Gina Schrader; Director, Business Model Innovation; NextEnergy
The National Wildlife Federation EcoLeaders Career Center is celebrating the motivating stories and career accomplishments of young professionals making their names (and a difference) in the sustainability movement. NWF EcoLeaders staff has interviewed this group of change-makers and rising stars that we call “The EcoLeaders Top 50 Inspirations.”
Director, Business Model Innovation
David Corsar: So, to start out, looking back at your experience with NWF, how did participation as an Intern help shape your career path?
Gina Schrader: The people that I met during my internship experience really helped to shape my career and interests. The internship opportunity introduced me to many thought leaders in the conservation and environmental world that I wouldn’t have had access to and people who, throughout my career, have remained as mentors, friends, and colleagues. In fact, the network that I developed led to my first full-time positon at Defenders of Wildlife. In many circles, if I mention that I was an NWF intern, many people have also been interns there, so it’s a common experience and bond that fosters more conversation.
During the internship, I had an active role and gained exposure in various activities ranging from attending high-stakes committee meetings on Capitol Hill to participating in discussions with different advocacy groups, to developing and executing lobby days for members and supporters. As a result, I had a well-rounded look at the policy and advocacy roles in the conservation field.
DC: What are you up to these days? What is your role with NextEnergy, and why did you choose to work there?
GS: During my wildlife conservation career, I developed economic development strategies that protected endangered species while supporting local economies. This work led to an interest in broader sustainability issues. Since earning a master of environmental management at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, I’ve dedicated my career to addressing the impacts that our activities have on the environment and reducing the impacts industry has on the planet, and ultimately, public health. Since energy and transportation sectors rank highest for activities emitting greenhouse gas emissions, I was interested in working in energy efficiency and mobility. Currently, I’m directing programs at NextEnergy, a technology incubator and accelerator located in Detroit, Michigan. Every day I get to wake up and work to develop approaches for accelerating change in how we use energy to move and live in the most sustainable way. Two of the programs that I manage, the NextChallenge: Smart Cities technology challenges and the Lighting Technology Energy Solutions (LiTES), a Department of Energy funded program, involve working with entrepreneurs and industry to accelerate innovation in the energy and mobility sectors. The work is fast-paced and offers the opportunity to collaborate with diverse stakeholders from industry, government and local communities while getting a firsthand look and an opportunity to shape the latest gadgets and ideas.
DC: What would you say is your personal mission for sustainability?
DC: What initially motivated you to begin on this path for sustainability?
GS: I grew up in Michigan, so I was always surrounded by lakes, rivers, and streams. Initially, my interest stemmed from personally not being able to jump and play in the water when beaches were closed due to contamination from industry and other human-caused activities. So, at a very early age, I experienced firsthand the results of activities that abuse nature and natural resources and wanted to do my part in protecting the planet and preventing further degradation.
DC: Who would you say are your primary “influencers” or inspirations in the sustainability movement?
GS: I’m inspired by entrepreneurs like the ones that I meet while managing programs at NextEnergy, or in my role as a board member for FoodLab Detroit, an organization supporting triple bottom line food businesses. Whether it’s a technology solution or a food start up, it’s inspiring to see how an individual’s “one big idea” can have long-term sustainability impacts on the public at large. In my work with smart city technologies, it’s exciting to see how many cities are working with the entrepreneurial community to create innovative, proactive and collaborative approaches to address environmental stress caused by population growth in urban areas.
DC: Have you had any mentors or career coaches assist you in developing your career path?
GS: Yes! I really like this question because I have found that both mentors from my network as well as hired career coaches have inspired me and proven to offer thoughtful feedback. On one side, my mentors know me. They know what I love, and they can help build on the excitement that I have already created. On the flip side, I’ve found that career coaches offer a welcome unbiased view on a given situation. I also continually seek to have coffee chats with professionals in fields that I’m interested in learning more about or positions that I’d like to pursue in the future. While networking events are great ways to meet people, I prefer chatting one-on-one with a person to learn more about their story and passions. Even a 15-minute conversation can open up new ideas, resources and ways of thinking.
DC: Do you plan to seek out opportunities to act as a mentee again or perhaps a mentor yourself?
GS: Yes and yes. I love to learn and continually seek input and advice from people. I prefer if things happen organically, but also love to participate in more formal programs. In 2007-2008, I was selected for the Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders (EWCL) Program, which offers training and networking while teams develop and execute an international wildlife conservation campaign—an experience that I still credit for its amazing personal and professional impact. Most recently, I was accepted as a National Fellow for the Environmental Leadership Program (ELP), our first retreat proved to be extremely inspiring as I found myself surrounded by thoughtful and driven group of people working to positively impact the world. And, I’m always happy to be a sounding board and offer feedback to other professionals. Sometimes it’s as simple as sharing a cup of coffee and ideas. I’ve also participated in formal mentorship programs through my graduate school program, EWCL and within the local community. The conversation often prove to be mutually beneficial. In Detroit, I serve on the advisory council for the Detroit Women’s Leadership Network, which has a mission to support leadership opportunities for women of all races and stages in their personal and professional life. The group hosts discussions with panelists representing elected officials, entrepreneurs, and writers, all sharing their personal tools for success. Hearing one’s story is very motivating, but my favorite part is watching the discussions following the formal panels that lead to relationships and action.
DC: How important do you feel it is for students to receive project design and management or leadership experience before entering the workforce?
GS: Very important. Where was this program when I was in school? Recently, my friends and I had a conversation about this exact topic and wondered why project management classes aren’t required in undergraduate and graduate school programs. In my case, I picked up project management skills throughout my career, and I continually tweak my style with new project management tools. I geek out a bit when it comes to finding the latest tool or resource for collecting and sharing information.
DC: What would you recommend to students who want to make a difference for sustainability in your sector?
GS: Overall, I think it’s really important to have a holistic point of view and not allow yourself silo-ed into one particular sector, industry, or audience. While telling your story is a great way to share your message, it is more important to listen. Remember that every person, company or organization has a perspective on a particular situation and a goal. Don’t assume you know either, or that you would be able to solve them. Developing your understanding about these perspectives and situations and a new relationship can have more impact, and in the long run, make you more effective in your work.