The old adage that failure doesn’t exist because we always learn something from even the worst defeats is a bit simplistic. But it’s undeniably true that what doesn’t work out for us sometimes actually does, only in ways we never anticipated — and perhaps don’t fully appreciate until time heals the wounds.
That’s the crux of Caroline Ling’s experience at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Ling, a dual MBA-MS Environment and Resources student who will graduate this December, became known as the Trash Queen of Stanford for her tireless advocacy of sustainable recycling and waste management practices on campus. Since coming to Stanford in 2019, she became, in her description, obsessed with “exploring scalable solutions to reduce single-use waste in society through entrepreneurial approaches.” And not just once or twice. Earlier this year, working through Stanford’s Startup Garage, Ling took a third crack at pursuing a re-use business concept with fellow GSB students.
Her latest idea was simple and appealing: Ling and her team delivered milk in reusable containers, testing whether consumers wanted the “milkman” back in their lives. Many did. But the business failed, doomed by scalability challenges. And that’s when Ling’s real education began.
THERE IS NO ‘AWAY’
Caroline Ling grew up in Shanghai, China. Early in life she learned a lesson from her grandmother that has stayed with her to this day — and indeed, that became what drives and motivates her.
“My grandparents grew up in the 1930s, which meant that they were very conservation-minded in the way of living,” Ling tells Poets&Quants. “My grandma loved to collect all these jugs and jars and kept reusing them to the point where I said, ‘Why are you doing this grandma? Why don’t we just throw them away?’ And she said to me very early on that there is no ‘away’ — ‘Everything has a home.’ And so that to me has ingrained almost a personal philosophy.
“So from early on I had this idea: Whatever we do, it’s going to have a footprint on the planet, it has a consequence — this thing called karma. We need to take care of the environment we’re living in, that’s all we have.”
‘IMPERATIVE THAT WE TAKE CARE OF THE PLANET IN WHATEVER WAY WE CAN’
Ling went to Washington University in St. Louis for her undergraduate degree, majoring in international studies, economics and strategy. She gave little thought to sustainability and waste management at the time: “Back then I wasn’t really connecting the dots on, ‘How am I going to live the rest of my life?’ As a college kid I wasn’t really thinking about that.” She was more interested in collecting all the skillsets she could, which led her to go into consulting after college, taking an analyst’s position in Deloitte’s Chicago office.
At Deloitte, Ling was mostly focused on “innovation, strategy, working with Fortune 500 CEOs and understanding their pain points, talking their language, yada, yada, yada — it was a great ride for a couple of years.” But she still felt unfulfilled, like there was something she was meant to do that she wasn’t doing.
“I hit this natural point where I felt itchy to go back to my calling and work on something that can get me up in the morning, just like pretty much every other student (at Stanford),” Ling says. “And for me that is really around sustainability. To me it matters because it speaks to how we connect to each other as human beings, and also how we connect with the bigger environment, the only planet we have. It’s just passing on what my grandma has taught me — and also showing the world that this is important, it is imperative that we take care of the planet in whatever way we can so that our future generation enjoy the same air, water, the environment that we have now.
“And I also want to show that there is a way to do this without sacrifice or compromise.”
A SUDDEN CHANGE OF PLANS
Ling has a response for those who say sustainability means changing lifestyles — no longer eating meat, for example, or not driving cars. It’s a matter of degree, she says.
“It’s true to an extent,” she says, “but I really think that there is this overlap of business viability, technical feasibility, and the ultimate purpose of protecting the environment, and we just need to figure out how or what, and that’s the hard part.”
With that in mind, she set her sights on business school. She applied to a couple of schools, but GSB jumped out because of its joint MBA and MS in Environment & Resources, the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources. Once on campus, Ling knew she’d made the right choice. What she didn’t know was that her path was about to get a lot more complicated.
“Initially I was still broadly searching topics, verticals, functions that could plug me into this whole environmental sustainability world in a way that it gets me up in the morning to support that mission, but also gets me up in the morning to be excited to work with a team or excited to do what my function or my team is supposed to do,” she says. “And then Covid happened.”
CLOSER TO THE ACTION
Covid-19 did more than move all Ling’s classes online. It also derailed her plans for an internship on the sustainability team at a major retail company.
“Everything got taken away from me,” she says. “It’s a curveball for everyone, but it’s an interesting twist in my journey because I had literally nothing planned for the summer. And as a big planner — as every GSB-er or every MBA student would say — that felt very uncomfortable.” It may have been a blessing in disguise, though, because it gave her the space for introspection — “to look deep down and trace back to the roots of why I started on this journey in the first place, which is what my grandma told me. And so I started looking into this trash problem.”
Back in St. Louis, where her partner lives, Ling started following around a local waste hauler named Carlos — watching him pickup loads of garbage and recycling, the dumping and sorting processes. “And, literally, it was a candy land for me,” she says. “I cannot explain why it really got me up in the morning, but I was so excited to be shadowing him. He starts his job at 4 a.m. and his shift finishes up at noon. It’s literally one of the most essential jobs — you can’t even imagine.
“I learned so much by just watching him, by just getting myself closer and closer and closer to the actions of the actual waste management industry. And from there I created a couple of concepts, I tried multiple ideas. And that was from an entrepreneurial perspective, drinking the Kool-Aid of GSB.
“I’m just obsessed with waste!”