ClimateWorks CEO Anna Skarbek’s graduation address: Monash Business School

In December 2019, Monash University Alumna and CEO of ClimateWorks Australia Anna Skarbek addressed the next generation of business leaders at the 2019 Graduation Ceremony. Here is that address in full.

Chancellor, Mr Simon McKeon; Deputy Vice-Chancellor & Vice-President Global Engagement, Professor Abid Khan; Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Business and Economics, Professor Russell Smyth; members of the Faculty, Ladies and Gentlemen – and proud parents and families. And especially the new graduates:

Congratulations to all of you who have graduated today. Like you, I sat in this Hall, graduating from this Faculty. Twenty-two years ago, I received my Bachelor of Commerce with Honours in Finance, and my law degree two years after.

Many of my Monash friends are still my closest friends today. Many of them have given me career advice and support along the way, and now here I am, being asked to share some advice with you. My most commonly given advice is to follow your strengths. When we do that, we shine.

You all have skills. Your strengths are the sum of your skills and interests. Interests are the issues that drive you – the areas in the world you’d like to improve.

This era has the benefit of being guided by the global Sustainable Development Goals. I’ll come back to those.

I have also learned the value of finding balance for personal health and professional diversity. Someone on this stage today helped illustrate this to me early in my career. Professional diversity is welcomed, even when it may not appear directly work related.

When I joined Macquarie Bank as a graduate, I still held a voluntary role with Amnesty International that I had started here at uni. I thought I should keep this interest separate from work, but the then-Chairman of Macquarie’s Melbourne office – our very own Chancellor here today, Simon McKeon – encouraged me to talk with him about it, as he was on the board of World Vision at the time. Soon we had a connection beyond our formal roles at work, a connection that continues to this day.

Balance is essential for good performance – neuroscientists are reminding us of this even as it seems increasingly hard to achieve within the hyper-connected, fast paced era of today. Balance is also essential for teams. Diversity in teams improves outcomes, and innovation happens at the intersection of disciplines.

Now, more than ever before, it is essential to balance profit, people, and the planet. With a balanced mindset in business, your generation of leaders can avoid the pitfalls of current and previous generations.

I have learned that by being true to your interests – areas where you want to see positive impact – and making your interests known, you can not only make the change you want to see, but also turn this into a career. Chasing the cause works better than chasing a job. The jobs emerge when you’re focused on the cause.

When I joined Macquarie Bank as a graduate I made my environmental interests known, a bit unusual there at the time. But because of this, I was soon invited to join the team advising on the first water recycling infrastructure being developed in Victoria. This led me to be offered a job advising the Minister for Water – a job I might never have got from my business pathway if not for the experience I’d gained on water projects. Later, the Water Minister also become Climate Change Minister, and soon I was part of the team designing the first version of Australia’s emissions trading scheme.

I was then introduced by a friend from my time at Monash, who knew of my environmental interests, to the first climate change specialist investment bank in London. I moved there to work in it – drawing on my business skills again. When I was ready to come home, that Minister for Climate Change had come to Monash and was establishing ClimateWorks. I was asked to become its CEO. I now run an award-winning team advising governments and businesses, employing staff here and in Jakarta.

I realise in hindsight that by letting my interests guide my job decisions, I had built a cohesive career – and an enjoyable, meaningful one. I couldn’t have known these steps from the start because most of the roles I’ve held did not exist when I was at uni and sat where you sit today. There was however a Monash connection throughout, you may have noticed.

Now, your generation is being told that most – up to 80% – of the jobs you will go on to hold don’t exist yet. You can design your own paths.

A Monash degree is a passport to a new future. The world is yours to explore, to contribute to, and importantly yours to nurture. This planet we all share, and which holds your future in its hands, needs urgent care. When I graduated, it was into the old fossil fuel economy. You’re entering the new economy which will be carbon constrained – and needs to be decarbonised fully.

You are graduating at the beginning of what is now being called the transformational decade. This is because in the next decade, carbon emissions need to halve, and then halve again by 2040, for us to reach net zero emissions by 2050. By that time most of you will be not much older than I am now.

The physical consequences of climate change are now serious concerns for financial market regulators and investors. This is the last decade we have to turn emissions around, before we cause so much global warming that we destroy coral reefs forever, risk Asian coastal cities and Pacific islands to rising sea level inundation, and expose us all to reduced food security, health impacts, bushfires and extreme weather and species loss.

Transformational change is needed, and possible. Fortunately, this is also the decade in which the need for, and tools to address, climate change are better understood. While the world’s nations are still refining the processes for how they will take the necessary actions for this, already many national and subnational governments, businesses and institutions are committing to be net zero themselves. The Sustainable Development Goals help define what a better world looks like:

  • No Poverty
  • Zero Hunger
  • Good Health and Well-being
  • Quality Education
  • Gender Equality
  • Clean Water and Sanitation
  • Affordable and Clean Energy
  • Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
  • Reducing Inequality
  • Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • Responsible Consumption and Production
  • Climate Action
  • Life Below Water
  • Life On Land
  • Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions
  • Partnerships for the Goals

What a great menu to apply your life to. The UN has written these into 17 interconnected goals and agreed to achieve them all by 2030. That is the first ten years of your career. The solutions to these challenges are exciting and demand new ways of thinking and doing business, and these goals are shared between government, business and community.

Examples abound, including right here at Monash with the Net Zero Initiative. Monash was the first Australian university to announce a net zero by 2030 target, and is successfully implementing it right now. In its first two years Monash is on track for a 40% emissions reduction on 2015 levels by next year, which were otherwise due to be rising. Monash has also completed 30,000 LED lighting upgrades, installed Electric vehicle chargers and over 4000 solar panels and built two all-electric, ‘net zero ready’ buildings – with two more under construction. Monash will have a microgrid up and running next year and will provide a model for how to power a sustainable and reliable electricity network and maximise value for customers. 

The Monash team is now beginning to turn its focus to its supply chain and global operations, beyond its campus, and the influence it can have in helping others on the net zero journey. Monash is using a ‘living lab’ research and education approach to help translate this new knowledge into regulatory advice and development of commercial business models. Their experience in this area is in turn developing the net zero leaders of tomorrow.

So when you as Monash graduates are offered jobs, ask your prospective employers, do they have net zero emissions strategy? And if not, you can choose elsewhere, or help them create one. And wherever you work, please look for ways to apply your skills to these great challenges of our time.

From that great list of 17 sustainable development goals, choose the ones you care most about and make it the thread of your career. There is no limit to how you can apply your career to addressing the SDGs – it takes a very wide spectrum of skills, skills you’ll be honing anyway for the new economy of system change thinking, interdisciplinary collaboration and mission-led innovation.

All it takes is to pay attention to what matters. The consequences are high when you don’t. Last month a big bank CEO and Chairman lost their jobs for not ensuring their financial products and services were not supporting money laundering for child abuse. Society knows what good looks like and is increasingly making that visible. Your generation are working in the era of ultra-transparency. Plus, it feels good to work on what matters.

You’ve been equipped by this Faculty, as I was, to navigate uncertainty and to not only find new solutions to complex problems, but to lead others through them. You all have your own special skills. Whatever your discipline, whether it be finance, economics, marketing, accounting, management, data, consumer design and so much more, all of this can be applied to addressing the sustainable development goals and climate change. We need all hands on deck in this transformational decade and you can make your business skills match what the future sustainable economy needs. I’ll end by quoting Paul Hawken, author of the New York Times best-seller climate solutions book, Drawdown. He said, and I agree: “You are brilliant, and Earth is hiring”

Thank you very much, Chancellor.