The key to the success of environmental initiatives lies in the ability of businesses to align their growth strategies with sustainability goals.

Neelima Kadirisani, our next pathbreaker, Sustainability Engineer at DSM (Netherlands), develops metrics and KPIs to measure the impact of the company and their products on the environment, and devises strategies to combat these challenges.

Neelima talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about how a focus on sustainability is driving companies to develop more circular value chains, circular products, reduce dependency on fossil fuels and address all the social issues in the value chain.

For students, you should measure your success based on the extent of positive change you bring about through your work .

Neelima, Your background?

I grew up in the small town of Guntakal in Andhra Pradesh. Water shortages and droughts were a perennial problem in the place. My father works for the state government as a rural water supply engineer, and my mother is a homemaker. My father’s passion & commitment towards serving the locals and his endeavors to make water available at every house had an everlasting impact on me. This planted a seed in me to focus on the environment & health, which eventually shaped my career.

I went to Kendriya Vidyalaya till 12th standard. As the school curriculum promoted overall development, I was an active member of the debate club, volleyball team, scout and guides leader, and school greenery secretary.  

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

My father, an engineer, is my role model. I wanted to follow him and become an engineer. But this was not a common choice for a girl in my family and village. But my father always supported me, and my preparation for the IIT JEE entrance examination started from Day 1 of the 11th standard (well, many might say I began the practice a little late). Initially, the 11th syllabus was challenging for me. It felt like the 10th science textbook was made into four different (and huge) books.

I started my IIT JEE training via a correspondence course along with my school. Though my concepts were clear, I lacked the speed to answer multiple-choice questions in a fixed amount of time. Hence, I did not qualify for the entrance examination on my first attempt. Everyone around consoled me and asked me to take any engineering course at a college near my hometown. 

However, my parents and I did not lose hope, and against all advice, I went for a long-term IIT JEE entrance preparation (full Time). During this period, I realized why I couldn’t clear the exam on my first attempt. Preparation for these entrance examinations included:

  • Getting my concepts clear as well as constant practice in a limited time.
  • Test-taking strategy.
  • Managing anxiety and excitement.  

After a year-long preparation, I succeeded in the IIT JEE entrance examination. I joined the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras, to pursue my Bachelor of Technology in Metallurgical and Materials Engineering. 

Today, I also hold a master’s in Sustainability, Green Energy, and CSR from Bocconi University, Milan, Italy. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

In my childhood days, my father took me to the small villages where he was working on providing drinking water facilities. I learned about my region’s challenges concerning water, education, and the lack of many essential resources at a young age. 

After my graduation, I joined Tata Steel Ltd as Manager, Operations. I worked in a manufacturing unit that converted liquid Iron into steel. As operations manager, I got exposure to process improvement, quality improvement, raw material handling, workplace safety, and factory emissions. Working closely on the environment, health, safety, and industrial waste disposal aspects, I became curious about sustainability. I took an introductory online course on this subject. I really got interested in sustainability studies. I wanted to learn more about it, so I pursued all the good online courses. When I realized there is a workstream that focuses on the environment, greenhouse gas emissions, waste management, and social issues (e.g., human rights, child labor), I was confident this is the area where I want to dedicate my professional career.

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

During my preparation for the engineering entrance examination, the only goal I had was to get into a good engineering college. Once I was in engineering college,  I learned that my opportunities are unlimited. Having an engineering degree opened up a wide range of possibilities. I could enter consultancy, financial sector, core roles, or pick up and pursue any hobby I had. Choosing the right one from the myriad of opportunities is tricky. 

In my 3rd year of engineering, I got an internship opportunity at Tata Steel Limited through campus recruitment. I really wished to join a materials company, and I had to wait for around 15 days after my placement season started.

During my internship at Tata Steel, I had the opportunity to learn steel manufacturing operations and lead a big team. I worked on a project to reduce the raw material consumption in the steel making process by adopting optimization models. This was the period Tata Steel accelerated its journey towards digitalization. Tata steel has remained successful in the steelmaking business for more than a century now; they have constantly updated themselves with changing customer needs, technologies and trends. I wanted to be part of such a company. After completing the projects, the top management highly appreciated the insights I shared, and I was offered pre-placement at Tata Steel.  

I joined Tata steel as an Operations Manager and had to work alongside and interact with almost 100 people regularly. This helped me grow my soft skills like team management, project management, and presentation skills and shaped my leadership style. As manager of operations, I worked on process improvement, quality improvement, reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the production unit, and workplace safety. While working on waste management projects and GHG emissions reduction assignments, I became curious to learn more about this subject due to its impact on us. I did courses from online platforms to learn more. Based on the environmental and social challenges I have seen while growing up and now understanding the impact industries have on the environment, I was highly motivated to shift my career path to work on Sustainability. 

I scouted for courses in India and abroad which could offer me in-depth knowledge of Sustainability. Based on my research on course reviews, course structure, career path post my study, faculty, and university, I applied for Masters in Green Management, Energy, and CSR from Bocconi University, Italy. This course is ranked number 1 globally for sustainability studies by multiple ranking organizations, which demonstrated the program’s credibility. 

I received a scholarship from the ministry of steel, India, for my bachelors. And for my masters, I partly self-funded and for the rest I availed education loan. 

During my masters, I did a project with Ernst & Young (EY) on developing a framework for estimating the financial impact on the company caused by climate change. Working on this project helped me understand companies’ increasing focus on climate-related topics.

After completing my masters in Sustainability, I was looking for roles in the field of Sustainability, which would be a good intersection between my bachelors and masters,  so that my work will have a maximum positive impact. I accepted an offer from DSM Engineering Materials as Sustainability Engineer, which I believed was an ideal position for me. I could apply my knowledge of Materials engineering and experience of working in a steelmaking shop and devise strategies to support the organization in measuring its environmental impact and take appropriate actions towards reducing it.

How did you get your first break?

In my 3rd year of engineering, I had an opportunity to do an internship at Tata Steel. Post my internship, I got a preplacement offer from Tata Steel. 

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Patience- Believe in your abilities and wait for your day. I was tempted to apply for companies which did not suit my career interests. 

Challenge 2: Choosing a role that excites you. We tend to select a role based on pay and growth. Well, I believe in addition to these two, it is essential to understand if that field/work excites you, provides an opportunity to learn, and aligns with your belief system and values. It is easy to find “a role” but tough to get “THE role.”

Challenge 3: We do not focus on co-curricular and extracurricular activities. Growing up in a typical Indian middle-class family, I have focused most of my energy on academics and less on exploring other activities. But better late than never, I started learning new things like data analytics, photoshop, etc… I realized they act as a great asset on your resume and enable overall development.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

Currently, I work as a Sustainability Engineer in an ‘engineering materials’ company based out of the Netherlands. Engineering materials are basically high-temperature plastics that we use in almost every application in our daily lives, like our vehicles, kitchen appliances, phones, etc. With the growing concerns around global warming and climate change, accumulating plastic waste, and depleting natural resources, it is high time companies start taking action towards these challenges. This would require that they first measure their impact and then develop strategies to address these challenges without affecting the company’s growth. This is where my role as a sustainability engineer comes into the picture. I work on developing metrics and KPIs to measure the impact of the company and products on the environment. I then assist in devising strategies to combat these challenges and support the implementation of these strategies.  

What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?

The job is challenging and exciting. I use my technical skills to develop and measure the environmental impact as well as my soft skills in devising and implementing strategies by engaging with the senior management, sales teams, customers, suppliers, and other internal stakeholders.

How does your work benefit society? 

Sustainability is an emerging and inspiring field. It is high time companies start developing more circular value chains, circular products, reducing dependency on fossil fuels, creating sustainable supply chains, and addressing all the social issues in the value chain. Chief sustainability officer is a new CXO role that has gained a lot of traction. Unlike other CXO positions, the CSOs around the world have varying backgrounds, from engineering to law. With growing pressure from the legislation and consumers, companies evolve and take a sustainable path. Hence the need for sustainability experts is increasing by the day. And at the end of the day, most importantly, it makes a positive impact and reduces adverse effects on the environment and society.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

  • Understand what will have short term impact and long term impact on your career, and focus on the long term aspects. For example- first job from college (short-term), expert coding skills (long-term)
  • Acknowledge your strengths – We often focus only on our weaknesses and improving on them, missing how we can leverage our strengths. 
  • Compete with your friends at college but don’t compare. Some of my batchmates got placed in dream companies, some went into start-ups, some went for masters, some went to US & Europe and some even did not get a job immediately. But, 5 years later, we all are living good lives and pursuing our career aspirations. 

Future Plans?

I measure my success with the number of lives my work is touching in a positive way, both now and in future . My plan is to continue growing in the field of sustainability and help companies significantly reduce or eradicate any adverse impact on the environment and society. I also aspire to create awareness of sustainability initiatives and help corporations, governments and people manage their environmental impacts.