Sarah Daly: Women in Sustainability

Sarah Daly is the Sustainable Development Strategist for SD21 (Sustainable Development for the 21st Century) and has a wealth of knowledge about running and building businesses, and has empowered other women to do just that.


We caught up with Sarah to ask her a few questions and find out more about how she got to where she is today. Have a read and prepare to be inspired…


1.      As a changemaker within your industry, tell us a bit more about your background? 


I have had quite an unconventional background starting life as a photojournalist and doing a degree in reportage photography; then after a year in an IT group rising from Comms Manager to Group Marketing Manager (right time, right place), I started my own full-service marketing/management consultancy which I ran for 21 years covering a wide range of national and international clients across many sectors.

Towards the end of that time, I had become totally engrossed in regeneration but especially the sustainability agenda, so I changed direction to focus on helping high-growth businesses in the built environment. Clients included everyone from architects and planners to contractors, smart technology and renewable companies. I was a non-exec director for an architectural practice and was invited to become managing director when the founder directors retired. That was in 2008, weeks before Lehmann Brothers and the global financial crisis; but during three challenging years, I steered the business through the recession whilst embedding sustainable best practice and ensuring we were leading the field with BIM and a very proactive approach to communicating the wider paybacks of greener buildings. We were able to differentiate and innovate and despite the market almost flatlining, we were able to punch above our weight and win some excellent projects.

I returned to sustainability consulting and to complete an MSc Sustainable Development and then became European Head of Marketing for a global environmental consultancy, which introduced me to another perspective in terms of the technical disciplines of the environmental agenda. I then got the opportunity to join a not-for-profit, Sustainable Homes, as Director of Strategic Sustainability & Partnerships, which got me into frontline lobbying and policy development in Westminster and allowed me to develop propositions for accelerated offsite/precision-manufactured housing, amongst many other things! I am still involved as an advisor to Government on sustainability-driven housing policy.


2.      What are the challenges you’ve had to overcome to get you where you are today and how did you address them?

I suppose I have been very lucky in that I have a strong entrepreneurial drive and am quite fearless professionally. I started my first business at 24 and grew it over two decades, so there was no glass ceiling and I was able to employ a lot of very talented women (many at similar stages to me starting families) and ensure the culture worked for us. Most of those women went on to start their own companies and that makes me immensely proud!

I am a great believer in continuing professional development and have ensured I always keep my qualifications current. I completed my masters at 50; it was exceedingly hard as a single mum working full-time, but with the flexibility of distance-learning and through exceptional organisation, I managed to ‘do it all’. It takes incredible self-discipline though and whilst 128 started the distance-learning course, only nine of us completed it. That shows how much harder it is to do serious qualifications once you are a working adult/parent, but for me, it was essential to augment my considerable commercial experience with a relevant qualification. I have picked up a post-grad marketing diploma and market research qualifications along the way too, but I am proudest of the masters as that was like a marathon and took sustained determination amidst many personal and professional challenges.


3.      What would you do differently if you could?

I am not sure I would do anything differently. Whilst I have quite an unconventional CV, it is the sheer variety and exposure to so many industries, sectors and issues, that means I have an incredibly wide sphere of understanding. I know many people who have only worked in one discipline in one narrow field and whilst they have deep expertise, it doesn’t help with problem-solving if you can’t cross-relate from a wide range of experiences.

The fact that I have run my own business and other people’s; been a non-exec three times and a governor and trustee – as well as working for clients in the public sector, manufacturing, retail, healthcare, education and of course the built environment and infrastructure – means I have banked a lot of transferable knowledge. I thrive on variety and challenge, so no, I think I have been exceptionally privileged to have the career I have enjoyed in such a wide range of roles and organisations and I wouldn’t change a thing.


4.      What keeps you motivated and positive when things get tough?

Again, I feel lucky that I have always had a huge capacity to deal with challenging situations. As I was an MD from a young age, I quickly learned how to assess and resolve problems and realised that I am actually very calm and level-headed in a crisis!  It helps that I am well-organised, and I love systems. If you have good systems, then it is MUCH easier to resolve issues in business … for a start you have the right information to know exactly what is happening at all times, so you limit the chances of things going wrong from within, like cashflow or poor project management leading to failure. Robust management also ensures you understand what is happening in the market and with your clients, so I have only ever been burnt once with a bad debt and it has never happened since because I have always kept very tight control of the basics like debtors and credit exposure.

There have been times when I’ve been developing new ideas and the opportunities haven’t always flowed as fast as I’d like, but I am very focused on delivering results and will keep trying changes of tack until I get the right outcome. Being a natural optimist helps, but I am also very pragmatic and can use my strategic skills to set out options and make decisions very quickly to get a result; even if it needs to be circuitous to achieve the goal.

I am also hard on myself and easy on myself in equal measure – if that makes sense! I am hard on myself by not allowing excuses and keeping focused on the tasks at hand even when it is an uphill struggle. I am easy on myself by recognising when external factors affect decisions that are out of my control. So, I don’t beat myself up when things don’t happen in my ideal timescales; I think I am good at reading situations and acting accordingly.

I have steered several organisations through recession and that is pretty scary, but it doesn’t half hone your business skills and each time we’ve come out stronger for it. There’s nothing like a rising market to drive complacency and a difficult market, to drive efficiency.


5.      What advice would you give women who want to pursue an academic path in order to further their sustainability career?

What I love about sustainability as a career is that you can apply it to every single sector and it crosses so many disciplines. So, whether you’re into fashion or sport or building or health or education, you can find a sustainability role that will inspire you. That is also the same in disciplines. From ecology to supply-chains, from hydrology to energy management, or in international development, diversity and gender equality, the variety is incredible.

I have mentored a lot of young people (and a few older ones!) and I always say that qualifications are only part of the story. From 6thform and all the way through university, you need to be really focused on building your CV with as much work experience, volunteering and internships as possible. Not just the mandatory weeks, but getting into as many organisations as you can to find out what you enjoy and what culture suits your personality.

Some sustainability disciplines are very scientific and technical; others are very strategic or communication-based. The pathways for success will vary according to whether you want to be in a global multi-disciplinary practice (which are ruthlessly fee-driven) or a charity or not-for-profit where you may earn less but be more cause-driven. The opportunities in this country and worldwide are enormous as (perversely) the sustainability agenda is gaining traction.


6.    Who inspires you and why?

I am very lucky to live close to the eminent environmentalist, Jonathon Porritt and we are able to meet up for a coffee or lunch; and I’ve had the great honour of working alongside him many times too.

Jonathon has been one of my heroes for decades. He has the most extraordinary mind with a great capacity for both systemic thinking along with  enormous empathy for every level of human and environmental cost in climate disaster. He gets the big picture and the minutiae – which is unusual. He headed up the Sustainable Development Commission and it is still a travesty that this critical team was disbanded by the Government at the most urgent time in history. His books and blogs are well worth a read!