Interviewed September 2006
Valerie Cook Smith is a Vice President of Environmental Affairs for Citigroup, responsible for the environmental
and social responsibility of Citigroup's various business units.
Growing up in rural Farmville, VA, Valerie's passion developed early — and with a father working as a forester
and a large percentage of her youth spent outdoors, her career in environmental management testifies to the
longevity of that passion. After earning a BA in Environmental Science from the University of Virginia, Valerie
joined the Peace Corps to gain international experience in environmental matters. As a Peace Corps volunteer,
she worked for two years in Honduras helping promote the protection and proper management of a tropical cloud
forest national park.
Following the Peace Corps, Valerie relocated to Seattle, WA, to work for the Brainerd Foundation, a
foundation that provides grants to protect the environment in the Pacific Northwest. Next, she sought
experience in public policy, working in the public policy division of the National Audubon Society coordinating
campaign communications and online activism. Thinking then that her career path lay in nonprofit management, Valerie
came to UNC Kenan-Flagler in 2000 to develop a solid set of business management skills.
Her discovery of UNC Kenan-Flagler's sustainable enterprise program expanded her interests to the private
sector, but Valerie retained her interest in doing good while doing well in business and became
convinced that sustainability needed to be a part of her future career. She became heavily involved
in sustainability during her tenure at UNC Kenan-Flagler — serving as the chair of the 2001 Net
Impact Conference hosted by the business school and working with the CSE to develop emerging market strategies
for one of their affiliates, Coca-Cola. When asked to identify the most valuable asset she gained from
UNC Kenan-Flagler, Valerie replied that it was her network. She credits the people she met at UNC Kenan-Flagler for
her current position at Citigroup, saying the way she got her position "testifies to the power of networking and
In her position in Environmental Affairs at Citigroup, Valerie addresses the global social and environmental
issues facing the company and works with particular business groups within the corporation on their
social and environmental initiatives. Citigroup is committed to sustainability issues and is consistent in
implementing those initiatives they commit to — behavior that has earned them a solid reputation in
One of Citigroup's cornerstone initiatives is in the risk and lending policies of the bank — designed to
ensure that loans where the use of proceeds is specified are used in ways that minimize negative social
and environmental impacts. Valerie recalls that Citigroup started this sustainability initiative "as the
right thing to do, as well as something that enhances our brand and reputation. Now we are increasingly finding that
our [sustainability] expertise is an asset when talking to clients." Clients recognize that Citigroup is a leader
in managing the issues they need to address to be in compliance with environmental and social requirements, so
working with Citigroup saves them time and money later on. In only the third year of implementation, Valerie
sees that "they have found the competitive advantage in their initiative." Valerie has also been involved in
helping decrease Citigroup's direct impact, such as energy usage and CO2 emissions, green building, and
supply chain management.
Valerie noted that her broad background is useful to her in effectively communicating with Citigroup's varied
stakeholders, saying, "[my] experience in the business school world allows me to operate in the corporate world as
an insider, not an activist; but when we engage with activists, I have a past that helps me understand their
position." Valerie notices too that people she works with in her field who have an MBA skill set are adept at
identifying and dissecting problems and getting to the heart of the issues in the context of the business.
When asked what she sees as the main obstacle facing the broader implementation of sustainable
business, Valerie replied, "The world doesn't begin and end with the social responsibility of the Fortune 100
companies: we will need a lot more players trying to do the right thing before global change can occur." Although
Citigroup is committed to sustainable banking and is a leader in their industry, some companies, both in the
developed and the developing world, lack similar commitments to corporate responsibility. As Valerie continues
to work with Citigroup to bring about positive change, we can only hope that others will be encouraged by their
success to follow their lead.
Sustainability Reading Recommendation:
Collapse By: Jared Diamond
It is about how our use and abuse of the environment have been behind some of the world's great
collapses. It describes environmental problems and how they are impacting society in places close to home
like Montana as well as in Haiti, Rwanda, and Greenland. More optimistically, it also talks about how some
societies have circumvented environmental collapse and have thrived as a result.
Nominee for Sustainability Superstar:
Rainforest Alliance works to protect ecosystems and the people that depend on them by establishing partnerships
between the stewards of important ecosystems and businesses, and building stakeholder capacity. They have
helped us to implement a number of environmental initiatives, including offering sustainable coffee in our
buildings, using FSC paper for various publications, and mitigating potential risks associated with forestry
investments. They have a great combination of environmental knowledge and an understanding of how business operates.