Executive Passion Meets Pragmatism | Chitra Hepburn

When building up networks of sustainability leaders and innovators, it often takes the progressive action of a single individual to catalyze real change. These individuals are Sustainability Ambassadors, and they have the capacity and the drive to inspire change at any level of an organization – from the new talent to the visionary executive.

One excellent example of such an executive sustainability ambassador in action is Chitra Hepburn, a senior ESG and Sustainability Executive who has been in China for over 17 years.

We were glad to interview Chitra as a unique example of an Asia- and global-focused sustainability executive that unites several critical qualities: a balance of passion, skill-set, pragmatism, and patience to continue driving forward – even when strategies and programs may not find perfect execution and adoption.


Not only is Chitra passionate about the environment and specific causes, but she has the experience and credentials to influence impactful change – a rare combination.

With a background in finance and her education pedigree, she could have stayed in the “executive lane” at the highest levels without a sustainability focus. But because of her passion, she’s made specific choices for what paths to take and what causes to work for throughout her career.

Her last few positions have put her in close contact with other executive leaders in organizations – from banking, to China cleantech, to her current role at Bayer. With her knowledge base and expertise, she could influence those above and alongside her, while also being very practical about which steps to take.

Perhaps most interesting is Chitra’s approach for inspiring sustainable practice. Instead of solely pursuing companies and industries that are seen as high-potential “green” adapters, she’s turned her hand to industries like banking and pharmaceuticals that are typically not top-of-mind in the realm of sustainability.

Through tangible actions like making improvements in business models and coaching others, Chitra has been able to shift how leaders think and engage on issues. As an internal and external communicator, she’s learned to tell powerful stories in different ways, interacting with stakeholders to create awareness, engagement, action, and impact.

Through this interview, we hope you can enjoy Chitra’s story and insights. Be sure to subscribe to our channel, and comment about your own stories or goals in the sustainability industry below.

For more stories like Chitra’s, and to learn how to foster similar leaders in your own company, check out our Building a Sustainability Ambassador Network Report.

About Sustainability Ambassador Series

Sustainability Ambassadors is a video series that we hope will not only engage and inspire you, but catalyze you and your organization into action: to identify those with the potential to rise and think outside the box, and build a collaborate community of such people that can help your organization forge new paths of longevity and evolve into something powerful.

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For more insights on Sustainability Ambassadors, and to learn how to foster champions who can take your organization beyond business as usual, check out our Building a Sustainability Ambassador Network Report.

Series Schedule:



Rich: Good afternoon, everyone. I’m here with the lovely Ms. Chitra Hepburn, and we have just had a fantastic discussion about her trajectory – her career moving from “investment banking”, to “greenie”, to “sustainability executive” – and what keeps her going, what keeps her optimistic.


Chitra: Hi, I’m Chitra Hepburn. I am a leader in sustainability and strategy, and I have a long history in Asia, although I’m Swiss. I’ve lived in the Philippines – and worked there, too – and in Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and now China.

I have been in China for the last 17 years. Its hard to imagine, because when I came here, a lot of what we’re looking at around where we’re sitting right now – out of these windows – none of that existed when I first came here.

I didn’t get the impression that the development at the time was going at a sustainable pace; it was basically development on steroids. So it’s a really interesting time to be here in China and now look at what they’re doing to make that development, and growth, and progress move at a more sustainable pace and with a sustainable motto.


Rich: So, tell us about the early days of China when you were here. What did you see, what did sustainability mean then? And then, what is it now in China? What is it that you’ve seen in your time here? How’s it changed?

Chitra: I came here at a time of rampant growth. At the time, it almost felt like growth without a plan. I just saw buildings and roads pop up everywhere.

The roads part I get, because that’s infrastructure – you need to have that. The buildings bit I didn’t quite get, because each one of them had a crazier rooftop, and had to be taller, and had to be somehow bigger and better than the one next to it. And I was a bit concerned that it was going to become an “ego city” instead of an “eco city” – and you’ve heard that term used before.

What’s been surprising, though, along that entire period, is I noticed overnight there’d be parks that would spring up right next to the highway. Overnight, there would be ramps that came in for the disabled – which never existed before. I know because I used to have a baby in a stroller and nowhere to get off the pavement.

Overnight, many things changed, which I think were moving towards having a more sustainable city. But they were little pockets of greenery, and little pockets of things like improved waste management.

I was still waiting for a more cohesive plan, and I think that I can see it now. In the last four or five years, its looking more like an integrated, cohesive plan to create a sustainable city.


Rich: Tell us about how – what got you into sustainability to begin with? Why would you go study environmental economics to begin with? What were your early moments in this space? And what catalyzed you to start a career, or transition into a career, where sustainability was at the core of it?

Chitra: I was in finance prior to that, and I think whilst I understood principles of it – and that’s what I’d studied before at university – I think for me what was missing was some sort of mission at the core of it where I thought you could do something more to benefit many more people than just the rich.

I would rather have seen that that there was a more equitable way that capital was being deployed. And so for me, that was the only way to do it, where… I thought going into infrastructure development that is going to go more green, more sustainable; looking at how one could marry the cost-benefit analysis of what we doing in business into how we were looking at the environment; and how we’re looking at “green” as well as social causes would probably have a bigger benefit, and would have a wider reach – and hopefully a bigger impact.

And from a very young age, I think I’ve always wanted to be somewhere where I could make a difference.

Rich: Now, a lot of banks have these practices – like Morgan Stanley has the responsible and sustainable–

Chitra: “Responsible investment,” yeah.

Rich: “Responsible investment.” Al Gore’s got his own fund that’s toying around with this. But when you went into this, you were definitely an anomaly.

Chitra: Yes, it was new, very new. There were ethical funds, but there weren’t so many green funds. And green funds came up after that. But even green funds, I think there was a limit to how green anybody wanted to be. At the end of the day, the whole point of the exercise is that it has got to make a return, and if you’re not doing that, then you defeat the purpose of the fund – and it ceases to exist. So there has to be this compromise at some stage.

And I expect what I was hoping to see was that mechanisms – financial mechanisms, regulatory mechanisms – would then come into play, which would make  the amount that we were compromising on, less and less over time.

And I see that now in ESG funds, I see that now in a lot of impact investing. I don’t know whether I can safely say we’ve turned the corner, but certainly I expect we are at a point where people are looking at “What am I investing in, and how much value is that bringing – not just in monetary terms, but actually from a wider, more global perspective? What is that doing?”


Rich: Now, when you were the anomaly, did people think you were weird? Like you’re trying to measure the un-measurable, you’re trying to measure the value of water and of coal, or you know whatever it is –and then you’re going to bring in ROI? Or were you early stages going, “We need to change. We need to do something different.” What was Chitra 15, 20 years ago like, when you were just starting this process?

Chitra: I think there were times when I felt enabled to come out and be loud and proud about what I believed needed to happen. I think there is a whole generation of my lot that started to study environmental sciences, but with an economic bent – looking at how you could make it commercially viable.

So when we started out, I think there were not many of us, but I do believe that that the only reason anyone listened was because you constantly gave them the business case. To me, I never wanted to deviate from that. I always thought, if I can make it a win-win, if you can actually do this and walk away having enhanced your business in some way, it made it more commercially viable. And made it, frankly, more lucrative and compelling – the argument.

That was really my key focus, and having done that, I don’t think it was so weird to them. How I went about it was weird, certainly – or new, novel. But I don’t believe that the concept itself was so far away from what anyone else wanted to achieve. But it involved getting funding to sequester a little part of what they would normally do to a very specific cause, and that wasn’t so prevalent back then.


Rich: Now, when we think about that – I mean, a lot of people talk about “the business case for sustainability”. What, for you, are the “core components” that you think that you have to deliver when convincing people that there’s a business case for sustainability? What is it that people are looking for?

Chitra: I think you have to get that awareness in there. I think there’s still a feeling from 20, or 30 years ago probably,  from the developed world, and we see it today – an in-built feeling that anything that involves “green” or “going sustainable” involves more cost and less profit.

So it’s this in-built, if you like, “barrier” to their understanding that  – no, there doesn’t have to be that compromise. It isn’t mutually exclusive. You can do something sustainably and make money – and actually, that could be your way to make money and to be more commercially viable.

That was the biggest hurdle, and that I found the hardest to get over: people’s preconceived notion of what sustainability would cost and how they could get their return on it.

Rich: So did you have to learn how to measure the immeasurable?

Chitra: Yes, so I did that in my master’s. (Thank you, London School of Economics.) And that I think was one of the things that made it possible for me to think there are metrics, there are measurable – firm KPIs you can put in place. There are quantifiable benefits that you can show people so that they will feel, “This is the right thing to do, and we can do it.” Maybe not with the entire portfolio, but at least a part of the portfolio.

And that’s where you have to start – you’re going to start with baby steps. And if you allow yourself to be talked into, “It’s never been done before, no one’s doing it,” then nothing’s ever going to change. Nothing is ever going to happen. So I think that’s where one has to start.


Rich: Now, switching hats a little bit from the investment community to the corporate one: How’s the corporate community any different – similar, same, or different – than, say, the investment community? I mean, at the end of the day, the bankers are also corporate, but “corporate brand” is different than, say, “investment bank”.

Chitra: True.

Rich: So what are some of the things – maybe positive, negative – that exist within corporate that don’t exist in banks, or vice versa?

Chitra: Right. I think I have done so much time in the service industry – so that was banking, that’s just how I look at it. There isn’t a tangible product you touch and feel, with a color on it. I think it’s very much something that you’re creating and packaging for people’s use.

I think the other part of the industry, if you’re looking at the actual product side – where I did work more recently – that part of it has a more tangible way of reaching out to your consumers. And you can go out with exactly what you do and make that more attainable for them in a sustainable way.

You can bring out education programs on what you do, make your products more sustainable, tell them how you’re doing that, get them more involved, get communities in there – and then use whatever you have, your knowledge and your R&D, anything that you have, and share it. So that you then start to have this shared value between you and the community.

And I think for banks, they have to go into distinct programs in order to do that, which are not necessarily their own programs. They would need someone like you to set it up for them, and then build that up.

And typically, as I say that, they’re doing philanthropic activities.

Rich: Yeah, to start with at least, right?

Chitra: Yeah, yeah.


 Rich: What have been some of the big challenges that you’ve faced? I mean, sustainability wasn’t exactly a career path back then, few people focused on it, a lot of people were pushing back. I mean, what were the big challenged that you face – and maybe still face – and then what were some of the things that you always kept in your mind to keep you going?

Chitra: I think the key thing was to find like-minded people. That was always a challenge: to find enough people, critical mass of people that felt the way you do. Finding leaders that would then support you to do what it is you believed in. Finding enough – I wouldn’t say “energy”, because I’ve got enough of that – but finding enough time, actually. That was one also of the key things.

In any job – every job – you’ve got a part of what you’re doing every day that is pretty much what you have to do, because that’s part of the job. And then there’s a part of it that you want to do, that may not be part of your job, but you actually love doing it. And for me, sustainability has always been that bit.

I didn’t always have it in my title, I didn’t always have it as my remit – or I certainly wasn’t being benchmarked on what I was doing in sustainability in many of the jobs I’ve had. But that the bit that I wanted to do more in.

So just being able to carve out that time that you want to do things that you’re passionate about, things you love. And for me, sustainability and CSR were definitely that niche where I felt myself working at it without feeling like it was “work”. But it meant more time, making more time.


Rich: So thinking about that, what has been a program, or a strategy, or something that you did? That you look back and you’re like, “Wow. That was it. That was great. That’s what I look back on and go, ‘It was worth it’.”

Chitra: In the non-corporate space, it was a startup that I worked in: China Greentech Initiative. That was totally worth it. It was three years where I don’t think I stopped even for a second to ask myself where it was going, or why I was doing it. It was almost as if I was on a mission. And it was so natural.

Everything we tried to do had never been done before: the platform we built, the IP we created – all of it from absolutely nothing, but it was world-class, and it was amazing. And what we managed to pull together with the community – whether it was multinationals, or NGOS, or government bodies – all of it, it just felt very empowering. And it really felt like we’d moved the needle, we had shaped something, for the first time.

In the corporate sector, there’s been a lot of programs that I could pick and say, “Oh, that’s been very rewarding.” I think, in my last position – I found myself in a nice space in life where the CSR and the sustainability piece were quite fluid. And I had the opportunity to put some structure around it, to actually think about, “How do we want to shape this? What we want to do in here?”

I had the liberty – and I thank my senior leaders for that, for giving me that –to then create a program, and create certain modules that would then spur whatever we were doing in sustainability and CSR to the next level. And most of it hadn’t been done before, most of it was what I was hoping would not remain a “one-off”, and that it would actually continue.

And I’m pleased to say: Yes, we started something that continues and is sustainable. That was immensely rewarding, because you suddenly saw something rise out of absolutely nothing except sheer enthusiasm, energy, and a plan and a will – with a very tiny team, if I can say that!

So that was very rewarding, very gratifying.


Rich: Talking about the team: I mean, you’re at the executive level, and your goal on some level is to foster the next gen who would replace you, support you, go to other parts of the organization.

What is it you focus on when you’re developing these individuals? In terms of helping them understand how to better execute their job, personal development – like what are some things that you’re always constantly focused on when it comes to developing the next generation of the ambassadors?

Chitra: I don’t know, I think I was of the school of “tough love”, maybe.

I wanted them to get a sense of “I will get the benefit” of things that I had in the past. So the numerical and the analytical part – which I think in sustainability and CSR isn’t necessarily a key prerequisite when people come into that field and start to work in it. So your team’s not necessarily as number-savvy as you may want them to be.

Or, thinking about it from a big-picture perspective and saying, “How do I tie all of this together? How do I connect those dots? I think those were the things that I wanted to make sure that they got, because those are exactly the qualities that one’s looking for in a leader.

Yes, you can do your job, and the execution part is – we’re hoping – a given, at that level. But what you want them to do is rise above that, and then start to look at things differently, and start to question it, challenge the status quo, and then start to throw in new ideas – and those new ideas are substantiated by a real plan that is workable.


Rich: We’ve heard the Millennials – they “care more”. What do you think about this group? You’ve been mentoring them, you’ve been bringing them up – do they care more as they’re coming into the workforce? And if so, what kind of pressure does that place on the organization to change culturally, that you’ve seen?

Chitra: Millennials – gosh, I could talk for half an hour about Millennials, but I’m not going to!

Rich: No, no, no – we only need broad stereotypes in two minutes, please!

Chitra: Broad stereotypes, exactly! Millennials care more, I believe, for two reasons. I think, one: There’s a huge amount of information out there. And I was just talking about it yesterday at a  speech, that technology has enabled a greater awareness, and also access to information, about what companies – what anyone is doing, for that matter, not just companies, even individuals.

So what you do is one thing; but secondly what you stand for starts to matter more, also, to Millennials – well, mainly to Millennials these days. Because they are keen to associate themselves with things that they believe in. They’re keen to apply themselves into anything that has similar ideologies or a similar mission.

And what’s interesting is – at least in the urban environment, perhaps, and education the way it’s going these days – is at a very young age, they’re being asked to question, “What can I bring in here? What is the value I can add?”

And apart from – I think when you look at the job market, it’s a very different situation. I think right now, they’re looking at, “Where can I add value, and how do I get in?”

But typically, I don’t think they are willing to compromise as much as other generations might have been prior to them. You can question whether the “economic incentive” these days isn’t as important as it might have been to other generations. But I do believe that the Millennials want to follow their heart as much as they do their minds.


Rich: And what does this mean for the executives? I mean, do they have to change the way that they manage down? Does this help you actually move, culturally, the company into a position where you think it’s more likely to be more open to sustainability?

Do they provide the benchmarks that you need to go into your top leadership, and go, “Look, everyone. If we don’t change, we’re not going to be able to hire people”? Do you have that ability still?

Chitra: I think you’ve got to have an element of that. So many of the businesses we’re looking at today are headed up by baby boomers or people – (I’m talking about multinationals) – or those that are even older. And I think, for them to make that massive shift and suddenly – I wouldn’t go so far as to say “pander to the Millennials”, but certainly retrofit the organization so it looks more appealing to Millennials – I think that that would be a big ask.

What is being done, though, is in bits and pieces. There is definitely a shift to make the company sound, and look, and act more authentic to stay true to your core values, whatever they might be, and be more visible and vocal on what that is. So, your mission and your authenticity have to be very apparent for a Millennial to find you interesting – or even attractive. That shift has already taken place. I think people are very aware of that.

The second thing, I think, that you need to do for Millennials is make sure that you’re on social media. It’s a given, you cannot be the absent from that space – and that actually means that you’re on top of it, finger on the pulse the whole time.

It’s a lot of work, I can tell you that – we did it at the last multinational I worked for. And it takes effort, it takes time, and it takes a lot of thought in terms of “how do we want to project ourselves on social media?” And it can’t be the same as you are on print and anywhere else. It’s just a very different persona you’re taking on.


Rich: You know, I was curious: How do you communicate differently now than you did maybe five, 10 years ago? Because now social media is such a big part of this matters – not just in telling your story, but also in engaging your communities. 10 years ago, it would have been–

Chitra: One way.

Rich: Just one way. Push, push, push.

Chitra: Yeah, and now it’s both. I think you’ve got to find – what’ve I found, anyway – is you have to find a way to convey your message in fewer words, more pictures, compelling metrics. And I’m not talking about grabbing their attention with crazy headlines or something, but really being able to make them think about something. So it’s got to be thought-provoking.

And anything you put out there, I believe, will give you some sort of a reaction. Many people will bother to put in a line or two of what they think, and that’s so valuable. I think if you’re not doing that on regular basis, you kind of lose touch with your market.

And I believe today, it is so much easier to know where you stand in terms of public opinion

But that aside, it is definitely a big plus today, that it’s interactive and it’s two-way. And one should leverage that – that is my point. You can just use it to put your news out, but I think that would be a waste. You really need it to do more – you’ve got to hook them in, and get them to be part of your mission and what you’re trying to do.


Rich: Speaking of “doing more”, we have a lot more work to do. How do you stay motivated? How do you stay optimistic?

Chitra: I have had the benefit of being in China, as I said – in Shanghai, for the last 17 years. If there ever was a city that reinvented itself, put itself on the map, and then continued to morph almost every month as I looked at it, I think that’s motivation enough.

Had I been somewhere that stayed in that steady state – at least physically, you wouldn’t feel that it had changed – I wouldn’t be so optimistic about change. But when I look at this, I feel anything’s possible. And I feel – I don’t think everyone can replicate what’s happened here, the amount of effort and capital that went into doing this in such a short space of time. It’s unprecedented in history, and probably in the future, too.

But I think this has been definitely a huge proof point for me, in terms of what can be done… what I’m hoping will continue to happen. If you really want to do it, then you can. And that’s my only optimistic take on things: You’ve got to want to do it, and then get out there and do it. Don’t wait for anyone else to do it.

This interview was transcribed by Gabrielle Williams, Research Analyst at Collective Responsibility.

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