When you have witnessed the beauty of nature since childhood, you have only one dream career in mind, to become an environmentalist !
Vinodh Valluri, our next pathbreaker, Sustainability Coordinator at Re Sustainability Ltd., a large waste management company, helps the company understand the impact of their activities and mitigate it through both technical and institutional interventions.
Vinodh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the importance of data collection, goal setting and reporting to identify, pursue and apply sustainability solutions in an organizational context !
For students, when you internalize your goals, it is much easier to figure out what is it that motivates you to consistently become a better version of yourself !
Vinodh, Your background?
I grew up in Simhachalam, near Visakhapatnam, which is a lovely and divine place full of trees, birds, and animals in the 1990’s. Watching the rain, the butterflies, the clouds, and the stars in this idyllic place brought me in close contact with the beauty and mystery of nature. Obviously, I had many questions about it all: why do some grasses have sharp edges? Why are some insects so colorful and others so drab? Why are raindrops so cool? Why are some flowers so fragrant? The alluring secrets of nature’s beauty and enigma gradually unfurled to me through divine intervention over the course of my childhood and education. In my teen years, I became vegetarian and decided to dedicate myself to the protection of our planet. Experiencing nature’s beauty first-hand set the tone for the rest of my life, including my career.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
As is customary for almost all South Indians, my parents had me pursue engineering and I chose Chemical Engineering to help me understand the impact of humans on the natural world – how we exploit resources, manufacture artificial products, and release pollution into the environment. With this knowledge, I went ahead to find and establish the solutions through a Masters’ degree in Environmental & Earth Sciences, focused on Sustainability, from University of Texas at Arlington. As a part of my coursework, I did research and projects in alternative energy/ fuel cells, carbon footprint, and green roofs, etc.
What were some of the drivers that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
Of course, my parents and teachers played a pivotal role in shaping me into who I am today, but my career direction was a choice mostly inspired from within me by Paramatma, the Lord in our heart. At every step so far, I could see the hand of God carefully orchestrating both fortuitous meetings and unsettling disasters that would carve my life path beyond my expectations. Living in a foreign country taught me so much about humanity, divinity, and the ephemeral nature of all things. Coming back to my own country opened my eyes to my culture, my values, and the deep friendships that proved reliable and valuable. I also received leadership lessons in my teen years from Ugandhar Manthena that prepared me to become positively determined about marching to a different drum, singing a mystical song, and living a remarkably different life. Most importantly, I go ahead with the blessings of my Guru, Sriman Vaisesika Dasa, who encouraged me to work for the benefit of the planet as an environmental scientist and writer.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
The basis for my planning has always been to balance my hearts’ desire with my brain’s analysis of the facts! After choosing chemical engineering, I knew I had to reorient my direction closer to my calling to protect nature. So, I took the GRE/TOEFL and applied to universities in the USA, and getting scholarships to do research in alternative energy and fuel cells. After settling into my studies at UT Arlington, I got the opportunity to lead the student environmental society. Through this experience, I learned a lot about sustainability issues and realized my calling for facilitating a societal shift towards eco-friendly living. So, I moved from chemistry research to sustainability as the mainstay of my degree, engaging in projects such as green roofs, carbon footprint projects, “save the trees” campaigns, campus bicycle programs, community gardens, etc.
Right after graduating from University of Texas at Arlington, I did a part-time job with their newly formed sustainability office. This experience helped me get an internship at a non-profit (AASHE) based in Kentucky. Both these roles aimed at providing research assistance and implementation guidance to universities on identifying and implementing suitable activities and projects. My work involved collecting data from across the university and calculating the carbon footprint, inspiring student groups through informative and interactive events, evaluating award applications, and researching to create databases of projects and initiatives across the world to better inform the university on sustainability. Then, I moved to California and helped Labcon NA, a plastics manufacturer, implement their sustainability plans including calculating their carbon footprint and reducing it by installing solar panels. This was followed by a research-oriented role at Sustainable Silicon Valley, a non-profit focused on sustainability research and consulting to help companies across the San Francisco bay area.
When I moved back to India in 2012, sustainability roles were simply not available, and I chose to capitalize on my writing and editing skills to find work in the environmental domain, starting with a role at Cactus communications in Mumbai. Giving priority to parents and family, I moved to Hyderabad in 2014 and explored the horizons of my own abilities – technical writing, program coordination, strategic thinking, and consulting. Working at Treeni Sustainability Solutions was again a steep learning curve, involving new terminology and new mode of work as a home-based consultant. Treeni helps industries across India pursue sustainability through helping them envision goals and strategize roadmaps to achieve them, evaluate and enhance existing operations, and implement new actions to become sustainable. My work involved comparing the sustainability performance (what is now called ESG Research) of various companies in a sector and between different sectors, helping create carbon neutrality plans, and conducting mock scoring exercises and on ESG ratings/frameworks such as DJSI and CDP. I also helped companies prepare GRI-based sustainability reports and UNGC-COP reports, and even co-authored a whitepaper on the renewable energy scenario in India.
To capitalize on my newfound skill sets and recuperate from a personal health issue, I became an independent consultant working from home on a variety of exceptional sustainability projects with corporate and non-profit clients between 2017 and 2019. While this was surely the toughest phase of my career, it remains the most exciting and cherished time of my life. I chose to rely on my writing and editing skills once again and scouted for projects through friends who knew and trusted my abilities, through hearing from existing consultants, and through writing from my heart at online avenues about topics that mattered. While I did engage with core sustainability projects such as materiality assessment and editing GRI report for a pharma company, this role also took me far outside my comfort zone:
- To villages in Badmer dist., Rajasthan within 2 km of the Indo-Pak border for assessing livestock and biodiversity
- To IIT Bombay for conducting a national conference on Circular Economy for industry professionals and academia
- To writing and narrating the script of a video documentary on handloom weavers and naturally-dyed organic clothing
- To coaching fired-up startup founders who want to save the world with their ecofriendly ideas
Then, I chose to join my current employer, Re Sustainability Ltd., where I have grown from handling recycling documentation to becoming the Sustainability Coordinator for the company.
How did you get your first break?
Every step has been a breakthrough in my career, not only externally, but internally as well. While external growth – salary, designation may be important, internal growth is more crucial. The internship I did with the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education was truly the first break in many ways. The learning arising from the internship gave me the skills – technical and interpersonal – to progress in my career for the long term. The personal examples of true leaders whom I came across in my career remain an inspiration for me to press forward with determination.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Back in 2010, as an international student on OPT in the USA, I had only 90 days to get a job or move back to India. To keep the clock from ticking, I took up internships that enriched my experience and continued my search, until 2012 when the OPT ended. To me, real success then was to learn as much as possible during this period to prepare myself for the future.
I moved back to India in 2012, a decade ago, when sustainability roles were literally non-existent in India. To find a suitable role, I explored jobs that could use my transferable skills such as writing and editing, and this kept me going forward despite lack of opportunities in the domain that I desired.
Due to my personal health challenges, I had difficulty finding roles in one phase of my career until 2019. During that time, I chose to become an independent consultant working from home and delivering desk-based research, consulting and writing projects for most of the time. I worked for clients such as corporate pharma companies, non-profits, startups, and even PhD students! This helped me balance my health, my family, and my career.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
Currently, I am the Sustainability Coordinator for Re Sustainability Ltd., a large waste management company based in Hyderabad. The problems I solve involve the company’s strategy, pursuit, and reporting of sustainability and ESG. This means, I help the company understand what sustainability means for them, how to act on it, and how to report the results using international frameworks and platforms such as GRI, IR, etc. For example, I led the preparation of the company’s first-ever integrated sustainability report by working with internal teams and external consultants. I develop data templates, help sites set goal plans, brief teams across sites, clarify queries, and maintain regular monthly updates of data. I educate and train people at all levels of the company to help them understand the impact of their activities on the world and reduce it through both technical and personal interventions.
What’s a typical day like?
A typical day could involve anything including collecting and validating data, training employees in topics such as UN sustainable development goals and carbon footprint, applying for sustainability awards on behalf of the company, answering detailed technical queries from various site personnel, etc.
What kind of skills are needed for your role?
The variegated skill sets that I acquired through years of consulting and scientific research prove useful in my current job, where I have to work with people as well as data, we have to explain concepts patiently on long phone calls and track data on Google Spreadsheets. The main thing I like about my current role is the opportunity to make people around me aware of how they can become sustainable and make the company sustainable through the work they do.
How does your work benefit society?
Fortunately, my work as a Sustainability Professional is focused on serving society and protecting the whole world by reducing the damage that humans impose upon it. The work I do helps companies design their strategy to pursue ESG and Sustainability goals. I help them calculate and reduce their carbon footprint, thereby contributing to addressing climate change. I help companies become socially responsible by guiding their CSR activities, thereby investing money where society badly needs it for betterment. I train personnel in innovating to make their work more sustainable. I strive to awaken in people the clear understanding of what is good for the planet and the society, and through my own personal example, I strive to inspire them to reduce the burden on Mother Earth.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
Working as an Independent Consultant gave me the freedom to explore and address problems that are not usually tackled in corporate circles. One project that stands out is my long-term and ongoing association as a strategic and technical advisor for Amsu Pvt. Ltd., an organic clothing brand that does not use petroleum and electricity in its production. Conventionally, clothes today are manufactured using artificial fibers, toxic chemical dyes and mordants, and release microplastics and other types of pollution, wreaking havoc on the planet’s soil and water bodies.
In contrast, Amsu creates pure cotton clothing using a natural process that connects organic cotton farmers, rural yarn-makers, artisan handloom weavers, and natural dyeing experts. Using my scientific insight and communicative abilities, I helped Amsu grow from an armchair idea to a thriving bootstrapped startup by giving them timely and actionable insights as well as lending my creative writing abilities to build their promotional videos and marketing materials. Now, I am helping them launch their website this year.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
It is vital to choose a career that is close to your heart because you have to deal with it every day more than everyone else in your life. Your choices define who you become. But, you also have to understand what is right for you, for your family, and for the circumstances at hand. What that means, is while YOU are the person who chooses your career trajectory, every person around you is affected by it, and affects it. When the route is not clear, or the desired route does not manifest immediately, it is best to do what you can with what you have in the situation and prepare for a better future. Try to realize that what seems like success and failure at different times are only steps towards the best version of YOU. Success is 99% preparation! On the path, you need mentors who inspire and challenge you, who make your best version come alive, and who are there for you. Learn to listen with an open mind, inspect your hearts’ desire for its validity and rightness, and evaluate the steps you take with as much objectivity as possible. Final statement: – YOU ARE WHAT YOU READ! Choose to read daily from the wise words of timeless philosophers and deep thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, Thoreau, Chanakya, Bhishma, and my favorite, Lord Krishna who spoke the Bhagavad Gita.
Going forward, I hope that my expertise in sustainability will help the world realize the Sustainable Development Goals and much more through my engagements as a sustainability researcher, insightful consultant, passionate writer, and technical expert. The skills and God-given talents I possess now can help not just one but many companies, universities, organizations, and ultimately every single person. I hope for everyone to become the best version of them for the betterment of the whole world. You see, we have a planet being destroyed by billions of villains, and we need billions of heroes to save it! Each one of us can be either a hero or a villain for the planet! Therefore, I shall aim to become a trusted consultant, advisor, and educator who helps prepare a generation of righteous, conscientious, and courageous people who act with compassion and credibility. And, I begin with becoming a hero myself!
“Truly, the greatest gift you can give to the world is that of your own inner transformation.” ― Lao Tzu