For Kellogg alumni, sustainability is far more than a catchphrase — it’s a compelling career option. Many are rising through the ranks to spark change in long-established industries, while others are building companies with sustainable practices at their core.

Mapping out a career in sustainability is a more defined process than it used to be, says David Chen ’84, chief executive officer at Equilibrium, an investment firm focused on sustainability drive strategies. “It’s gone from a concept word to a set of product and business opportunities,” says Chen, who is also an adjunct professor of finance and the faculty lead of impact investing at Kellogg. “Today, you can plan a career and define the needed attributes and skills that are necessary and important for success.”

At Kellogg, students have the opportunity to build the hard skills and experiential-based education required for success, he adds. Today, many students are eager to apply critical financial skills to solving environmental and social problems. “To save the planet, you have to learn the spreadsheet and the financial structures to bring the kind of capital that’s necessary to solve problems of that scale,” he says.

Meet four alumni who are forging their own paths while making an impact in food, farming and manufacturing.

Tackling the sustainable future of food

When Karuna Rawal ’90 joined a sustainable-food startup last year, she was excited to take on a role where impact was front and center.

A seasoned marketer, Rawal had worked in consumer packaged goods (via an 11-year stint at Procter & Gamble) and had agency experience (at Leo Burnett). In between, she also ran her own marketing consultancy. 

This time, she used her impressive credentials to open the door to an opportunity that was closer to her heart: promoting sustainability by launching meat and dairy-alternative products that are good for the planet. 

There was plenty about the opportunity at Chicago-based Nature’s Fynd that piqued Rawal’s interest. The startup goes beyond the maze of meatless food options to focus on products that have minimal environmental impact — its protein uses 99% less land and water than traditional animal protein, she says. 

After leading large marketing teams, she was excited to dig in as the first marketer to join the organization. “It’s an incredible adventure,” she says.

Nature’s Fynd uses a microbe-based protein derived from an easy-to-grow fungi (distantly related to mushrooms) to make its products. The microbe then goes through a fermentation process that does not require sun, rain or soil. Products include meatless breakfast patties and dairy-free cream cheese. The offerings are already on grocery shelves in California, the Chicago area, and New York City. 

The company’s research team is based in Bozeman, Montana, and uses Fusarium strain flavolapis, a microbe discovered in a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park. (The strain was discovered by Nature’s Fynd’s chief science officer and co-founder, and flavolapis means yellow stone in Latin.) The protein has all 20 amino acids, making it a complete vegan protein and contains vitamins, minerals and fiber. In 2021, the company closed a $350 million series C round, cementing its unicorn valuation status and bringing total funding to more than $500 million.

For consumers, purchasing food with sustainability in mind can feel like a small step toward making a difference, she says. “What all of us can make an impact on every day is food, which makes this role really rewarding,” she says.

Rawal credits her time at Kellogg with helping her embrace the new challenge, so she makes sure to pay it forward to the Kellogg community. Today, she’s active in the Kellogg Executive Women’s Network and the Kellogg Alumni Club of Chicago, and she participates in the school’s annual Marketing Leadership Summit. While she had long imagined that she would continue to work with large established brands, she says her time at business school allowed her to try on various hats in the marketing world, including developing a venture in an entrepreneurship course.

For now, her most recent career move feels like the perfect fit. The brand’s tagline — “Feed Your Optimism” — encapsulates Rawal’s outlook on the company’s future. 

“You feel good about yourself at the end of the day. I can look my kids in the eye and know I did everything I could.”
— Hakan Bulgurlu, ’05

Putting sustainable manufacturing at the top of the agenda

For Hakan Bulgurlu ’05, the journey toward sustainable manufacturing practices started at home. 

As a father of three, he loves fielding questions from his children. But one conversation about the devastation plastics cause in the ocean left them seeking more answers. He admitted that he too had few solutions when it came to protecting the environment. “I became concerned about my children and the fact that I couldn’t answer their questions,” he says.

Today, Bulgurlu is not only doing his part but inspiring others to do the same. As the Istanbul-based chief executive of Arçelik, a global home appliance manufacturer with 28 production facilities in nine countries, he approaches business decisions through a sustainability lens. 

Since taking the company reins in 2015, he’s had plenty of wins: Arçelik’s washers and dryers are now some of the most energy- and water-efficient on the market. Last year, the company’s global production became carbon neutral by using its own carbon-offset credits. Customers purchasing an appliance can recycle their old ones in an Arçelik plant that has already processed more than 1.3 million appliances. Increasingly, the company incorporates recycled materials, such as discarded plastic bottles, into new offerings. “It keeps stuff out of landfills and stops us from using virgin materials,” says Bulgurlu. 

The company is also open about its R&D — even with competitors — when doing so promotes environmentally friendly practices. For instance, a filter that was first developed for the company’s washing machine to catch microplastics shed by clothing is now an industry standard. With each load of laundry, it keeps as many as 700,000 microscopic fibers out of drains. Rather than compete by offering the technology, he introduced it to industry peers and it its adoption is enabling cleaner water runoff, he says. “There’s a purposefulness that we are trying to bring to the industry,” he says. 

As a manufacturer, Bulgurlu continues to speak out about how companies can approach environmental challenges. Recently, he spoke to students in Kellogg-HKUST Executive MBA program in Hong Kong about prioritizing sustainability in business. “It’s important to set an example across industries and across products,” he says. “We want to be very vocal about this so we can actually move the needle.”

His ambitious nature extends well beyond the office: Bulgurlu reached the summit of Mount Everest in 2019 as part of a climb calling attention to the climate crisis, and will release a memoir about the experience this year. These days, he’s also answering his kids’ questions with more candor. “You feel good about yourself at the end of the day,” he says. “I can look my kids in the eye and know I did everything I could.”

Professor David Chen

Research in sustainable finance

The research-driven Moskowitz Prize, housed at Kellogg, is fundamental to testing out new ideas around sustainability, says judge and adjunct professor of finance David Chen ’84. “It helps develop the tools that are necessary to train our students in how to create solutions for these problems.” Photography by Michelle Kanaar.

Taking a holistic approach to impact

When it comes to promoting sustainability, Victoria Zimmerman ’13, director of ESG and sustainability strategy for McDonald’s, takes her mission as seriously at home as she does at work. 

At work, her role at the world’s largest fast-food chain allows her to integrate environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals and sustainability into the day-to-day work of everyone at the company.

At home, in the midst of the pandemic, Zimmerman became more involved in her local government. She’s now serving a five-year term as a trustee of the Village of Deer Park, outside Chicago. Taking on a leadership role in her community gives her the opportunity to focus on commitments around net-zero emissions and mitigation while supporting a Climate Plan for the Chicago region. “My goal was to integrate sustainable practices into our local policies,” she says.

And she’s not just driving change in her local community. During the past five years, she’s also gotten involved with humanitarian work and initiatives that put the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals into practice at a global level. In the past, Zimmerman also worked for the U.N. humanitarian envoys and attended the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. 

Despite the busy schedule, Zimmerman says her dedication to sustainability in so many areas of her life makes it easier to create lasting change. 

For Zimmerman, the need to improve communities — both near and far — is nothing new. 

As a Kellogg student, she was involved in the local Net Impact chapter, which works with students on social and environmental change. She also traveled to Nicaragua as part of Kellogg Corps, an MBA club that sends student teams to work alongside international nongovernmental organizations. A Kellogg course on the intersection of public policy and business helped pique her curiosity about using the full range of government levers to implement change, she says.  

During business school, she landed an internship with the sustainable sourcing and marketing division at McDonald’s. The role focused on making strategic recommendations on communicating with consumers about the role of sustainable sourcing. Once she joined the company full time, her roles have focused on strategic sourcing and leading the global supply chain. She also led the company’s efforts on global food waste reduction and created a program through which the company has donated more than 3 million pounds of food to local communities.

As her role overseeing ESG and sustainability initiatives continues to expand, she wants students to know this field offers many opportunities to move up the career ladder. 

“I want to show that there is a career progression and leadership opportunities in impact,” she says. “For companies including McDonald’s, we integrate [impact] into every department. You don’t have to think of it as static — you can still progress through an organization while being focused on impact.”

Kellogg Global Hub campus building

The Global Hub: Sustainable by design

At 415,000 square feet, the Global Hub is Northwestern University’s largest building to earn Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. Completed in 2017, the Global Hub earned the U.S. Green Building Council’s highest LEED rating. Photography by McCaugherty.

Tapping the potential of regenerative farming

When Sam Schiller ’21 (NU ’09) chose Kellogg for his MBA, he wanted to use his expertise in carbon markets and agricultural communities to develop an idea that he could scale after graduation. He already had some experience under his belt: After earning his undergraduate degree at Northwestern, he had launched — and exited — a successful venture. 

This time, he was looking to create a viable revenue model for tackling some of the world’s most pressing challenges — environmental issues. 

In 2019, Schiller co-founded Carbon Yield, a firm that incentivizes farmers to use sustainable practices and helps them both adapt to climate change and deal with legacy pollution issues. Through Carbon Yield, farmers can get paid to transition to regenerative or organic farming practices without facing the traditional barriers to entry. For farms, this supports viability in the long run by allowing them to earn money not only from crops but also from their land stewardship. “We put the pieces together in ways that make more sense for growers,” says Schiller. 

Schiller launched Carbon Yield with Claire Pluard ’20 after being selected for the Zell Fellows Program, an applied entrepreneurial experience for students who want to start their own ventures. The program helped him hone his idea while taking advantage of networking and mentorship opportunities. “It was really an incredible experience that allowed me to have a great cohort of other entrepreneurs,” says Schiller. “During the program, I was testing my assumptions about what a business should be and making sure it’s something I can commit to.” 

Adjunct professor of finance David Chen’s Impact Investing and Sustainable Finance course was pivotal in pulling the company together, Schiller says. The course gave him a better understanding of how to assess the venture and how to provide the necessary financial resources to farmers. 

“Sam is effectively taking the standard finance and investment tools and applying them for a sustainable outcome,” says Chen.

Ultimately, Schiller credits his Kellogg experience for preparing him to take on the complex challenges of the emerging regenerative farming space. “We picture entrepreneurs as folks that can blindly go out there and take risks, and in some cases that works out. But most of the time, it’s about figuring out how to take the right risks at the right time,” he says.

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