By Alec Masella

Since graduating from the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program at Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability in 2016, Karlee Siepierski has both shifted fields and advanced in her career to become the Corporate Sustainability Manager for Swire Coca-Cola, the producer and distributor of many beloved beverage brands in the U.S. While at first unfamiliar, the beverage industry has become a platform where Karlee demonstrates her attention to sustainable corporate practices on a daily basis. Her background in mass communications and sustainability work at Virginia Tech has combined with the XMNR experience to give her a perspective rooted in stakeholder management and systems thinking.

Swire Coca-Cola is an organization owned by the Hong Kong company Swire Pacific. While most of its companies are in the oil-and-gas industries, Swire Coca-Cola, of course, deals with a different type of fuel entirely. This bottling branch operates in 13 states in the western U.S., and has adopted a sustainability mindset throughout the organization. Karlee oversees Swire Coca- Cola’s ultimate sustainability goal: to minimize the environmental impact of production, sales, and distribution of products.

Coke Truck

“My focus is sustainability as it pertains to water, energy, waste, and packaging,” she explains. “The Corporate Sustainability Manager position is multifaceted. I guide the plants’ energy, water, and waste ratios to find where we can improve. Improvement can range from smaller projects, such as incorporating LED lighting, to larger-scale ones, as well. Those are the types of decisions I make using quantitative data; but there’s a qualitative side to my work, too, particularly in engagement.”

This engagement is twofold. Not only does Karlee interact with clients from an operations standpoint, she also engages the communities where the plants are located. In terms of water usage, for instance, Karlee looks into the water’s source. Researching the impacts on nearby watersheds directly affects her corporate decision-making and stakeholder management.

robot arms

“Among the biggest takeaways from the XMNR program—which I still use every day at work—are my skills in stakeholder management,” she says. “A huge part of sustainability management is knowing how to navigate relationships, both in the office and among the community. In the program, my cohort was so diverse, both in backgrounds and geographies, that I learned a lot about where people are coming from and what they have at stake. The range of sustainability issues we covered in the courses showed me that sustainability can be applied everywhere.”

Moving to Swire Coca-Cola after her first role in sustainability management as the University Sustainability Manager at Virginia Tech, Karlee was able to take her experience in facilities management and engagement into a whole new industry. “The skills I gained from the program are transferable,” she says. “Even outside of a university setting, I am able to engage with a community at large. My background is in mass communications, and it has paired well with these new credentials. In my role, I am able to make people care about sustainability issues because, in the end, they affect everyone—it’s just a matter of finding common ground. Taking people from stakeholders to sustainability champions is an art form I honed through my experience as an XMNR student.”