Francisco, the group is now expanding beyond it’s Bay Area origins to create a supportive community of women in CSR across the US and the world.

To learn more about the work the group does we spoke with Diana Rosenberg, one of the co-founders and member of the leadership council, and also Senior Manager of Product Sustainability at Gap Inc. We also heard some great career tips from another group leader, Rose Hartley, Sustainability Manager at Imperfect Foods.

Q: What is your background and how did you get into CSR?

My first job was actually on the floor at Banana Republic, and then in college I worked at Nordstrom. I always loved fashion and also made my own clothes - that was one of my hobbies and one-time small business.  After I completed my undergrad in Business Management Economics, I graduated into the 2009 recession and I really couldn't figure out how to get a foothold. To pursue my dearest interests while living in Santa Cruz, CA, I started volunteering with conservation groups. It helped me understand that I wanted to pivot to being more hands-on with science and impact-focused action.

I actually had a lightbulb moment! I realized that fashion and business and sustainability could combine and there was a career and that’s exactly what I should be doing.

I ended up attending an interdisciplinary Master’s program at UC Santa Barbara Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. On the first day, the careers team talked through all the different pathways where alumni had found work. I actually had a lightbulb moment! I realized that fashion and business and sustainability could combine and there was a career and that’s exactly what I should be doing. I've spent pretty much my whole professional life since that day developing the skills and knowledge to pursue that purpose, because I know that I have this confluence of abilities and interests. I definitely am a true believer - I am here to try to save the world every day!

Q: You started a career that melded all of these different passions in a single focus area. What then prompted you to start a group about CSR?

Knowing other people doing similar work is so valuable, and you can learn so much from their experience and struggles. I'm always looking for community and spaces to learn; when a bunch of us sat down with this idea of starting a networking group it felt super refreshing because it was not about showing up to drinks and grabbing a bunch of business cards, trying to get as many people in your network as possible. It felt much more like people who cared about the same things as me wanting to stay connected. We really did start it thinking: what if we could just get rid of the networking bit and make it about community? The group is very non-transactional. It's about being supportive, it's about finding people to learn from, it's about looking forward to having a glass of wine with pals after a long day. It has been successful far beyond what we expected.

Rose, also shares what prompted her to get involved:

I was introduced to Women in CSR by Molly Moore, COO of S.U.P.E.R., while I was interning for her during graduate school in Spring 2020. Women in CSR has been a lifesaver throughout the past year, and I have been grateful to not only find connection and meaning through this group, but share it with so many women this year as well. Many of our members have found their next career opportunities - even during the pandemic - through this community!

I am a firm believer in the power of community action - led by women and historically marginalized groups - to build connections and create the world we dream of!

Several of our members have found their next career opportunities - even during the pandemic - through this community!

Many of us see the value and necessity of "third spaces", outside of work and family or social spaces, that provide room for us to grow, dream and organize around the causes that are important to us. The change we need to see is larger than what any one organization can realize - we need spaces like Women in CSR to build our future, together.

“What if we could just get rid of the networking bit and make it about community?”

Q: What did it look like when it first started and what does it look like today?

I think when four or five of us first started we thought this was a good idea and to invite the people we knew. The first two years were very word-of-mouth. We would connect with people and say, Oh, we have a happy hour group, come join! We got together and we started doing some events based on what people's jobs were and what they could get access to. We did things like a tour of the Impossible Food labs and a visit to the Salesforce tower. People would show up and suggest what type of experiences they could create. Those who thought of these ideas in the first place became a natural leadership council to make decisions and plan events.

The women of the leadership council are all volunteers, and they have collectively been such powerhouses of action! As things started very organically, at first we organized ourselves as a Google group so we could send out updates. The addition of a Slack channel has really helped us formalize and structure it. Today it's gotten a lot bigger both because our networks have grown and a lot of us have progressed in our careers. We’re also more focused and we have a bit more of a mission and plan. Several of our leaders have been phenomenal about creating and owning responsibilities; this didn’t just happen by accident but because they’ve recognized that starting a group is easy, but maintaining and growing it takes effort!

The transformation to digital that came with COVID has, in some ways, been a challenge because we missed seeing each other. There's no real replacement for the serendipity of going to a bar after work and seeing your friends. But what it's allowed is for people who have moved away to join, or people who would never have found us otherwise to be part of it. There are probably about 400 members, and about 50 or 60 who are very engaged. We recently went through our first round of new additions to our leadership council to bring in new energy, diverse views and fresh ideas. We aim to host events every single month and we try to do a blend of casual networking, as well as personal development and general interest stuff.

Q: If the group could be anything in three to five years from now, what would you love it to do for women?

Diana:

“We don’t spend that much time talking or thinking about it because one of the things that's so nice about it is that it’s casual and organic. Our lives might be ambitious, but the group is about creating a safe, warm and welcoming space. What I love about it is that it’s a group that, no matter the size, still feels intimate. It is a place you can find friendships with people with similar interests and challenges. You can get a good bit of advice or support for what you're struggling with and where you want to go. I think everybody loves that feeling of sitting down with somebody who cares about what you do and cares about you as a person. It would be cool to see people own that and start creating satellite groups in different regions.”

Our lives might be ambitious, but the group is about creating a safe, warm and welcoming space.
Rose echoed Diana’s feeling in terms of plans for the group emphasizing:

“We aim to cater to the needs of our membership. I want our members to tell us where they want it to go! We ask the women what brought them to the group and cater the programming to the areas which are the most helpful. “


Q: We asked Diana and Rose, what advice would you give for a woman starting her career in CSR today?

Diana:

I think a lot of us know very little about what we want to do when we get started. When I give an informational interview, like talking to somebody considering graduate school, the first thing I say is to be as clear as possible about what you're trying to accomplish. For example, if you really care about protecting forests, there might not be a position in which you directly work to save forests. But there is a lot of peripheral activity, so maybe you could go work for a paper company or a consulting firm.

The first thing I say is to be as clear as possible about what you're trying to accomplish.

That will help you work backwards and work out how to get there, because it can feel really overwhelming to get into this industry. The thing I always recommend to people is to look at job descriptions, even ones you don't think you're qualified for but that might be interesting. The ones that you see and think “I wish I had that job” – save it! I have a folder going back about seven or eight years of all the different job descriptions I always thought would be cool, but wasn’t qualified for. What I do with that is I actually pull out the skills recommended, the qualifications required and look to see if I’m on the right path. If you have an idea of what you're trying to accomplish or what company you'd want to work for, there is a roadmap that's already been written for you.

Rose:

Start talking to people in your community about what’s important to you. Find others who are interested in the same aspects of building a healthy climate future, or achieving social and environmental justice; As Mr. Rogers said, “look for the people who are helping”.

Read and watch everything related to climate, environmental justice and related topics.  In particular, I recommend:

  • Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken (the latest edition, Drawdown Review, is available for free here). This book is a cornerstone of the environmental movement, and is amazing in the way it presents the challenge of climate change and in comparatively sizing the solutions. ReFED (and their Insights Engine) is incredible at doing this as well, mainly related to food waste and insecurity.
  • The Divide by Jason Hickel
  • Carbon Democracy by Timothy Mitchell
  • All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, edited by Katharine K. Wilkinson and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

In terms of employment, for those just starting out, I would recommend seeking out organizations and companies where sustainability (in everything that that term can mean) is right in the DNA of the organization. Was this organization created to do good? Does it seem to be achieving its aims, or on the path to do so? Many organizations now have sustainability or CSR-related positions - make sure you believe in the core product, mission and/or service of the organization. Here are some job boards and resources I’ve found useful:

  • Soapbox Project’s newsletter and their introductory guides - they are so informative!
  • Women in CSR is an amazing community for women and non-binary individuals in the environmental and social impact space, filled with many educational, fun and supportive resources and events. I was honored to join their leadership for 2021 - I promise we will bring you lots of amazing content this year!
  • 80,000 hours - great resource when you know you want to make a difference with your career but you don’t know how
  • DoSomething.org - similar to 80,000 hours but more focused on near-term impact
  • Reconsidered Jobs - fabulous job board
  • EDF Climate Corps - if grad school + fellowship is appealing.
  • Idealist - amazing job board + graduate schools resources

Q: I want to focus on misconceptions for a second. What do you view as the biggest misconception about CSR when someone hears about your career?

I think people tend to think CSR is such a bolt-on to big industry and as impractical and expensive – a lot of swimming upstream. I think that sets people up for a lot of failure. In fairness this is not always untrue, but I think what we need is an industry mindset shift that says: CSR is part of the business. Businesses have to come out and say, being responsible is part of what we do. Instead of trying to convince people that CSR is also important, start with how your business operates.

What we need is an industry mindset shift that says CSR is part of the business. Businesses have to come out and say, being responsible is part of what we do.

And why is CSR a part of that? For me, working in the apparel industry, I know deep in my heart that we are creating a lot of environmental damage and sometimes think, Oh my God! Why are we doing this? But ultimately, companies are going to operate no matter what. So, you create the flow that the company should be in, instead of just trying to divert it entirely. If you create change at this massive scale, you can build allies and advocates along the way and that’s when the tide really starts to turn.

Q:  What do you think about the language revolution of CSR versus ESG? Is that something you've given much thought to?

Yeah – I have a lot. I love this evolution! Something about CSR seems kind of gauzy: we're a corporation, but we're also supposed to be responsible on the side. This makes it seem like a luxury, like it’s not part of that corporate mission. Talking about it in terms of ESG makes it seem that it's part of the business operations. ESG means that legal departments are involved, it means that finance is part of it, it means we see it is an integrated imperative. When you move emphasis away from making up for the bad stuff a corporation is doing and towards setting up structures to support good business, I think it moves the onus of good behaviour into the business.

Talking about [CSR] in terms of ESG makes it seem that it's part of the business operations.

Q: How do you see the CSR industry developing in a couple of years?

I do think that the term CSR has begun to fall out of favour. So, with that language identified, I think positioning ourselves as ESG versus CSR is a pretty important mindset shift. I think the development is really in the integration of what we do, into how the business operates. The way I see it progressing is that it is not siloed anymore. It is integrated: investors care, which means boards of directors care. Customers care, which means product teams care.

The way I see [CSR] progressing is that it is not siloed anymore. It is integrated: investors care, which means boards of directors care. Customers care, which means product teams care.

It is going to be completely integrated into how any responsible businesses are run. If you, as a business leader, look 20 years down the line, you have to be prepared for what's coming. Any company that's not prepared for climate change will fail because they're not ready for a changing world. We are at the crest of a wave, which is a really exciting place to be. But, sometimes it's a real challenge to hold on and ride it, because we went from being in this dusty corner of the business to front and centre. I think a lot of us are struggling to adapt to that movement. Expectations have risen exponentially, resources or capabilities perhaps haven't.

Q: What do you think people like senior executives and board members could do to support the person who's historically been in charge of responsible operations and make sure that they're able to become organisationally widespread?

I think what's really crucial is to establish that it's not enough to just say that “this is important” at the top, and then expect change to happen. There needs to be a mandate and support from other key stakeholders. Just having an executive say sustainability is now a priority doesn't change a mid-level decision maker’s ability to meet that expectation. If a company doesn't have the ability to have a sustainability team, they must think about how to empower everyone from the bottom up and from the top down. Then you meet in the middle with the decision makers and the doers.

[Companies] must think about how to empower everyone from the bottom up and from the top down.

There's a huge amount of enthusiasm, especially in younger generations and with new employees. It's a massive part of recruitment and retention and people want to work on projects that feel meaningful. So, if you unleash people's abilities to propose projects and say that you’re going to listen and champion, there are a lot of ideas that can be supported. What that ends up doing is allowing more people to move things forward, even if you don't have one of you steering the ship. Or you let the sustainability team steer the ship and let everybody else do the rowing.

Q: How do you really create sustainability at the core?

I think finding sponsors is so important. What you also need is your marching orders from somebody who is telling you where to go and supporting you in doing that. A lot of the time CSR has never had authority to make real changes before. I think what's changing now is that companies are creating a mandate and authority to say, yes - we're going to do this and this is how. Preparing people to be your assistants, granting them authority and then supporting them and what they need is always going to be a winning pathway. If you aren't making it easy for them, or you expect them to go on their own sustainability learning journey, you're not going to get anywhere.

Q: What has been the biggest learning for you, getting to talk to other women doing similar roles at other companies? How do you bring that learning into your role in the work you're doing thanks to the group?

The biggest value is just sometimes having a conversation with somebody who gets what you do. It is really nice to not have to explain yourself so that you can jump straight into solutions, or sometimes just getting emotional support from people who face the same challenges.

To people not in CSR, I always end up having to explain what I do and what's part of it. Just being able to have people who are past that threshold is great! Even a lot of the time our partners don't really know what we do, our best friends don't really know what we do. When people are in the same place, it just feels really supportive, really safe, and you can learn so much about what inspires other people. Being able to collaborate in a way that is not like a conference where you're never going to see each other again, means you get to build long-lasting relationships too. These will be my peers and mentors for the rest of my career and I love that!

Q: If there’s a woman in CSR, ESG or interested in this career path who is reading this article, how could they join and what are the typical titles and roles of people in the group?

They can find us via our homepage or via our LinkedIn group called Women in Corporate Social Responsibility.

We believe everyone is welcome, and we’re keenly reaching out to underrepresented groups and people from smaller and less-resourced organizations. The women who are active in the group (at least for now!) are mostly early-established in their career – five to eight years’ experience. That's also the age range and career range of the people who started the group, so it makes sense because it's via our network. We’ve also had an influx of people who are maybe mid-career but looking to pivot. Finally there are people who are just getting ready to start their career, so maybe in graduate school, or in their first couple of years of work, trying to figure out what they're doing next. Part of the value is that we’re really collecting people from all parts of the pathway, in order to share experience and support.

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