Women Leaders in Sustainability: Rebecca Burgess
As part of our ‘Women Leaders in Sustainability’ interview series, we were delighted to speak with Rebecca Burgess, Chief Engagement Officer at carbon measurement tool Spherics.
Rebecca is a passionate and strategic leader, with over 12 years’ experience building and supporting movements to advance the fight for an open, just, and habitable world.
In 2020, she was listed in Management Today’s 35 Women Under 35, the UK’s longest-running, most prestigious list of young, female business talent; and in 2019, she featured in the WISE100, recognising the most inspiring and influential women in social enterprise, impact investment and mission-driven business.
In addition to the day job, Rebecca is a mentor on the Catalyse Change programme, a trained B Leader helping businesses become B Corp Certified and a Non Executive Director at campaigning organisation City to Sea.
1. As a woman in sustainability, can you tell us a little about your background?
I have always been determined to have a positive impact on the world. After leaving University where I studied International History and Politics, I wanted to be a journalist and report on global issues facing humanity. I didn’t go down this path in the end, but I did realise early on that my drive and ambition came from making a difference. This passion has led me to work on a broad mix of social and environmental causes.
At environmental consultancy Eunomia, I oversaw a team of consultants to deliver the European Commission’s Impact Assessment on single use plastics. This role opened up my eyes to the importance of policy change to drive climate action. It also opened up doors to continue campaigning for environmental issues, something I have always been passionate about. As such, I spent nearly four years at non-profit City to Sea, becoming their Chief Executive and now Non-Executive Director. Early this year, I joined Spherics to broaden my understanding of carbon emissions and what ‘net zero’ really means for businesses.
2. You are the Chief Engagement Officer at Spherics, a tech start up with a mission to help businesses towards net-zero carbon by 2030. Tell us a bit about how you help businesses move towards net-zero?
Today, reducing your business’ environmental impact is complex, time-consuming and expensive. What if it was simple, quick and saved you money in the long run? That’s where we come in. Spherics exists to bridge the gap between the science-based requirements to avert climate disaster and the day-to-day realities of running a business.
By working with a clever combination of technology and climate science expertise, we automate the collection of expenditure data and gather extra information on business activities to calculate a carbon footprint that’s aligned with the Greenhouse Gas Protocol methodology in minutes. We then illuminate the path to net zero for businesses, by sharing tailored carbon reduction strategies.
This year, we’ve been recognised as the best early-stage climate tech in the UK by Tech Nation, winning the Rising Stars “Net Zero” Award in 2021. We’ve also recently joined 31 of the UK’s most promising climate tech companies driving down global emissions, as part of Tech Nation’s acclaimed Net Zero 2.0 cohort. In 2020, we were awarded grant funding through Innovate UK’s Sustainable Innovation Fund to really kick-start the company.
As Chief Engagement Officer, my role is to align Spherics with like-minded organisations, so our customers know what we stand for and how we’ve aligned our tool to existing best practices.
3. What has been your experience as a woman in sustainability working with several organisations at a high level of influence and leadership? What has proved most challenging and most rewarding?
I think being a woman in sustainability both works to my advantage and disadvantage when it comes to influencing and leadership. Empathy, openness and values-based decision-making come naturally to me. I’ve also learnt to be open about my weaknesses, put my hands up when I don’t know something and trust in the experts around me. This has meant I’ve been able to create a unique and collaborative culture; something my colleagues respect and appreciate.
However, this approach also brings its own challenges, especially during a global pandemic. Balancing a team’s welfare, alongside the profitability of the business is a constant pressure and demonstrates the extra work needed to balance people, planet and profit effectively. Not to mention the emotional toil it puts on leaders that truly care.
I believe being a woman and naturally sociable has allowed me to build connections and instigate meetings much easier than most. However, often the people I am meeting are older and male. Whether due to my age or sex, I have found my voice being muted, discounted or overlooked at times. There are still too few women leaders at the top, something I know SHE Changes Climate are actively campaigning for. They are calling for a 50:50 balance of women in all their diversity at the top of this and all future COPs.
At a recent event, I was disappointed to see the ratio of women to men Founders still at 1:6. As a proud feminists, I’m committed to calling out gender gaps and highlighted the issue directly with the (male) Chief Executive during the evening. We went on to discuss a number of practical ways to increase female representation for future events.
4. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? How did that make a difference? (What’s the piece of advice you’ve ignored – and why?)
Bianca Pitt, Co-Founder of SHE Changes Climate encouraged me to widen my extracurricular activities, as this would help channel my passion and skills to benefit lots more causes. I’m therefore busy increasing my voluntary (and paid) positions, including becoming a Non-Executive Director, Advisor, Mentor and Trustee. To do this effectively, I’ve decided to ‘work’ a four day week, to allow dedicated time for these activities. Whilst this is still a work in progress, I’m really benefiting from the diversity of skills being flexed and the positive feedback I’m getting, reaffirming I’m making a difference.
5. You’ve recently joined the Catalyse Change programme as a mentor supporting young women to develop sustainability skills and knowledge. What inspired you to get involved and what are the key lessons from your career to date you feel are helpful to pass on younger women wanting to make a difference in the world?
I truly believe if I had a mentor when I left University, my career journey would be a little less eventful and perhaps more impactful. That’s why I am really excited to join the Catalyst Change programme and help support young women in sustainability.
One key lesson I’ve learnt is the importance of culture in the workplace. Without it, even if you love your job, something will be missing. That’s why I would encourage women to really think carefully about their next job and treat every interview as an opportunity to get under the skin of their future employer. What are their values, purpose, what accreditations and awards have they one? What do their employee surveys say about them? Ultimately, do they care about you? I am truly proud that City to Sea is listed in the prestigious Escape the City’s Top 100 list and Spherics is on the journey to become B Corp Certified. Two great indicators of a brilliant workplace.
Another key lesson for women is to spend time understanding yourself. What’s important to you? What are your values, motivations, interests? There’s thousands of jobs out there that could be suitable for you, so before you start looking, really understanding those core beliefs and drivers will make a huge difference in the long run. This may of course change over time, but it’s a great way to streamline your thinking and only apply for things that you really, really want.
Finally, I really believe it’s important for young women to understand it’s not easy. I’ve been rejected far more times than I’ve been successful. It’s about learning from each rejection, refining your approach for the next time and gaining confidence; something women tend to have a lot less of than men. Commitment, dedication and a little bit of luck will go a long way. Plus a lot of proactive LinkedIn stalking! 🙂
6. Who inspires you and why?
Perhaps unoriginal, but I don’t care, Christiana Figueres massively inspires me. She’s the architect of the historic 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, an internationally recognised leader on climate change, co-founder of Global Optimism, co-host of the brilliantly accessible podcast “Outrage & Optimism” and countless other amazing accolades and achievements. This year she was also listed in Apolitical’s ‘100 Most Influential People in Gender Policy’.
Figueres forged a brand new approach to collaborative diplomacy, in a largely male landscape. She communicates with authority, passion and clarity. She’s also a mother of two girls and was born (and lives) in Costa Rica. What’s not to admire?!
7. What is the question you wish people would ask you, and what is your answer?
“Can you help me?” in which I would answer “I can definitely try!” I want to empower as many women as possible and really believe everyone should be able to spare 15 minutes for a quick chat if asked. Inclusive and diverse feminist leadership is key to addressing the climate emergency we are in and we all must support each other to force urgent progress.