When discussing change management, particularly in the area of sustainability, Miniya Chatterji loves to quote a line one of her mentors mentioned during his visit to Dubai to attend the World Government Summit earlier this year. ‘He said, ‘The people who are close to the problem are the ones closest to the solution,’ says Miniya.
‘That makes a lot of sense to what I do.’
For those who came in late, what Miniya does is… a lot.
To start with, she is CEO of Sustain Labs Paris (SLP), an enterprise based in India, UAE, and New Zealand that partners with organisations across Europe, Middle East and North Africa, and Asia to make them more environmentally and socially responsible as well as profitable.
It also facilitates the introduction of products, services, and new businesses that help improve the organisation’s profitability.
Among SLP’s clients are ADNOC, UAE Ministry of Education, Affordable Housing Institute, Airtel, Reliance, HCL Tech, and King’s College London.
If in the UAE, SLP supports among others, the Dubai World Trade Centre in leading the transition to a net zero emissions economy, in New Zealand and Fiji it provides environmental, and social assessments and technical support to housing projects.
In India, it underscored the importance of thinking out of the box when it helped establish 28 affordable and temporary Covid care hospitals and quarantine centres across five states when the pandemic was at its peak. The initiative served thousands of Indians who otherwise could not have afforded emergency healthcare. But more about that later.
The former Chief Sustainability Officer of the $3.8billion Jindal Steel and Power group has an office in the UAE, and on a warm evening we meet for an interview at a café in Dubai’s Al Safa area.
Dressed in a bold green dress, her hair in a neat top bun, Miniya, who is on the Steering Group for Sustainability United Nations Global Compact India, and the World Steel Sustainability Expert Group, exudes a sense of positivity and earnestness. Before we get down to the interview proper I request her to sign her bestselling book for me- Indian Instincts - essays on freedom and equality in India (Penguin Random House).
A collection of 15 essays that explore various aspects of Indian society, culture, politics and history, the book aims to challenge some stereotypes and myths about India while offering a fresh perspective on its diversity and complexity. Fans of her work and her writing include author and historian William Dalrymple, journalist Shekhar Gupta, and author and MP Shashi Tharoor who particularly appreciated Miniya’s work in encouraging people to adopt a sustainable lifestyle to reduce the carbon footprint.
SPEARHEADING CHANGES IN SUSTAINABILITY
With COP 28 coming up in just a few weeks, I am keen to know how she is spearheading changes in the area of sustainability and what are the major challenges she faces when advising businesses about sustainability.
‘One occupational hazard in change management is that you’re dealing with people who are not seeing things the way you are,’ says Miniya, who is also a jury member for the million Dollar Global Teacher Prize.
Directional change or overall change needs to be driven by the CEO or the owner of the business, she feels. But the implementation and execution is by the top and middle management; this is where the point mentioned by her mentor rings true– that those close to the problem are the ones closest to the solution.
‘The way to go about change then is to convince people gradually. Very gradually. You need to make it seem like it’s their idea,’ says the winner of the prestigious CSR India award for corporate social responsibility.
Miniya, who is a member of the Global Alliance on Climate Change and Education that was launched at the GESF in Dubai, makes it clear that she and her team at SLP are not mere consultants but integrators, helping build the venture either ground up or transform it.
While her team needs to be understanding and empathetic, they should also be making sure they are moving in the right direction, sometimes taking a stubborn stand, and reassuring the stakeholders that they need to go ahead because the team initiating change is clear about what it is doing. ‘This is the most difficult piece of the jigsaw,’ says Miniya with a smile. ‘The technical changes are easier.’
So, what tips can she offer managers who are keen to bring about positive and sustainable changes in a company?
‘The first thing you need to understand is what the changes are for and whether they are valid.’ The questions to be asked are: What are you changing and what is the end objective?
Do not blindly follow orders when beginning to make changes. Make a value-based judgment on whether the end goal is right or not, she says.
People look up to hierarchy. Therefore, the leader has to walk the talk, says Miniya. In effect, senior management should be setting an example for others to follow.
Miniya, who lives and works out of Dubai, Mumbai, New Zealand and Paris, says that some organizations in Europe that SLP works with are ‘leaner or flatter’ and may not be having a strict hierarchy. ‘In such instances, employees need to be encouraged to own the idea vis-à-vis sustainable change.
‘In such scenarios, you have to seed the idea in certain sections and areas; you need to get people to get excited about the idea or do little projects associated with the idea.’
That said one crucial factor necessary is the involvement of every stakeholder in the implementation of change. ‘You need that buy-in of everybody,’ she says.
Miniya defines sustainability as moving away from what the shareholder wants and looking at what the stakeholders want.
INCLUSION IS KEY
A time-tested plan that Miniya adopts is to speak with everyone across all levels of the company. ‘In some instances you might need to even speak at local town halls if it involves a larger population.’
It is also important to seek suggestions from people. ‘They should be asked about the agenda for change so there is clearly an inclusion of all parties in the issue.’
Inclusion in the change program would make them dedicated in implementing the steps for change ‘because, of the top 10 points, maybe the 6th one was what they had suggested. This way there is a sense of ownership to the change process’, she says.
Miniya clearly knows the importance of taking responsibility and ownership of a task, and the benefits it can accrue.
The daughter of an Indian Air Force pilot, Miniya was barely 21 when she moved to SciencesPo Paris for her graduate studies. A year later her doctoral director gave her the envious opportunity of working as a policy analyst in the office of France’s then president Jacques Chirac. ‘It was exciting to be working in the office of the French president,’ she recalls, ‘and a huge learning curve.’ In fact so excited was she learning and absorbing things in her new role that she admits she couldn’t focus on her PhD.
However, later, fellowships at Harvard and Columbia helped her refocus on completing her doctoral thesis.
Conceive the idea. This is the stage where you formulate what it is you want to change.
Cast the idea. Since you know what you want to do, how you place the idea or cast it is very important.
Collaborate. To do any of this you need to collaborate across the company which wants to change as well as externally. Remember, a change related to sustainability cannot and should not be restricted to just one department or group; it needs to be across the company.
A chance opportunity to attend a Goldman Sachs’ recruitment event at Columbia University led to her getting a job offer from the investment banking firm. Even as the offer was firming up, she signed up to work as an unpaid intern at Merrill Lynch where she got to ‘learn more about investment baking’.
Later, working at Goldman Sach’s London office exposed her to the world of private wealth management and she gained valuable experience in the field. ‘But the day I submitted and defended my PhD thesis, I felt I no longer had a purpose in life,’ she says. Not wanting to spend the rest of her life ‘making the rich richer’, she decided she wanted to help those who needed help the most; perhaps quit banking and set up an NGO that supports woman and children.
The woman who was named one of ‘India’s most influential business leaders under 40 years of age’ quit and did exactly that– setting up Stargazers, an NGO, in 2010.
SCALING UP IMPACT
Initially its aim was to improve women’s education and health, and, in collaboration with the International Labour Organisation among others, to guide skilled women from economically backward regions into the mainstream economy and governance structures.
Today, the Foundation has widened its scope and one of its missions includes solving the housing crisis that millions of street children in India are facing.
‘While the WEF underscored to me the importance of scaling up impact, my NGO taught me the importance and necessity of working on the ground,’ she says.
All companies need to change; every sector needs to change and become more sustainable. Right now the large companies need to change; the medium and small companies will be next and while there might not be a regulatory imposition at the moment, there will be a time when they will also have to change.
When the pandemic was raging across India and there was an urgent need to create isolation wards and beds for Covid affected patients, Miniya came up with a pan-India solution: converting vacant government and non-government spaces into temporary Covid-19 recovery facilities.
Drafting the plan in just five days, she made sure there was private-public partnership so funds would be easier to secure. Part of her plan involved utilising vacant government-owned buildings where individuals and corporates could refurbish them to create temporary hospitals with ICUs. She also suggested incentivizing those who chose to offer their premises so there was less cost to the government.
One of the first states that adopted the plan was Kerala where she was able to set up a quarantine unit in the capital Thiruvananthapuram.
Miniya, who is also director of Anant National University, India’s first university focusing on climate technologies, is proud that the cardboard beds designed by her students were so sturdy they could take the weight of up to 7 persons. The beds came in useful when equipping quarantine facilities across the country during the pandemic. The beds were laminated and easy to sanitise, a huge help during the pandemic. Hundreds of these beds were used in facilities across the country.
Another SLP initiative during the pandemic involved converting autorickshaws into basic ambulances. The nifty three-wheelers could be pressed into service in several rural areas where proper roads did not exist or when regular ambulances were unavailable due to the large volume of patients that were using them at the time.
TACKLING CLIMATE CHANGE
Awarded the ‘Most influential Sustainability leader in India’ at the India Sustainability Leadership Summit in 2018, Miniya believes that while protests and campaigns about climate change have raised awareness on the issue, the need of the hour is to provide a platform for solutions that have worked to reverse climate change, and find consensus and mechanism to scale these solutions as contextually appropriate. Among the solutions she advocates are recycling waste, developing affordable housing and reducing the use of plastics.
Keen to take home the message to the youth and to get them more interested in issues related to sustainability and conservation, the mother of one initiated the setting up of the Centre for Sustainability at Anant National University.
Described as a think-do-teach tank that focuses on affordable housing and indigenous models of circular economy, which offers courses and projects related to sustainability. While Miniya is head of the centre she also teaches a Master’s course in Sustainability at Sciences-Po Paris, a leading university in France, and her alma mater.
Sustainability can be profitable. There are sustainable business models; there are ways you can be sustainable where you don’t have to spend money.
‘All companies need to change; every sector needs to change and become more sustainable,’ she says. ‘Right now the large companies need to change; the medium and small companies will be next and while there might not be a regulatory imposition at the moment, there will be a time when they will also have to change.’
The next generation needs to be prepared to take on those jobs of bringing about sustainable change across all these companies, says Miniya.
‘Every company will need to start hiring right now. There’s a lot of upskilling that is going to happen.’
People will need to have technical and other related skills to move into roles brought about by sustainable change in various sectors.
SUSTAINABILITY CAN BE PROFITABLE
Sustainability is a cost centre, she says. ‘But sustainability can be profitable. There are sustainable business models; there are ways you can be sustainable where you don’t have to spend money.’
She believes that one of the biggest impediments for organisations to change is the cost factor to change.
‘The second is that, and this might be a bit controversial, but sustainability is not all about climate, and environment,’ says Miniya. She prefers to look at the larger picture. ‘There is a certain sense of herd mentality; now everyone’s talking about climate and climate change and I really appreciate and like the fact that the whole planet is coming together towards one single focus role.
‘But we have to also remember that we come from regions where there are many other problems as well. So it’s very important to cater to those issues as well and not only pander to the current [trending topic].’
Sustainability requires hard skills. ‘You cannot wing it by pulling out numbers and saying for instance 30 per cent of emissions will be cut, and the like. We need to walk the talk and get things done. And this is what I’m trying to do in my small way.’
SLP, she says, is in changing technology and operations for the better; creating the Anant University, creating Gitex Impact… ‘where you’re creating institutions, which has a snowball effect.
‘It’s all about seeing better value for the hours in our life.’