Industries are leading the way to a circular economy by leveraging their infrastructure, technology and processes to recover energy and recycle materials from waste, thus leaving no residue.

Monika Shrivastava, our next pathbreaker, works as part of the Corporate Environment and Sustainability function of ACC limited, responsible for driving the group’s sustainability strategy, particularly focused on environmental dimensions which include Climate, Water, and Biodiversity.

Monika talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about how her work in the sustainability field provides an opportunity to be a better, informed and conscious citizen as well as the power to inspire/influence others.

For students, corporate sustainability is the future because environmental sustainability is going to be an integral part of the vision of every organization, industry or business !

Monika, Your background?

I was born and brought up in Delhi where I studied from schooling till post-graduation. My father was employed in Birla Textile Mills and my mother was a teacher in a private school. I have two elder sisters and one younger brother. Since childhood, in our family, the primary focus was on education and my parents had put in their best efforts to ensure that we had all required resources to fulfil our academic needs. My father also used to give private tuitions for Maths and Science subjects to make an extra-income. While our primary education was in  a private  school, rest of the schooling was in a Delhi Govt. School. Our parents taught all four of us, till 10th standard. And probably that was the reason that my favourite subject was Maths till 10th, followed by Science. However, when I stepped into 11th standard, Maths did not remain as fascinating and soon, Physics and Biology became more exciting. Chemistry was the one which I hated the most during my secondary education. 

One trait that was very evident in me since my childhood, which i can connect to my current profession is that I was very empathetic towards animals (or all lives, for that matter). That may be because I studied in a Jain school where we were taught about ‘Ahimsa Paramo Dharma (अहिंसा परमॊ धर्मः)’. Thus during childhood, I tried not to step over ants, did not kill mosquitos, did not pluck flowers and stopped eating eggs. I remember one incident when a pigeon got accidentally killed after getting caught in a fan which I switched on, for which I cried almost for 2 days assuming that I was responsible for his death. Secondly, I was strongly influenced by the fact that we (my family) faced a water crisis in our early days due to which we really had to make lots of efforts to fulfil our water demand. Thus, we were very judicious about water use and I hated it whenever I saw water wastage.  

During school days, I was not sure about my future, though when I was asked what I wanted to become, my answer would always be ‘I want to become a doctor’. When I got into 11th class, unlike other schools, our school luckily had an option to study both subjects – Biology and Maths. Thus I thought, I can explore engineering as well as the medical field.

In extra-curricular activities, I loved dancing, singing, whistling and drawing. Though I did not love sports, I was a part of the school volleyball team. I also participated in debate and poem competitions and won some. I was also interested in social work and teaching children. I always believe that education has the power to bring every change that we want to see in the world, in the present or the future.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

Just like every other science (medical) student, my ambition was to become a doctor initially. However, I couldn’t clear the medical entrance test after 12th. I decided to reappear for the medical entrance test. But just to ensure I didn’t waste an academic year, I took admission in Botany (Honours) in Hansraj College, and continued my preparation for medical exams. I could have chosen zoology as well, but I hated dissections at that time. Thus, I preferred botany over zoology.  At that time, people used to tell me that if I couldn’t dissect a rat, how would I become a doctor? That’s when I realised that we probably (the medical field and myself) didn’t deserve each other. I decided to continue with B.Sc. During this time, I developed a connection with nature and its beauty fascinated me. (Thanks to those botanical excursions during graduation). I also enrolled myself in a German Certificate Course, since the university classes were conducted in our college (in fact in our classroom). I loved the course just because of my German Teacher. She was one of the most learned, dedicated and honest teachers I have ever seen and that’s the reason that she is still one of the most favourite teachers in my life. 

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

Once I finished my graduation, there were several post-graduation courses which were being talked about (apart from generic master’s degrees), such as Environmental Science, Food Technology, and Biotechnology etc.  Thus I decided to prepare for getting into these new fields. But again, to keep myself a little busy, I took admission in the German language Diploma Course. During the same time, my mother also got seriously ill which affected me a lot mentally. In October 2003, she passed away and left me and my family broken for life. Months passed before I could get over this huge shock, and after being motivated by one of my close friends, I appeared for the entrance test at TERI School of Advanced Studies in 2004 and was selected for Masters in Natural Resource Management.  

Tell us about your career path in Corporate Sustainability

By the end of my masters, I was quite clear that I wanted to take up a career in the Environmental field only. During my masters, I was posted in Hyderabad for my final semester project which I did with International Crop Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). The project was on carbon sequestration (the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide to slow or reverse atmospheric CO2 pollution) through different agricultural practices for which I worked in a village. I ran a simulation model. One of my batchmates was also working in the same village, but her topic was related to watershed management.  I was motivated by the field work we did there, understood the environmental challenges at the community level and how small efforts could address those challenges, leading to a bigger change. The village was adopted by ICRISAT and was doing great as compared to other such villages around. During the course of the project, I realized that, with the intervention of govt. & non govt. institutions, the lives and livelihoods of people dependent on agricultural income can be enhanced. 

My first job was in an NGO called ‘Bombay Natural History Society’. I loved this job. I got first-hand experience of working in Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary, that too in a city like Delhi. My task was to conduct a nature trail for the general public (mostly school students) and create awareness about environment protection. I was feeling like an on-the-field teacher while talking on the subject of the Environment. After working there for 9 months, I switched to another NGO called ‘ATREE’.  Two months into this new organisation, I got an offer from ACC Limited to work in their Geocycle Department in Mumbai. This was something I had applied to and was interviewed for, on the recommendation of one of my close friends and TERI batchmate who had already got placed there the previous year.
I joined ACC in July 2007, and working in the Geocycle Department was surely a memorable experience for various reasons. The very first reason was that it was a new department in ACC at that time, dealing with waste co-processing (sustainable way of processing wastes using a cement kiln) in Cement manufacturing. The concept was in a very nascent stage and whoever heard about this, used to get quite impressed with the technology. Initially, I worked for business development where I had to introduce this concept to other industries and convince them to become our customer for their waste disposal through co-processing, as it was considered a better solution than landfilling and incineration. Now the co-processing concept is widely known and practiced by almost all cement companies. Another reason for my joining was that the department had five other TERI batch mates among whom 2 were my closest friends from TERI. Thus, it was a fun and learning experience while working. Also, our line managers were very inspiring and motivating which kept our morale high, which is very rare these days.
Some of you might be aware that ACC gives utmost importance to safety in operation which was quite evident since the time I joined.  So, after working in business development for a year and a half, in the beginning of 2009, I was given the responsibility of taking care of the health and safety aspects associated with the incoming wastes and developing a system in order to ensure safety of our employees. During that period, I developed and created a system comprising a Risk Assessment Procedure for various types of wastes coming into our premises. For that, I used to visit each client in order to assess their waste from a safety point of view and conduct training for our workers. Though this experience was a great learning experience for me, my interest was lost over the period and I asked for a role change. Thus in mid-2010, I started handling the communication aspects for Geocycle. Here, I again interacted with various stakeholders and tried to get insights so that we could make a communication and engagement plan for each location. 

In 2012, I got an opportunity to work with ACC’s parent company, Holcim, and World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) for almost a year. My name was recommended by my then CSR head and I managed to get this role among many candidates who were interviewed during that time. This is surely the most memorable role I took up in my entire career.

In 2013, I re-joined my company ACC Limited in India as I thought I should give back to the company whatever I had learnt in the past one year in Holcim. Thus I was placed in the Environment and Sustainability department and since then I have been leading Biodiversity for ACC through which I facilitate the Biodiversity assessment of all our locations, drive strategy, policy and various biodiversity initiatives and conduct training. Along with Biodiversity, I have been also working extensively on other important areas of sustainability such as Climate, Water which has gained a lot for momentum over the last few years. I am also responsible for sustainability/ESG Disclosure for ACC. 

How did you get your first break? 

Towards the end of my final semester during post-graduation, as I was in Hyderabad, I could not attend few of the placement interviews conducted by my college. By the time I returned, many of my batch mates were already placed. That time, I really felt depressed and lost. At that time, we were also facing some financial challenges. So I couldn’t sit back idle. Thus I started searching for a job myself and came across a few openings. I failed in one and cracked the other one. This was an opening for an Education Assistant in the Conservation Education Centre of Bombay Natural History society (BNHS) and I appeared for the interview. I got through this and bagged my first job. Since it was an NGO, the salary was not lucrative. But I loved that job.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Getting over my mother’s demise – I was the most pampered and protected child in my family. When my mother passed away, I could not get over it for a long time. I thought I would not be able to do anything on my own, as I was dependent on her and my sisters for every small thing. 

Apart from my family, my friends supported me a lot during that time by visiting almost every day for some time, to help me get over this phase and also motivated me to become an independent, strong and a confident person. 

Financials: Year 2006-2007 was the most difficult time for me, financially and emotionally, during which my second elder sister got married, my brother was pursuing his last year of engineering, my father was not doing well health-wise and thus stopped taking tuitions. I was the only earning member and working in an NGO. But nevertheless, this experience helped me develop myself, remain humble and empathetic towards people who are going through tough times.  

We (my family and I) handled it together by cutting down our expenses, by saving more and remaining optimistic about the future (believing in the phrase ‘this too shall pass’). Finally, after a year, I got an offer from ACC Limited and my brother was also placed in Wipro. 

Where do you work now? Tell us about your current role in Corporate Sustainability & Biodiversity

Currently I work in the Corporate Environment and Sustainability function of ACC limited. I am primarily responsible for the Sustainability and ESG disclosures for my company including the annual integrated report, Dow Jones Sustainability Index, Climate Disclosure Project (CDP) etc. These disclosures help our various stakeholders to understand how we are progressing on various parameters, minimising negative impact and enhancing positive impact on the Environment and Society. I ,along with my other team members, am also responsible for driving the group’s sustainability strategy, particularly focused on environmental dimensions which include Climate, Water, and Biodiversity. We at the corporate level also work on sustainability strategy for the company and support operations in implementing actions for environment protection.   

By working in almost all fields of sustainability over the last 15 years, I have acquired ample knowledge, experience and various skills such as communication skills, stakeholder engagement, data analytical skills, problem solving skills etc. 

What is it you love about this job?

I love the aspect of continuous learning which I am gaining in my current job profile. I joined the Sustainability Department in 2013 when I was given only the Biodiversity profile. But over the years, I gained considerable amount of knowledge not only in environment – such as Climate, Circular Economy, Water, biodiversity but also on Social and Governance aspects such as Human Rights, Gender Diversity, CSR, Board structure, Code of conduct, Sustainable Procurement etc

How does your work benefit society?

I feel that working in the sustainability field is very inspiring as it gives you an opportunity to be a better, informed and conscious citizen as well as the power to inspire/influence others. I also feel a sense of contribution towards this society and planet, though it would be greater if you work on the ground. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Though there are many roles and assignments which are close to me, my work as a WBCSD Future Leader in 2012 was the most memorable role I have worked on. It was a 10-month assignment where I got an opportunity to work with many like-minded people from various companies hailing from different countries. This was a role based in Switzerland which was surely a great reason to remember for life. During this tenure, I also got a chance to lead a few of the projects and to represent ACC’s parent company – Holcim, in a few international forums such as World Conservation Congress, CBD COP which took place in Washington, US; Jeju, Korea and Hyderabad. I had a great time learning personally and professionally.

Also, being  in my first job, working in a Wildlife Sanctuary and sensitizing children about environment protection was surely a satisfying experience and very close to my heart.  

Your advice to students based on your experience?

1. Gain basic knowledge in different fields, but identify your most interesting area. Try to develop your career in that particular area which you love and feel passionate about.

2. Learn, learn and learn – Nothing goes as waste. I never thought that the German language which I learnt would be useful. (It helped me a lot during my days in Switzerland). 

3. Don’t get scared of failures. Try and try again. But don’t lose hope. Something good will surely happen if not today then tomorrow. 

Future Plans?

I am really looking forward to leading a complete sustainability function of a corporate OR to venture into a program that develops my leadership skills.