On Earth Day 2021, Meet The B-School Sustainability Graduates

Name: Katherine Neebe

Hometown: Chapel Hill, NC

Fun Fact About Yourself: I once released a polar bear back into the wild while I was on a trip near the Arctic with Ryan Seacrest as well as the CEOs of The Coca-Cola Company and World Wildlife Fund.

Business School Degree Program: MBA, Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia

1. What do you do, and how do you impact sustainability through your work?

I serve as the Chief Sustainability Officer and VP of National Engagement & Strategy at Duke Energy as well as the President of the Duke Energy Foundation. In these capacities, I lead Duke Energy’s stakeholder engagement efforts to develop solutions to meet customer needs for continued reliable and affordable energy – while simultaneously working to achieve the company’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Duke Energy is one of the largest utilities in the United States, so the opportunity to make an impact on climate change as we deliver against our clean energy transformation is significant.

2. What does World Earth Day mean to you?

World Earth Day provides me with an opportunity to pause and reflect on the work to date and the challenges that lie ahead. This year is an incredible year where we should see the global community – government, civil society, business and other institutions – come together to discuss our ambitions with respect to climate change as well as what is necessary to deliver progress. This week, we have the Leaders Summit on Climate and, over the balance of the year, convenings such as Climate Week and COP26 in Glasgow. Hopefully, these should prove to be powerful events that will serve as important touchstones in the years to come.

3. What is your top tip for living a more sustainable life? 

I believe that business exists to serve society; business can create extraordinary value for its stakeholders by meaningfully addressing societal challenges, whether those are environmental or social. To that end, I am incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity over the past 20+ years to work with The Coca-Cola Company, at Walmart and now at Duke Energy to help accelerate positive impact and deliver shared value. Of course, we all can adjust our lives to be more sustainable. However, we are at a unique moment in time and, particularly for an MBA student or alum, I think there is a tremendous opportunity to influence business toward sustainability and have an outsized positive impact on the world we collectively share. 

4. How has your business school experience helped your career in this area?

I attended business school roughly 20 years ago at a time when the field of corporate sustainability was in its nascency and I was a relatively young practitioner. To be an effective influencer and changemaker, I knew that I needed to learn the language, structure and rhythm of “traditional” businesses. Business school taught me not only the fundamentals of business but also important soft skills such as organizational behavior. Being able to see an issue from multiple perspectives and navigate across different systems has been invaluable.

5. What is the biggest/most important lesson you have learned during your studies?

As an undergraduate, I majored in English Literature. I then pursued a non-traditional career – at least it was at the time. And I was a fish out of water in business school, surrounded by fellow students who were well versed in the subjects of finance, accounting, operations and other such fields. The most important lesson I learned was twofold, 1) everyone must learn something new to grow in their respective careers and 2) by applying myself and humbly admitting when I need help, I can – eventually – learn anything.

6. Where do you see yourself in five years?  

In five years, Duke Energy will be well on its way toward achieving its net-zero ambition and a few years shy of meeting its interim targets of at least 50% reduction of carbon emissions and net-zero methane emissions by 2030. While I’ve only been at Duke Energy a few months and can’t (yet) take much credit for our achievements, I’m proud to say we’ve already reduced carbon emissions by 40% relative to a 2005 baseline. I hope, in five years, I’ll be able to point to the role I played, working closely with our stakeholders, to drive even greater progress on emissions reductions as well as other critical sustainability issues. 

7. Finally, what are your hopes for the future of the planet?

The three big issues on my mind are climate change, ecosystem health (or natural capital) and human rights – particularly issues of diversity, equity and inclusion as well as inequality. We need to solve for all of them, together. My hope is that we deepen our understanding of the interconnectedness of these issues, build on the important progress that has already been made and help create a world that provides for all – people and planet. 

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