Inspirational Woman: Kristen Filice | Director of Net Zero Strategy, Zero Carbon Forum

Kristen FiliceKristen Filice is the Director of Net Zero Strategy for Zero Carbon Forum.

She is a passionate sustainability consultant, deeply committed to purpose-driven business, climate accountability, decarbonisation, and a no-waste world of circular economy.

She supports the Forum’s members to measure, track and reduce emissions across their own operations, as well as their supply chains, through individual action plans, collaborative initiatives, strategic partnerships, and lobbying government.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role.

I have a bit of a chaotic background that’s brought me here to London! I left my hometown near Chicago when I was 17, and have gone on to live, study, and work in 7 countries across 4 continents since then. From studying the genocide and human rights with Mayan Achi communities in Guatemala, covering knowledge process outsourcing in Hyderabad, India, working as a journalist in Istanbul, Turkey, and a 9-year tech career with eBay across the UK and Australia, it’s been quite a ride!

All of these rich experiences, and the people I’ve met along the way, inspired and empowered me to kick-off and leading eBay UK’s sustainability programmes. It started as a humble extracurricular with no real expectations. It grew into a team of 40 passionate, intelligent people doing amazing things, and a percentage of my own job and KPIs. Inspired by the impact we were able to create, I enthusiastically transitioned my career in this direction. After 2.5 years leading a team for eBay Australia, I began taking freelance sustainability projects. I moved back to the UK as a net zero and ESG consultant (leaving the Australian summer to head right in the thick of COVID lockdown and UK winter- a jarring life experience!). Everything’s taken off at lightning speed since then. There’s so much happening in the UK, and it’s such an incredible time and place to be. The first week after coming back, I had my first opportunity, and it hasn’t slowed. It’s been an incredible case of all the passion and work I’ve put in over the years aligning with what the country, and indeed the world, needs right now. It’s been a challenging, humbling, and incredibly rewarding journey.

In January 2021 I joined as the Forum Lead and first hire for the Zero Carbon Forum – the UK hospitality industry’s net zero collaboration. The forum was brand new, set up by CEO Mark Chapman, and includes all the major UK restaurants, pubs, breweries, and hotels working together toward a common net zero goal. It’s an incredible, inspiring organisation that I’m beyond honoured to be a part of. For a majority of the year, it was just myself and Mark. It was straight into the deep end. My role included a bit of everything –working together to set up and run a non-profit start up, while managing members’ net zero journeys, leading our 3 working groups, building and launching the sector’s roadmap to net zero in October of last year, and delivering over 30 individual climate action plans of about 100 pages each for members, outlining their opportunities across our 10 key sector emission areas.

This year, we’ve brought on 4 new team members, and I’ve transitioned to lead the Zero Carbon Services branch of the company as Director of Net Zero Strategy. We work with members who want to take things to the next level with in-depth footprints, net zero pathways, product and commodity LCAs, science-based targets, and materiality projects. It’s an endlessly exciting and very quickly growing area, driving real, meaningful, and credible change for an entire industry. That’s huge. I’m proud to lead and be a part of this every day.

At the same time, I’ve taken freelance projects across consumer carbon footprinting technology based in Ireland, a London slow fashion app, a multinational medical supply organisation based in Australia, European logistics, and multinational quick commerce delivery, including the Financial Times’ fastest growing company in Europe. Everything’s moving fast these days. It’s so exciting to see everyone waking up and realy prioritising their sustainability and net zero journeys. I’ve delivered materiality assessments, early stage strategies, climate action plans, net zero pathways, footprints, internal engagement and training, board-level strategy sessions, and educational white papers. Having the opportunity to work across such diverse projects, clients, and business models has been an incredible experience. I’m always learning, which is so important to me.

I continue to balance my work leading Zero Carbon Services (we’re currently growing our team again!) with my own freelance consulting projects. I can’t say I sleep much, but when I do, I wake up excited about the work I do. I haven’t always been able to say that about my career. My choices, projects, and what I do every day are deliberate and meaningful – my work matters to me both personally and professionally. That fusing of my passion and my professional life with my talents and experience has been a dream.

Things have taken off so quickly. I’ve been so engrained in my projects, and in my free time all the latest climate science, IPCC reports, updates to the Global Reporting Initiative, Greenhouse Gas Protocol Corporate Standards, Science Based Targets Initiative, and the quickly changing regulatory environment (trying to push this to move even faster over here!). Sometimes I really do need to stop for just a second, take a step back, pinch myself, and soak in how amazing it is to be a part of leading the charge against climate change.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Yes, but many years into it. When I finished my studies, I bought a 1-way plane ticket to Istanbul without a plan, or a word of Turkish. After quite a ride, I eventually began my career as a journalist. Fast forward 10 years, and I’d followed opportunities as they came to me across Istanbul, London, and down to Sydney. I was very much riding the waves for those years, working my way up corporate ladders and taking every opportunity, promotion, and new project with gusto. That period of my life taught me invaluable skills and lessons, and connected me with an incredible international network of some of the brightest and most inspiring people out there. But there came a time in early 2020 when I decided it was time for me to more deliberately drive my career from here on out.

I began working with an incredible career coach who helped me really hone in on what’s important to me, what motivates me at work and in life, and how to tap into the enormous bank of untapped potential I felt I had sitting behind me. I took a year off work to advance my studies, drink in all the information I could, and more importantly really focus on my own personal and professional development in a way I hadn’t had the time or headspace to do before. I emerged from piles of ikigai charts, human givens templates, and deep, sometimes uncomfortable, conversations with others and with myself, more excited, motivated, optimistic, and driven than ever before. Really, this period was crucial to my career transition. And I have to keep reminding myself to pause from the million mile an hour pace of the work I do, to check in with myself and make sure I’m still running in the right direction.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Many. At every stage of my career. I think a really notable one when it comes to career change, was back when I was leading an internal impact team as an extracurricular, and was looking for my first opportunity to build that into a full-time role. I felt like I’d finally found my calling, and my team was doing amazing things. I was really humbled and empowered by the potential we had to do something even greater if I could dedicate all my time to it. I was on fire with ideas and enthusiasm. At last, a role came up internally, and I felt my moment had come.

The hiring manager was coming to London, and I spent ages preparing for a conversation with him. When we met, I expressed my interest in the role, and was told about 1 minute in, ‘I don’t want to discourage you, but you’re not really what I had in mind.’ Within the span of what wound up being only a 10min, mostly one-sided, conversation, I was told that about 5 times. I’m not what he had in mind. I’m also not sure what that means, or why I was put in a box before I had the chance to speak. I can’t help but think that had I said the same things with a 45-year-old male voice, that wouldn’t have been the reaction. I suppose there could be many reasons.

My line manager at the time fiercely advocated for me, but the conclusion was I had the skills, but not ‘gravitas.’ To this day, I cringe whenever I hear that word. It was so discouraging for me at the time. About a year later, that same hiring manager came back to offer me the role, right as I was moving to Australia. It was too late, but it was also not my opportunity. Instead, the next years of my life played out to bring me so much more learning, personal and professional development, and ultimately my dream career. And the best part is, I’ve gotten here by being true to myself, my own unique work style, my full personality, and all the skills, experience, and parts of me that come with it. With or without gravitas. I learned a lot from that experience. About myself. About others. About management skills. And about how to treat people. As a hiring manager myself, I make sure to always treat people with the kind of respect I’d expect back. I believe everyone deserves to be heard, to have a voice, and to have access to opportunities.  I try to bring that into everything I do.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

I could focus on work projects. but instead I’ll go a bit broader than that. I think though I often am so busy just charging ahead I don’t look back and acknowledge it, changing careers and launching in a totally new direction has been what I’m most proud of. Since I really made the decision to go for it, and put my whole self into it, it’s been leap after leap. I just need more hours in the day! There were so many moments along the way of doubting myself, the ever-present imposter syndrome. I’ve worked incredibly hard, have delivered projects I’m enormously proud of, and am able to drive every day through the work I do. I’m exactly where I want to be for the moment. I’m excited about this chapter, and all the ones that follow.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Being myself! When I first started my career, I was constantly thinking about how a ‘successful business person’ acts, speaks, dresses, presents… it was exhausting. I was surrounded by a certain ‘type’ of person and a lot of them fit this cookie cutter mould. I felt I had to do the same. I’m not a nervous presenter, but I found when I was both remembering what I wanted to talk about, as well as how to act in a way totally unnatural to me, it was nerve wrecking. And exhausting. Believe it or not, toning down my energy takes way more work than just letting it all into everything I do.

At some point it clicked- I wouldn’t be leading a project, or speaking to the business about something I don’t know about. So why don’t I ditch the slides, the rehearsed speech, the really rather meaningless corporate jargon, and just be myself? I started not preparing. I know that sounds counter intuitive. Of course, I’d think about a few bullet points to structure my thoughts. But I wouldn’t create slides, or write out a speech, or use notes… or script anything. I started talking informally and reading the room.. I started to be myself. Suddenly my presentations were full of energy, enthusiasm, and more than that, authenticity. And it was after that, my career really started to take off. I was noticed. My messages were more impactful. People responded. And I realised how many years I’d spent trying to be something I’m not, don’t want to be, and really couldn’t be if I wanted to. It was a ridiculous thing. There’s a famous Howard Thurman quote, ‘ask not what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because the world needs people who come alive.’ At some point, I found what makes me come alive, and allowed myself to be and do that. It sounds so simple, but it was really life changing.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I think it’s an amazing thing! I have mentored various people throughout my career, both in my teams and in other parts of the business. I think I get as much out of it as they do – the connection and the ability to guide and support someone gives me so much energy. As far as mentors to me, I’ve had various go-to people throughout my career. At the moment, it’s my amazing career coach, Andy. We connected during my career transition and have now been working together for years. There are so many amazing benefits – having someone help me focus my thoughts, be aware of and address my own character traps, believe in myself, highlight my strengths, and discuss a plan and all the steps to get me there, has been invaluable. I think the biggest part, though, is having someone in my corner. It’s a bit crazy that as important our careers are, and as much of our lives they take up, we’re all pretty much doing it alone. We have friends and partners to speak with, but that’s different. Having a career coach who’s on my side, has my best interest at heart, really knows me and my values, and supports me, has given me so much in my career progression. Whether it’s a coach, a mentor – I’d really recommend everyone has someone to work with in this way!

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

I would love to see every organisation, across sizes, industries, and scopes, have robust hiring policies to ensure a diverse candidate pool, subconscious bias training, and programmes to support women to leadership positions. Is that one thing, or have I cheated and said three? Really, they have to go together.

Especially in traditionally male-dominated industries like tech or carbon emissions, an extremely disproportionate majority of applicants are men. That creates challenges on the side of even the best-intentioned businesses to find highly qualified women for senior roles. The problem is so much bigger than just who we choose for a role. All other factors and biases aside, statistically, the odds are not in our favour. We need to make sure as businesses we work harder, change where or how we’re looking, and don’t stop until we have a truly diverse candidate pool to consider. That goes beyond just gender.

The next issue is that even when women make it into the interview rounds, we’re spoken to differently. Even women can hold career limiting bias against other women. We’re disproportionately judged based on our style, over our skills, qualifications, and ability to do the job. So much of our workforce remains really constrained by the same biases and learned behaviours that entire societies have about women in leadership roles. It’s enough. We need to be aware of them to undo them. Most often, people aren’t consciously interviewing candidates with gender bias. We need to call it out, and fiercely advocate for ourselves and for each other.

Finally, I often see highly qualified women underselling themselves, or not conveying the confidence, assertiveness, initiative, and self-assurance that men, who may be less qualified, display. We ask ourselves the question then whether she’s truly lacking those attributes, or if she just hasn’t had them encouraged and brought out of her over the years like her male counterparts. It’s impossible to tell. But at the end of the day, too few women feel they have a right to take that seat at the table. To ask for a high salary. A pay increase. A promotion. To speak confidently about their accomplishments. To promote and advocate for themselves. I’ve seen a woman who was by far the most qualified, turn down a role she was offered because she thought it was too senior for her. A less qualified man enthusiastically took it.  This is something we need to work on with all of us in the current workforce, and even more so with young girls who are our next generation leaders.

All three of these things can be acknowledged, advanced, and talked about in every organisation, at every level. The conversations can be uncomfortable. But we have to have them if we’re going to get anywhere.    

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Be boldly and fearlessly true to yourself! Be human. Connect with and let people celebrate you for who you are. Celebrate and encourage others in the same way. Authenticity makes all the difference. Be vulnerable. Be unapologetically you, without the fear of not being taken seriously. And with that weight off your shoulders, take your seat at the table. Drive change, create opportunities, learn, and build genuine relationships. When you bring your diverse perspective, passions, life, and personality into everything you do, nothing can stop you.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

We’ve just officially launched Zero Carbon Services this year. It’s a crucial time for us. As the lead of that business, that’s going to be front and centre in my mind for a while! Between that and my own personal business, I think there will be no shortage of challenges and opportunities ahead. So much of working in this field is constant learning, growth, and development – climate science is constantly changing and evolving. I have a responsibility to my clients not only to bring my skills and expertise, but to keep on top of all of it and constantly evolve and improve what I do. I love that part of my job. I learn new things every single day. And the backlog of books I’m working my way through is pretty enormous. I’m going to continue putting my whole self into this for a while.

In the future – well, I want to continue making a difference, driving impact, taking my seat at the table, wherever that takes me, and bringing others with me. There’s no greater challenge facing human kind at the moment than the climate crisis. And the window we have to turn things around stretches essentially for the remaining duration of my working years. There’s nothing I’d rather dedicate my life, my career, my passion, and my energy to.

My career coach once asked me to fast forward 40 years, and write a letter to someone I last saw yesterday. What do I want to be able to tell them? A lot of people answer this question by writing about the positions they’ve held, the status they’ve achieved, their house in the south of France, their fancy car, children, specific locations and activities. I interpreted the assignment quite differently. I wrote about none of those things. I wrote about how I want to feel, the impact I’ve made in people’s lives, the change I’ve created in the world, the potential I feel I’ve fulfilled, and the pieces of myself I’ve put out to do good in the world. That’s where I want to be. There are any number of paths that can get me there. Which one I take is not important to me, and in fact I need the spontaneity, opportunity, and excitement in the unknown. But I do hold on to that feeling, that impact, that satisfaction – that’s where I’m going. And it’s clear that the path there will be an adventure.

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