Passion, A Business Mindset, and Mentors | Sharon Xiao, UPM

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.

In this episode of Sustainability Ambassadors, we speak with Sharon Xiao, Asia Pacific Sustainability Manager at UPM about her passion for sustainability, how she looks to leverage a business mindset to empathize and engage with internal stakeholders, and the role of mentors.

It is an interview that we know young professionals will find inspiring, but for our executive viewers, we hope it will give you an insight into the mindset of young professional who is looking to be empowered.  A professional, that if engaged, has the potential to become a key asset as you look to set business strategy, and make long term business investments.


For more stories like Sharon’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.

Subscribe to our YouTube channel to keep up with series, and follow us on social media to receive the latest updates on articles, videos, and more.

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: So good morning everyone. I am here with Sharon Xiao of UPM. She is our young professional sustainability ambassador and we’re going to be talking to her today about how she got into sustainability. Because she is a tree hugger actually. The work that she has been doing and how she sees her career progressing because she’s in China. So, we hope that you will tune in. We hope that you will enjoy and feel free to add comments in the section below.


RICH: How did you get into sustainability? Like, what was your first step and then what does it mean to be a sustainability manager?

SHARON: Actually I major in sustainable forest management. It got my master from Chinese Academy of Forestry. Then, after that I went to Sweden to study sustainability. That’s how I start my career in sustainability area. After graduated I went to office furniture company and worked as a sustainability specialist there. Then I think.


RICH: Why did you choose to study sustainable forestry. Like, why were you worried about trees? What drew you to that major?

SHARON: I think I’m lucky because my professor is the first person to bring forest specification system to China. That’s because at that time, China imports a lot of food from Russia, Illegal logging. So, China government start to pay attention on this area, especially illegal logging. That’s how we got a project from government. Now we start to do this project.

RICH: So for you, is the forest is that your cause? Is that where your passionate about? Still to this day? Like it started you as sustainability, but are you still really like…I wanna save trees?

SHARON: laughs. Yay, actually my current job is not only forestry anymore. Actually my responsibility covers like food safety, camcos, and the CSR and community activities, a lot of things. Forestry is only a small part of my job, but UPM is a forestry company is from Finland. So we care about forest because the forest is our material. We produce everything from forest. So, it still a core of our business.

RICH: Right, right. How challenging is it when you were starting your sustainability career to align your passion to finding your first job. Or to finding a company that you really wanted to work for? Was it hard to find a company? Then, what was your process for finding your first job? Did you have to work for a company that believed in sustainability? Or were you thinking I’ll work for anybody and I’ll turn them into a sustainable company?

SHARON: I admit I graduate in a good time. Actually my classmate is now working for IKEA as forestry manager and I am working for UPM. So I think we are both doing something related to our background. But, I have to say before maybe a couple years earlier it is, it was difficult to find it. Like this job in China in sustainability area.

RICH: Like, why do you think that was a problem to find a job in sustainability?

SHARON: I think the competition may be worth not that, that happy ten years ago. But after you know, all the companies can produce the same products then the companies start to realize…ok, we should do something different from other companies from other competitors. Then sustainability can give them advantage to differentiate from others. That is one point. The other point is the cost of company operations is going higher and higher. So, companies start to consider about how to thrive in such an environment like life’s environment and life’s resources and more cost. So they try to make their system business more sustainable in a good way.

RICH: As a young professional, your goal is to try and force sustainability or push sustainability. How easy is that to do in a company, in a furniture company or in a forestry company? Both are very resource intensive, but both have to at the end of the day sell a product to the market. So how…what’s….how challenging is it to be a sustainability manger in these firms?

SHARON: Yeah, we…I think the same point of the both company, I mean my current company and my previous company, is we try to consider about the sustainability from the whole lifecycle of product. Not from, not only from the material resources, and operation but also end-of-life management.

RICH: But, personally, like for you…you go into the office every day. Do you find it easy or difficult to convince people above you, your leadership or partners who are outside, like stakeholders? How challenging is it for you to really push sustainability up or out?

SHARON: I think the most challenge for sustainability people is how to communicate internally and externally. Especially internally, I would like to see the support from leaders are very important. I think I’m the lucky, lucky one. But, how to embed sustainability into business, that’s another important thing you have to do. You have to think about. Of course, sustainability is not only story telling, it’s not marketing communication, it’s not PR. You have to do some real things to support your business. For example, you have to consider about biodegradable material with our RND department when you want to develop a new product. How to use the sustainability to bring more orders or provide better service for your customers and users.

RICH: You can bring more bio-based materials to your proper _______….are you a chemist? Do you understand the molecular challenges of that present….when you go in and say, “Hey senior chemist. I have an idea for you. Bio-based.” Right? How do you do that?

SHARON: Every sustainability person should have first learning skills (???).

RICH: Who do you think is the bet person for you to talk to? The most sympathetic to you or want to be your champion? Like in your experience, one who is that person and then secondly, how do you identify that person?

SHARON: The first person I talk to is ______ the leader of the department. If the leader of the department is, has a strong sense of sustainability, then use success already have. I think. Then you can make plan and strategy together how to make it into implementation.

RICH: What are some things you listen to or you look for to understand what type of person, the person you’re meeting with is.

SHARON: Actually the, the fourth type you should work the people who would like to communicate with you because they can give you a lot of ideas. But at the same time, they also would like to get a lot of information from others. So, actually they are easy to accept your sustainability ideas.

RICH: To start that process, does that mean you call up everyone in the company and say hey, I want to have coffee? Or do you wait for them to call you? Like how do you get that process going?

SHARON: We share our sustainability value and what we can support at the group meeting.

RICH: Are there certain messages that you found that people go..oooh, tell me more? Or do they certainly go…oh, an environmentalist. Like have you found that there’s people who just naturally want to help you? And are there things they like to hear?

SHARON: Sometimes some people are difficult to accept your idea because they only focus on their idea, their volume, the holders, the money, they don’t care about other things. I found that after a certain….sometime they call you back and ask, oh, I have a customer they ask me a what kind of other service we can offer. Then I use this opportunity to.

RICH: …to get them to buy into you…okay, okay.

SHARON: Yes, yeah

RICH: In that case, you have to kind of figure what their business case is for sustainability is.

SHARON: I think more and more customers, they start to think about sustainability products. If the self people, they don’t have this kind of sense then, but I think they can realize okay, more customers start to ask environmental friendly products. So they have to give something back. Then who the person to ask of course sustainability manager is the right person to.

RICH: What is it that you really need from these mentors in the organization you think?

SHARON: I think into two parts. One, as a young person they have stayed in company. For example, my current boss, he has stayed in company for over 20 years. He give me a lot of the suggests about my personal girl and tell me you cannot only focus on sustainability, but you should also consider about the strategy and the business. On the other side, they share a lot of information from Europe especially in the North Europe, they have done amazing work in sustainability and recycle things.

RICH: Is sustainability a good career path? Like you’ve been working on it for the last 5-7 years. What do you see as your future career trajectory? Is sustainability a long term career or is it something you can do for the short term, but eventually have to move into the business.

SHARON: I think I do, I still working in sustainability area. Because this job give me a lot of, how do you say, I can bring balanced waters and I take care of different things every day. So, every day is a new day.

RICH: So, if you were going to talk to Sharon from 8 years ago when you were just starting, what are kind of three pieces of advice would you give her for starting her career in sustainability.

SHARON: Never fear to communicate with others. Always try to learn new stuff and keep passions.

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