What’s your passion? What are your skills? What do you see yourself doing in 10 years? I graduated from Hamilton College in 2018, departing the Hill with mixed feelings of melancholy, gratitude, and excitement for everything ahead of me. I was bombarded with these types of questions by family, friends, and interviewers and I didn’t quite know how to answer. Over time, this became pretty overwhelming. So, I decided to have coffee with as many people as I possibly could. I took the summer off after graduating to travel and meet with sustainability directors, farmers, food activists, grocers, food distributors, and more. I wanted to gain exposure in key areas by hearing from leaders in their respective fields and — more importantly – people who are passionate about what they do.
Hamilton’s rigorous curriculum and the opportunity to combine subjects under the major of my choice allowed me to learn how to connect dots. I developed a nuanced landscape overview and understanding of the main issues threatening our planet and contributing to climate change. My experience at Hamilton taught me how to connect dots and that is one of the most valuable skills I could ask for (that I can’t put on my LinkedIn!).
For context, I was an environmental studies major with a focus on food sustainability, with minors in biology and Italian. Throughout my four years in college, I was able to study in a food and sustainability program at the Umbra Institute in Perugia, Italy; intern for Food Tank; and work for the World Resources Institute (WRI) for my D.C. Program internship. Interlaced between these experiences, I worked on farms, at a land conservation organization and for a food market/delivery company. My goal was to gain exposure in key areas across the food system.
Fast-forward to now – in the middle of a global pandemic alongside political and social unease – I am fortunate to be back at WRI. My role as a research and engagement specialist involves getting companies, universities, hospitals, and cities to serve more climate-friendly food. We use rigorous data analysis (to develop the climate footprint of the food they serve) and behavioral science to help our members reach the emissions reduction target that is in line with the Paris Agreement. You might wonder what climate-friendly food is — well, different foods have different impacts. Animal-based foods use far more resources and require much more land than foods that are lower on the food chain such as plants. Changing our diets is the most impactful measure you can take to reduce your impact on our planet. Our goal is to scale this messaging across large global companies and organizations to achieve a big impact.
My team and I launched the Cool Food Pledge in 2019 and we now represent over 35 companies serving nearly one billion meals per year. Some of our members include IKEA, Hilton, Nestlé, Harvard University, and the City of Milan. In October 2020, we announced a new initiative, Cool Food Meals (CFM), in partnership with Panera. CFMs have a low carbon footprint, already meeting the level of food-related emissions WRI research says we need meals to have by 2030. We aim to have the CFM badge on menus in large restaurants around the world to communicate to consumers which foods are climate-friendly.
Reflecting on the work that I’m doing and answering those key questions I asked at the beginning of this piece comes easier to me now. When current Hamilton students reach out to me asking how I got to where I am, my advice is always to gain exposure and “collect people.” Think less about what you want to do and redirect that spare time to comb through LinkedIn, courageously cold-messaging folks who do what you are interested in.
Building a network is no easy feat. But hearing from other people helps you on that journey to answer those hard questions. Building a network takes patience, a story (a story about how you became who you are and what you want to change), and a willingness to show that you are capable and ready to tackle whatever problem you are passionate about.