How This Sustainability Leader Found Purpose In Her Field

Kimberly Lewis, board chair of clean energy nonprofit Groundswell, spoke with Convene about finding her calling, uplifting diverse communities into leadership roles, and making events people-centric.

Author: Casey Gale       

Kimberly Lewis

Kimberly Lewis knew she had found her place working an organization that understood “how sustainability, how buildings, how community, how the health of our planet affects us in our everyday lives,” she said.

Editor’s note:PCMA Groundbreakers is an initiative honoring industry trailblazers who represent diverse sectors of the business events community, recognizing those who have made a significant contribution to their organizations and programs that advance inclusion and equity. Conceived by PCMA’s Black Lives Matter Working Group, the honor helps to create a living history of pioneers in the business events industry.

Kimberly Lewis is all about “community building and service.” The daughter of an educator and a pastor, Lewis grew up in a home where finding your purpose in life was an everyday lesson. “Purpose,” she told Convene, “really should be the foundation for how you step into showing up in this world.”

After spending the early part of her career working in corporate America as part of the incentives and recognition division for telecommunications company MCI, she found her purpose in the world of sustainability when she was offered the opportunity to join the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in 2003.

Despite her “unbelievable” success in climbing the corporate ladder, Lewis said she was well aware of “the flip side, when values aren’t centered.” The led to a bit of soul searching where she said she questioned whether she was losing her sense of purpose and losing sight of the foundation built during her childhood.

Even though those questions led to her search for a more fulfilling job, when offered an interview with USGBC, Lewis worried about making the jump from the corporate world to a nonprofit. At the encouragement of a headhunter, Lewis accepted the interview and toured a green, private elementary school in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

What she saw were trees growing out of the center of school and children who were tending their own gardens, cultivating produce that would serve as their lunch, Lewis said. “All of the natural light and the solar panels and the filtration system — it blew me away,” she recalled. “I actually had to go in the bathroom and have a moment, when I thought about my mother’s school in Baltimore City. And how getting schools ready there meant making sure that the bathroom stalls were fixed and there were bars on the windows. And when we think about our most vulnerable, which is our children, they’re also bridgebuilders to the next generation. I saw the definition of the have and have nots.”

That’s when Lewis knew, she said, that she had found her place — working for an organization that understood “how sustainability, how buildings, how community, how the health of our planet affects us in our everyday lives,” she said. “I said, ‘I want to be part of building the places and spaces that bring this community together.’”

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For nearly 18 years, Lewis worked with USGBC to make sustainability more diverse and equitable. She began as vice president, responsible for developing the award-winning Greenbuild International Conference and Expo into the largest sustainability conference in the world at the time, hosting more than 28,000 attendees, and launched the Women in Green leadership platform in 2012 to bring more female leaders into the typically white, male-dominated green industry. The Women in Green Platform is now offered all over the U.S. and in 10 countries for mentorship and sponsorship opportunities, as well as to create a space for women working in sustainability to discuss the #MeToo movement, economic empowerment and equity, and celebrating one another. Today, Lewis serves as co-chair on the Health Equity Advisory for the International WELL Building Institute, and board chair of clean energy nonprofit Groundswell Inc. She recently spoke with Convene about uplifting marginalized communities as it relates to sustainability and making conferences both greener and more people-focused.

On lifting women up in the events industry: For leaders, I would say when it’s time to step out and move on to new things, [ask that your organization] puts another strong woman in your seat. They’re all around you. They need somebody to speak up for them. [When leaving USGBC] I listed 40 names for new positions they were going to offer, and for my position, I listed the strongest woman I knew and who had already worked with me to build the best sponsorship program for Greenbuild. And I said, “She’s ready. She’s already doing it.” She got the job.

On encountering racism in her career: We need to show how leadership can look different. When I was younger and building Greenbuild, in many cities I would go to, they would think my intern was me because she was white. I would be standing in lobbies and getting phone calls, and the people I was meeting with would hear my cell phone ring as they had been looking for me — but didn’t think it was me. But I never brought it up, because I knew that was my purpose — to show that leadership could look different.

I remember one back-of-house worker said to me, “They said you’re the boss over all of this.” And I said, “Well, I’m the center of a great team.” And he said, “No. I just want you to know that we’ve never seen this.” And his point was, thank you. … [The sustainability industry] can’t just be the glitzy, eco-friendly show home mansions of the rich and famous. It needs to include those dealing with energy poverty, poor drinking water, lacking jobs. Our climate change goals are tied to our health goals, tied to our social goals, and to our economic goals.

On how event planners can zero in on their environmental initiatives at events: You can definitely look at your waste-management plan, your water and energy savings, your carbon footprint, and what legacy projects you can do — all of those things. But sometimes, all those goals can be super overwhelming. I just feel that getting a sense of the vision for your sustainability plan and aligning around one [goal] can help. Build upon that.

On making events people-centric: Right now, people-centric goals are the most impactful. When I think about post-COVID and how important it is for people to feel connected, to be mentally and emotionally grounded and supported, I think there’s an opportunity to tell a different story around health, safety, and welfare. All the work that we do supports the health and wellbeing for the people that we’re bringing together. The outcomes of climate goals, our carbon goals matter to the health and welfare of people. Tell a different story that’s going to be people-focused so that we ask the questions: Who’s impacted, who’s left out, and who can be lifted up?

Casey Gale is an associate editor at Convene.

Editor’s note: Renowned anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall has said of the climate crisis, “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” With that in mind, we are dedicating the November/December edition of Convene fully — our first single-topic issue — to the climate crisis, and what the business events industry is doing to address this global challenge. Find stories from the Climate Issue here, and read our cover story, “A ‘Watershed Moment’ for Events — and the World.”

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