UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School
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Valerie Cook Smith

Valerie Cook Smith


MBA 2002

"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 this expertise is an asset when talking to clients. "

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 informational interviewing."

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 sustainable banking.

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.

Valerie's Picks

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.

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