Executive MNR alum Nikki Mehta integrates technology and sustainability in her career pivots
May 17, 2022
By Brian Indre
It takes leadership to ensure that sustainability becomes a priority for a business and not just something that is talked about. Sustainability has swiftly become necessary for businesses and corporations due to evolving global attitudes, and yet it requires someone from the inside to ensure that the decision makers at the top are involved in implementing sustainable practices at every step.
Nikki Mehta, a 2019 graduate of Virginia Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program, recalls a negotiation exercise during an XMNR class that opened her eyes to the many facets and complexities of implementing sustainability practices. “Going through the process of negotiating with classmates, representing different countries and organizations, allowed me to see how hard diplomacy and negotiation is when trying to get everyone on the same goals,” said Nikki. “Especially when you start to look at different countries and their unique challenges, and try to see those challenges through their lens.”
Nikki has worked in the tech industry as a product marketing manager, building software and hardware through the majority of her working career. Having worked for numerous software companies, and additionally as a consultant, Nikki’s journey to become the current Director of Energy and Sustainability for Honeywell has seen numerous career pivots that led her on the path of sustainability in tech.
Finding greater professional purpose
Although her career in software and hardware development has been rewarding, Nikki said that her goals began to shift towards sustainability around 2011, while working as a product manager for the software company Deltek. She was promoted to Director of Product Management, but she felt that something was missing. “I loved product management, it was a passion; but as I loved traveling, I was alarmed to see the impacts of climate change, and wondered how I could help to preserve our planet for future generations and my own children, Raj and Roshun.”
Wanting to focus on using her skill sets to help companies build something that reduces impact on the planet, she got involved in a startup called Going Green Today, a B2C (business-to-consumer) SaaS (software-as-a-service) for sustainability solutions. The goal of the company was helping consumers become more aware of their behavior and make greener choices. She was responsible for managing product design and marketing, and launching partnerships and campaigns with Washington, D.C.’s Department of Energy to lower the city’s carbon footprint. Yet the instability and uncertainty of working with a startup didn’t make for a full-time career move.
After Deltek in 2012, Nikki served as Vice President of Product and Engineering for Textura, later acquired by Oracle, until 2018. In her role, she led product management and engineering, which included managing a global cross-functional product and engineering team in Russia and the United States. “This was a great experience, to lead a large team of product managers and engineers to develop mobile and SaaS solutions for the construction industry,” she said, “but I continued to feel unsatisfied, and searched for how I could make more of an impact in my career and personal life.”
That’s when she decided to make a commitment to something bigger. She was accepted into a leadership training program at Georgetown University which involved a great deal of inner reflection, and contributed to helping her decide to focus on sustainability full time. “It made me realize that I can’t keep going in and out of sustainability, that I need to be committed and make it my 100% focus,” said Nikki.
Making sustainability the main focus
Her next step was to learn more about sustainability so that she could use her product management and leadership experience in the field, and not just from her software background perspective. She started to look for sustainability programs. The more she looked into it, the more the XMNR program seemed like a great fit.
“I appreciated the year-long cohort program with challenging and thought-provoking team and individual projects. I learned how complex sustainability problems were, and how food, farming, agriculture, water, energy, and the many areas that were covered were interrelated,” she said. “The collaboration with students and teachers from different backgrounds prepared me to be a better leader in these cross-functional areas.”
“In my current position at Honeywell, I am a proponent of public–private partnerships, which I believe are important for success,” said Nikki. Her experience in the program taught her how the public sector can bring the private sector together to work towards audacious sustainability goals, goals that companies, nonprofits, and the public sector cannot accomplish independently.
“Working in the private sector, we do not normally partner with competitors,” she explained, “but the public sector can bring together private sector companies that may be in competition with one another, and drive us towards a larger goal and mission.” A great example is the DOE’s Better Climate Challenge, where companies commit to reducing their carbon emissions by 50% over 10 years.
Working to implement sustainability into the daily decisions and overarching goals of multi-billion companies requires deliberate strategies and conviction. “I’m lucky to be part of a company that has made sustainability one of its highest priorities. Honeywell has already reduced its carbon footprint by 90%, and our goal is to be carbon neutral by 2035. With Honeywell, we are focused on delivering sustainable biofuels, plastic recycling, carbon management, renewables, battery storage, and low GHG refrigerants, just to name a few—to help customers achieve their carbon emissions goals.”
In March 2022, Sustainability magazine included Nikki Mehta among its Top 100 Women in the field.