In Conversation with Award-Winning Sustainability Leader Supriya Verma

A sustainability strategist, sustainability advocate, and social entrepreneur

Sustainability, Leadership, Supriya Verma, Corporate Knights, Sustainable Development, Awards, Top 30 Under 30, Environment, Economy, Society, SDGs, The SustainabilityX® Magazine
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Last year, Supriya Verma was named a Corporate Knights’ 2019’s Top 30 Under 30 Sustainability Leader for her work towards helping achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals #11, Sustainable Cities & Communities, and #12, Responsible Consumption & Production amongst many youth figures in the world of sustainability. In her words, she attributes this to her "non-linear journey" which has led her to develop an interdisciplinary mindset she is widely known for, prompting her to develop holistic solutions through a multi-pronged problem-solving approach.


We had the pleasure of speaking to social entrepreneur, Supriya Verma, a global citizen, Canada’s Top 30 Under 30 in sustainability leadership, and founder of SustainabilityX®, to learn more about her journey.


Q: What aspect of leadership and change-making are you most widely known for? An issue? A skill? A policy? A cause? Perhaps all of these?


I believe I am most known for trying to make the world a better place through sustainability to bring about positive social and environmental change, both of which are important components of what I call the “intricate and complexly interconnected web” of sustainability. Through both personal and professional efforts, I have always tried to propel global sustainable development forward through action.


As a global citizen, I am extremely concerned about the state of our planet. The United Nations has repeatedly been ringing the warning bell on climate change for years. I have grown up with the idea that our actions should not solely benefit ourselves — they should simultaneously contribute to the greater good as well. Giving back to the world is our moral responsibility, but unfortunately, many have forgotten about this critical reality, or simply choose to deny it. That is why I have strived harder to take it further by exercising this responsibility in a variety of ways through my work in various industries, ranging from architecture and construction to media and retail.


As a sustainability strategist, I started the renewable energy arm at Belnor Engineering, later establishing the company’s unique corporate Sustainability Manifesto: Decade of 2020, an evolving series of corporate pledges committing to sustainable business practices to help achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, leading me to also recently start the company’s new green building consulting services arms. As a sustainability advocate, I started a magazine to bring the environment and economy together for a sustainable future through dialogue. As a social entrepreneur, I started a sustainable brand to encourage conscious consumerism for sustainable development. As a sustainability activist, I lent my voice to help structure policy plans for a green and just recovery post-COVID-19.


The common aspect between these diverse roles is sustainability. Never did I know I would work in the field– but here I am. That can be attributed to my non-linear journey which has led me to develop an interdisciplinary mindset that many have known me for, prompting me to develop holistic solutions through a multi-pronged problem-solving approach. In addition to critical thinking skills, I’ve always put emphasis on being a better learner and a better human being. I never saw education as a means to an end — a ticket to the next best job or program — but rather the beginning of a lifelong journey of growth, development, and self-discovery. The world and its disciplines are inseparably interconnected — there is no way to tackle a single issue by just considering one silo of a discipline.

“But as I always say, without discomfort, there is no growth,” — Supriya Verma, Founder, SustainabilityX®

I realized business has a lot of power to make positive social change and environmental impact. This power could be used as a tool to not only fight climate change but to also come up with all kinds of sustainable solutions for the betterment of our society. When I realized the limitless potential of the power businesses have to drive sustainable change and given that Belnor Engineering was already in the green building industry for decades before the green movement even started, providing sustainable, green, and energy-efficient solutions to North America’s top brands and institutions, I set out to literally be the change I wanted to see despite the discomfort of venturing into new territory. But as I always say, without discomfort, there is no growth. And harnessed with my interdisciplinary approach, I knew I could achieve anything successfully.


I’ve always been a deep, critical thinker, but my diverse experiences throughout my educational, intellectual, personal, and professional journeys helped me develop an even deeper interdisciplinary mindset that set the foundation for the rest of the path I had to carve forward, leading me into the highly complex world of sustainability and responsible leadership, eventually being recognized nationally for my efforts.


Q: If you had to choose, who would you say are “your people”? Why are they your people, and how would someone else know that they are your people?


Ideally, the answer would be “everyone”. However, there are groups in our society that need to be prioritized. 2020 has been a tough year for everyone — not just because of the pandemic — but because of a lack of social justice due to the widespread systemic racism that literally has no borders.


What happened to George Floyd has shaken the existential foundation of one’s identity for many people of colour and the entire BIPOC community, leaving many shattered within. It was like a rough reality check. Suddenly, it was as if we had been living a lie all along –that one belongs to the nation you have grown up in and contributed to since childhood. Perhaps BIPOCs never belonged and were fooling themselves all along for years, decades, maybe even for the entire lifetimes they have devoted to the country they have lived in.


I have been in even deeper constant reflection ever since. For me, personally, to be Canadian is about living by Canadian values with every breath — in other words, to be Canadian is to be the best human being you can be. But it looks like some people need help with that. I never knew the colour of one’s skin, ethnicity, last name, nationality, or culture really had so much to do with it. But maybe the truth all along has been that these supposed “faults” collectively hold BIPOCs guilty for their identities and therefore, can be judged, discriminated with, and even killed, with ease. But maybe I’d known this all along and left it to hindsight. I’d just forgotten.

“The rise of racism is a pandemic within a pandemic — but one without a vaccine, and one that has long existed before COVID-19, and eerily, may linger far beyond if we don’t take action now.” — Supriya Verma, Founder, SustainabilityX®

“BIPOCs aren’t human at all, only white people are” is the new social norm — the new dreadful reality for BIPOCs all over — is that what we are supposed to take away? Obviously, I knew racism was still prevalent, but to this extent? Not at all. I am shaken and shellshocked. In fact, I am disgusted. And with politicians boldly making racist remarks in public office, I am infuriated. After all these years, it's heartbreaking and extremely disappointing to see that there has been no change. In fact, if you talk about change, it has been for the worse, with racism and discrimination now brimming over the edges and an uprising of racists that refuse to back down.


With Floyd’s passing, it seemed as if it was all just waiting to boil over the edge all along as if all they were just waiting for was just one chance. I thought we were all equal — that is how I see everyone — as equal, respectful, beautiful human beings regardless of “who” or “what” you are or identify as in any context. Yet instead of an outpouring of support, I witnessed the rise of classic old-school racists and discriminatory freaks.


That is scary.


Twitter was on fire. Protests, deaths, and devastation have no meaning to systems, which are the real entities at fault, yet these discriminatory systems must still live on, with their faults on their sleeves. Are BIPOCs even safe anymore? Or were they never safe all along? When a BIPOC watches George Floyd taking his last breath, the dread inside translates to many things, including the realization that “that could have been me” — because if that could happen to him, it could have happened with any BIPOC, and that’s disgusting. There were racists around all along. But I had forgotten. Because I considered myself Canadian, above anything else, and that is how I saw fellow Canadians.


But apparently, many people identify as Canadians for the wrong reasons — Canadian values are not even on the list. When it comes to “being Canadian”, BIPOCs are the real flagbearers compared to others that have forgotten their own native Canadian values. The rise of racism is a pandemic within a pandemic — but one without a vaccine, and one that has long existed before COVID-19, and eerily, may linger far beyond if we don’t take action now. I am all about values, and racists need to be reminded about them before they drown in regret of their insensitive actions, harsh words, misinformed opinions, and miscalculated thoughts.


George Floyd reminded me of the reality and forced me to reflect on my past and realize that a lot of the events and experiences that I had let go and brushed under the rug attributing them to chance and randomness were actually racist and discriminatory. This goes back all the way back to the first day of kindergarten up till now. I have been through some of the most bizarre life experiences because of these social constructs. I can write a book to detail each and every experience, but in a nutshell, I’ve witnessed people lose jobs, businesses lose partnerships, friends lose friends and significant others, students discriminated with, and so on, all because of the colour of their skin and/or their ethnicity.


A true human being respects and helps people in need instead of judging them and snickering at systems that need change. Where is the cultural sensitivity and emotional intelligence? Where are the basic human values of respect and acceptance? What is this? Discrimination in the form of racism? Colourism? Ethinicicism? Is that even a word? For these reasons, I would consider “my people” to be the entire BIPOC community around the world.


They deserve better.

 

HAVE YOU READ?

 

Q: What values are most important to you? What motivates you to act on those values? How would someone know you hold those values?


As a global citizen and humanitarian, what I believe a lot of people have forgotten about, is humanity. I want to be known as a good human being, and I would expect others to live by the same values of humanity. I want to tell the world that humanity still exists — that it has always won & will always win over hate and disrespect, and I would expect others to harbour the same beliefs. Actions speak louder than words, which is why I have always let my actions speak for themselves. I have said this repeatedly and will continue to say so. You can be the greatest professional out there, but if you are not a good human being, I have no respect for that fluff. The successful career of an individual with an inhumane mindset is pointless. The two elements literally negate each other. Consequently, that success is artificial, hollow, and short-lived.

“Hatred and disrespect can only get you so far. Humanity takes you miles ahead,” — Supriya Verma, Founder, SustainabilityX®

If you are supposedly successful but do not work or live with the basic values of respect, honesty, and humanity towards others, you have lost the purpose. This includes having ruthlessly disrespected, dehumanizingly treated, and indecently put down others along your journey to get to where you are today. Hatred and disrespect can only get you so far. Humanity takes you miles ahead, and that is where true, absolute, long-term personal, and professional success lies. It all boils down to empathy, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills. How can one even think to lead a successful life and career with such critical components missing from their skillset? Those that think otherwise need to re-evaluate their values and reconsider their purpose.


This also applies to businesses — if you simply define profit as solely monetary, you are not doing business: you are wasting your time. Like I have always said before, businesses need to redefine the meaning of profit and use that redefinition to restructure their business models to include social empowerment. You simply cannot ignore the social impact of your actions, whether as an individual or as a corporation, and both entities have a responsibility to both be good and do good. Humanity reigns everywhere. Period. I could not emphasize that more. It is time people around the world understand that before it is too late. Respect is key, regardless of anything. Disrespect just does not add up and has never made any sense to me. Again, those that think otherwise need to re-assess their values and reconsider their purpose in life.


Q: What kind of future do you want to make in the world, say by the end of 2020? What role do you see for yourself in making that future?


Ideally, I would love to see a pandemic-free world by the end of 2020. But with the pace of vaccine development, some governments getting lax on restrictions, and some people simply not following social distancing rules, that may be too much to ask for. Either way, it is definitely not back to business as usual. A vaccine will not signal the end of the pandemic — our behaviours and how we collectively recover will. That is why I would also like to see strong Green Recovery and robust Just Recovery plans in place for post-COVID-19 recovery efforts, spearheading a smooth transition towards a more sustainable way of life.

“ It is definitely not back to business as usual. A vaccine will not signal the end of the pandemic — our behaviours and how we collectively recover will,” — Supriya Verma, Founder, SustainabilityX®

The pandemic has forced many to consider the consequences of their actions on the planet, such as air travel and mass consumerism, while simultaneously exposing the fragility of our various systems and highlighting wide gaps between particular resources and vulnerable groups in our society, such as the grave digital divide in education, among many more in many different contexts. I’m optimistic that now, more people will not only listen but actually understand the importance of why we need a Sustainability Transition.


In addition to playing my role for a sustainable future as a passionate sustainability advocate, an innovative social entrepreneur, and a strong sustainable development policy advisor for many issues, including a Green Recovery and a Just Recovery post-COVID-19, I would also like to help other people recognize their purpose, challenge their mindsets, and inspire them to believe that they too can make a difference and that every action counts.


Q: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? (professionally, personally, geographically, emotionally, perhaps all of these)?


They say the best plan is no plan. I see myself somewhere in the world of sustainability and sustainable development, continuing to carve my own unique, non-linear path into the future and beyond. I see myself helping to further propel the Sustainability Transition to successful fruition as a sustainability activist that champions sustainable business. I consider myself fortunate to have the opportunity to contribute towards this while motivating tomorrow’s youth to do the same and I look forward to continuing to do so in the future. The sky is the limit.

In the short term, I would like to see a pandemic-free world by the end of the year, and significant social justice reforms to tackle systemic racism. In the long-term, I would like to see a green future, where climate change is acknowledged and the debate whether it exists or not is over, with increased economic stimuli to spur green and clean growth. A future where global warming is no longer an issue, the Arctic stops melting, species are not going extinct, wildfires are not devouring hectares of land, floods are not displacing people from their homes, poverty no longer exists, children are educated, girls are safe in the day and at night, women are respected at home and at work, everyone has equal access to dignified healthcare and living conditions, and the environment, the global economy, and our society all work in harmony with each other to constitute a sustainable world for generations to come.

“Inaction and refusing to participate are not choices anymore — all countries are on the same planet; therefore, all countries are obligated. We do not have time. We must stop taking things for granted, enter salvage mode, take whatever we have left, and save it for our future generations,” — Supriya Verma, Founder, SustainabilityX®

Of course, that needs loads of people, policies, and global team efforts fueled by unwavering political and civic will. Governments owning up to their Paris Agreement commitments would be a great place to start. We would need to add accountability to the equation to speed up progress, with strict action implemented for those who don’t follow, such as minimal to no support from major organizations and governing bodies for climate-related emergencies for nations that refuse to participate. Inaction and refusing to participate are not choices anymore — all countries are on the same planet; therefore, all countries are obligated. We do not have time. We must stop taking things for granted, enter salvage mode, take whatever we have left, and save it for our future generations.