If, like me, you’re serious about seeing more women at the top table, then you want Laura Storm – CEO of Sustainia – in your squad.

Laura is a big believer in standing up, standing out, and doing things differently. In an ever-diminishing world, it’s refreshing to hear from a relentless optimist who talks about how we can come together to create a sustainable future based on the solutions and technologies already available. She also happens to be a kick-ass woman, who gets stuff done.

Ahead of International Women’s Day, I caught up with Laura on a rare sunny winter’s day in Denmark to talk about grassroots innovation, the role of women in sustainable development, and the real-life heroes who inspire her. 

Virgin Unite, entrepreneur, Sustainia, Laura Storm1

Katie: What drew you to work in sustainable development?

Laura: Well, as far back as I can remember I’ve always been driven by contributing positively to the planet we live on. Instead of having posters with teenage idols on my walls I was a complete geek who had posters of whales, rainforests, a huge Greenpeace poster saying: “Let nature live – it’s the reason you live”. That saying has stuck with me ever since. As a kid I saved up money to help buy a piece of the Amazon rainforest, and promised to visit that spot when I grew up. And I did – before I started University I went to the Ecuadorian part of the Amazon to work for the same organization I had helped as a 10-year old.

It was a great trip but I felt that the NGO world may not be for me. It was too bureaucratic and slow-paced. So I took a degree that combined political science with business, with the mission to apply those skills and tools to work within environmental issues. 

I love my work with Sustainia – it has sustainable innovation as a cornerstone but in a way that looks deep into business models, scalability and the communication we use to excite and motivate people.

Katie: Are there any aspects to your work that are helped or hindered by your gender?

Laura: This is a really interesting topic... Many professional women experience their gender as a disadvantage, so I made up my mind pretty early on that I didn’t want it to be an issue. I’ve definitely experienced my fair share of meetings when I was younger where a number of the men present just didn’t even take me into account – and I do, sadly, think you have to prove a lot more as a woman in any sector. But the environment is changing, and the talents that women bring to the table are acknowledged much more today than when I started my career.  

When I launched Sustainia at the age of 31, I think people were inspired by an organization that was true to its values and led by a young woman who took the subject seriously. It was an advantage to give people something different after decades of talks led by men in suits. It may have been bold to have a young female leader in such a global facing organization, but we’ve shown how it can pay off. Having Christiana Figueres – a fearless woman who is not afraid to show passion and true leadership – as the Head of the COP21 discussions is a huge part of the reason we saw success in Paris, in my opinion. 

Virgin Unite, entrepreneur, Sustainia, post its

Katie: The UN Women 2014 report on women and sustainable development states: ‘Women should not be viewed as victims, but as central actors in moving towards sustainability.’ What’s your take on this?

Laura: I completely agree with that. Talking about woman as victims instead of the amazing skill and capabilities they posses will continue to keep them stigmatized. In many developing countries, women play a huge role in societies and in households, particularly in Africa. If we are to empower these women globally, and help lift their families out of poverty, we need to take a holistic approach to gender, healthcare, education, and so on – it all needs to be integrated into a common approach around sustainable development.

Katie: Your vision is evidenced in your passion to work with the grassroots to impact change – how do women play a part in this bottom up approach?

Laura: Quite honestly, I think it needs to be mandatory for women to be included in every discussion, from community gatherings to multilateral negotiations. In the developing world it often falls to the women to feed their families, and I have seen how this makes them incredible stewards of the planet. For millions of women sustainability is not an option, but the only way of life.  

Since our first Sustainia100 publication, I’ve seen more and more sustainable solutions developed by, and for, women. A remarkable woman called Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola won a Sustainia Award for WeCyclers, a solution that gives low-income families the chance to make money by recycling trash in Lagos. It’s such a simple solution – creating value out of waste – but it’s one of many headed-up by women that totally transforms lives.

Virgin Unite, entrepreneur, Sustainia, Laura Storm2

Katie: What are some of your other favourite examples?

Laura: There are so many! There are some game-changing solutions, like solar lamps, which have had a profound impact on the quality of women’s lives and their chance to pursue education and employment.

There are some fantastic examples of disruptive business models, like SIRUM which redistributes unused medicines – their co-founder, Kiah Williams, has previously spoken about health being the bedrock of opportunity, and this is particularly the case for women.

Farmerline uses mobile technology to help smallholder farmers, so many of which are women; Build Change helps communities build disaster resilient housing and schools – and we know that more women than men die during natural disasters – which is led by a remarkable young woman who is also a trained bricklayer… I could go on!

Katie: So why are women’s voices often lacking from decision-making within sustainable development?

Laura: It’s not just sustainability, it’s a general problem that women’s voices are lacking in decision-making, but it’s slowly changing. But if we’re going to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls – which is what the global goals set out – then we need to be smarter about how we ensure mandatory participation of women.

I’m reluctant about quotas for women on boards which has been discussed a lot in my home country, but I think it plays out differently in the developing world and could be a valuable mechanism to bring women in at every level.

Virgin Unite, entrepreneur, Sustainia, Laura Storm3

Katie: How can we talk about women in sustainability in a way which is inclusive?

Laura: It’s critical we don’t talk about this only as a gender issue, because it creates the wrong focus. We have to see this as a holistic approach to problem solving. Female empowerment isn’t an end in itself; it’s the driver to achieve everything else. So let’s focus on the incredible strength and talent that women bring to the table. We’ve only got 15 years to achieve the Global Goals, and that’s going to be significantly easier to do if we include both of the genders living on this planet.

Virgin Unite, entrepreneur, Sustainia, Laura Storm3

Sustainia is shining a spotlight on inspiring women in sustainability this week to mark International Women’s Day. Find out more on @Sustainia and by following #100solutions #GenderEquality or visit www.sustainia.me

- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

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