Chapter 3: Obstacles To Female Leadership

Caring for the environment came instinctively to Google’s sustainability officer Kate Brandt. She grew up in San Francisco’s Bay Area, in a small beach town named after the American preservation advocate and environmental philosopher John Muir. Brandt spent the vast majority of her childhood in Muir Beach running around in the mountains, hiking through the redwood forests, and playing in tide pools filled with starfish and anemones.

“From a young age, I was very aware of the incredible need to preserve beautiful places and the importance of the conservation of nature,” Brandt tells Corporate Knights in a phone conversation from Google headquarters in California’s Silicon Valley.

The 34-year-old has been at the helm of all things sustainability-related at the second-largest internet company in the world for a little over three and a half years now. Her mission: build sustainability into everything Google does. Brandt has overseen the company’s sweeping green agenda, including becoming the largest purchaser of renewable energy to offset the energy used by its data centres and offices and making sure its data centres send zero waste to landfill (so far 6 of 14 data centres are there). “My role is really rooted in driving the overall strategy at the company and ensuring we continue to find ambitious goals and remain leaders in this space.”

From the outside, it may seem like a daunting responsibility, but Brandt has been in charge of ambitious green agendas before. In 2015, then-U.S. president Barack Obama appointed her as the nation’s first federal chief sustainability officer. This wasn’t her first role at the White House. As a fresh-out-of-school Cambridge scholar in international relations, she was hired to work on the Women for Obama campaign before becoming part of the Obama-Biden presidential transition team. She then quickly rose from an energy policy analyst at the Office of Energy and Climate Change to overseeing the greening of the U.S. Navy at the Pentagon before a stint at the U.S Department of Energy as senior advisor.

Brandt became instrumental in helping execute the president’s climate action plan. It was a mammoth job. She was tasked with leading sustainability tactics across the federal government’s 360,000 buildings, 650,000-vehicle fleet and $445 billion in annual goods and services purchases.

“It was a great honour, and an incredible chapter in my career,” recalls Brandt. “I worked a bit directly with the president and he’s truly a hero of mine.”

Brandt became instrumental in helping execute the president’s climate action plan. It was a mammoth job across the federal government’s 360,000 buildings, 650,000-vehicle fleet and $445 billion in annual goods and services purchases.

A year and half before Obama’s greening efforts would come to an end under the Trump administration, Brandt decided to shift into public sector to take on a new challenge: greening Google. Brandt says she’d always been interested in the technology industry and its opportunities to create innovative solutions for global sustainability.

“It’s been exciting getting to come to Google,” she highlights, “This is my first experience in the private sector and I’ve become such a strong believer of the opportunity that we have to drive change. There’s great leadership coming from the corporate sector.”

However, Silicon Valley – notorious for its male-dominated “bro culture” – can be a challenging place for women. Back in November, thousands of Google employees around the world staged walkouts to protest the poor handling of sexual harassment claims as well as gender inequality. Google’s 2019 diversity annual report indicates its leadership is comprised of just 26.1% women and only 31.6% of its global workforce is female.

To her experience, Brandt says that she gets to work with remarkable women at Google and has a positive view regarding the representation of women in the industry. “In the sustainability sphere, we’ve seen a lot of really important and influential female leaders like Lisa Jackson at Apple or Hannah Jones at Nike. I’m always really excited to see that.”

These days, she says she’s mostly looking forward to growing opportunities for AI applications in sustainability. For one, Google has applied machine learning to its cooling system within its data centers (where a lot of energy use takes place) to curb energy use by 30%. Other AI tools are empowering conservation organizations around the world. Non-profits Oceana and SkyTruth partnered up with Google to develop a way of using Google’s satellite technology to track and share global fishing data in almost real-time at no cost. They created Global Fishing Watch to allow governments or organizations to better monitor the commercial activities on a worldwide scale and combat illegal fishing.


“There’s a feeling of tremendous urgency. We have only so many years left to make a drastic shift in our relationship to natural resources.”

Google’s AI for Social Good program has teamed up with Carbon Tracker, a climate change think tank, and non-profit WattTime to measure global power plant emissions from space. Google had issued an open call to organizations around the world to submit their ideas for how they could use AI to help address societal challenges and 20 were selected for support. Sharing Google’s satellite imagery with Carbon Tracker and WattTime has been heralded as helping to lift the of veil of secrecy shrouding pollution from power plants around the globe.

The challenge for Brandt is knowing what to prioritize. “There’s a feeling of tremendous urgency,” she confesses. “The science is clear that we have only so many years left to make a drastic shift in our relationship to natural resources. We have a lot of commitment, but it’s about where can we have the most impact.”

How does Brandt stay centred amidst it all?  Meditating every morning helps, that and generally staying connected with nature—hiking, biking, skiing.

“I recharge by being outside,” says Brandt. “It’s really why I fell in love with this work in the first place.”

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