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USGBC’s Emerging Professionals program forms future sustainability champions.
WRITTEN BY Jeff Harder | Photographed By Neil Landino

Speaking from Google’s offices at 111 Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, Molly Zinzi’s voice swells with enthusiasm as she talks about her employer’s latest sustainability efforts: reducing storm-water runoff, using ice storage tanks to alleviate strain on the city’s electricity grid, and driving efforts to reduce its carbon footprint from 30 percent down to 50 percent by 2050. “We’re aligning our sustainability goals with the sustainability goals of the city,” she says.

 

Five years after first joining Google, Zinzi has risen to become facilities manager for the tech company’s three-building, 1.2-million-sq-ft Manhattan campus. But getting to where she is today started more than a decade ago, sitting around a table and clinking glasses with other sustainability-minded peers at a Mexican restaurant in the West Village. “We were really just trying to connect some of the dots and get people who were thinking about the same things in the same room,” she says.

 

Those were the early days of what became New York City’s Emerging Professionals program. Since its inception in the early 2000s, the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) community-based program has been connecting emerging and young professionals from across industries, giving sustainability-curious newcomers access to education, networking opportunities, and project experience. And for the first generation of Manhattan-based Emerging Professionals, the skills and relationships from those early days have been a springboard to becoming today’s green building leaders. “A large part of my career’s success was tied to my involvement as an EPer,” says Audi Banny, director of corporate sustainability initiatives at Estée Lauder Companies and one of the co-founders of Emerging Professionals in New York City.

 

In 2004, Banny was still a student at the School of Visual Arts when she attended a quarterly meeting of the USGBC’s New York chapter, Urban Green. Sustainability was a burgeoning movement, and Banny was eager to soak up all the knowledge she could, but she had a hard time deciphering the terminology peppering sentences—and she suspected that some of her peers were scratching their heads too. She raised her hand and asked about programs aimed at individuals like her, whose passion for green building surpassed their fluency in the industry dialect. “To this day, [sustainability] is consistently evolving,” Banny says. “Back around 2003 through 2006, so much was happening and there was so much to share that we really thought, ‘How can we share this information in a way that’s fun, engaging, and it doesn’t necessarily limit who our audience is?’”

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Cover: Google lounges are often meeting hubs for creative thinking. Photo: Eric Laignel
Above: Audi Banny, director of corporate sustainability initiatives at Estée Lauder.

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Top: Molly Zinzi, facilities manager at Google. Bottom: Keith Amann, director at YR&G and co-leader of the Design and Construction team.

Shortly after that meeting, Banny co-founded Urban Green’s Emerging Green Builders program (the name changed to Emerging Professionals in 2010) as a subcommittee of the chapter’s communications committee. It was among the first of a few fledgling groups that had sprouted up in other USGBC chapters around the country with the same simple ambition: spread the green gospel to students, recent grads, and young professionals through monthly meetings, special events, and a casual atmosphere in which lectures gave way to networking over happy-hour drinks.

 

In short order, the group had its sponsors in Erica Godun and Susan Kaplan—experts in architecture and sustainability, respectively—and developed bylaws and structure. Their get-togethers attracted attendees from across the spectrum—architects, engineers, designers, project managers, even lawyers—and brought them face to face with USGBC board members, executives, and other seasoned sustainability veterans. “You weren’t just learning about green buildings, you were engaging with peers who had been in the industry for 10 to 15 years or more,” Banny says.

 

Zinzi was a School of Visual Arts student when Banny, her friend from school, invited her to join the group in 2005. It was good timing: Zinzi was working on her senior thesis project, a center for green design modeled on the American Institute of Architects center in the West Village, and was looking for a glimpse of the real-world sustainability marketplace. To that end, the group welcomed guest speakers to its monthly meetings to lecture about different aspects of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) as well as green products and technology. The group—about a half-dozen strong at this point—also brainstormed realistic ways to incorporate sustainability and LEED into projects they were tackling at their firms. “We all came together around the fact that we had a passion for sustainability, even though we really didn’t know how to practice it day to day yet,” Zinzi says. “We were just trying to figure out how to make sustainability part of our everyday jobs, not just something we were doing outside of our jobs.”

 

In time, as green building migrated into the mainstream, the Emerging Professionals program grew from a few friends into a small crowd. “Just with the growth of the industry, there was a lot more interest from young professionals to get involved,” says Keith Amann, who joined Emerging Professionals in 2007 after taking a job at the Manhattan-based sustainability-consulting firm YR&G (and who, like all the others interviewed for this article, served a two-year stint as a program co-chair). Attendance grew from numbers you could count on two hands to more than 50, and those numbers spiked even further at events that the group organized from scratch, like a career fair at the World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan, and partnering with the Fashion Institute of New York for a popular, recurring eco-fashion show featuring designer ensembles made from green fabrics and materials.

 

“That was a really great way to get together around sustainability—a subject that’s really important—but to bring some relief from the rest of the day-to-day stuff we were doing,” Zinzi says. “It was about just having the freedom to do something different, sparking new conversations, and showing other EPers as they came into the organization…that you can do whatever you want: just form a committee, get a sponsor, make it happen.” The New York Emerging Professionals program also hosted a local contest to whittle down designs for the nationwide Natural Talent Design Competition. At Greenbuild in 2010, a team from the New York chapter won out against all other entrants with a design for a single-family affordable home that was constructed in New Orleans as part of the city’s posthurricane rebuilding efforts.

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Emily Kildow, sustainability manager for Taconic Management Company.

As the years passed, growing families and greater work responsibilities have meant that the aforementioned Emerging Professionals had to exit the program, even as they all remain friends. But along with fattening up their databases and padding their resumes, something else happened: The Emerging Professionals alums became in-demand authorities on green building and sustainability. Banny, for example, works on projects geared to positively impact Estée Lauder’s energy, waste, and water efficiency.

 

Emily Kildow—who joined the New York chapter’s Emerging Professionals program back in 2005, shortly after moving to the area from Colorado—says all those extracurricular hours spent growing the program and bringing events from concept through fruition became a proving ground for her project management abilities at a time when most young professionals are trying to prove their mettle in entry-level positions. “You’re doing something where you’re willing to put forth a lot of passion and have the longevity to show how you can grow within an organization,” says Kildow.

 

Additionally, the professional networks they’ve cultivated over more than a decade have paid off in ways big and small. Kildow’s current role as sustainability manager for Taconic Management Company, the property managers for Google’s building at 111 Eighth Avenue, came in part from the relationship she forged with Zinzi during their days as Emerging Professionals. “When I found out Taconic needed a sustainability manager, Emily was the first person I thought of and the first person I called because I knew the caliber of work that she did,” Zinzi says. “I had seen her progress throughout her career and I knew what she was capable of doing.”

 

In time, the emerging professionals of yesterday eventually became today’s leaders. “I see that playing out now, nine years after first getting involved,” says Amann. Today, as a co-leader of the design and construction group at YR&G, he manages projects dealing with sustainability across the entire lifecycle of an array of buildings in the United States and abroad, from serving as a LEED coordinator to performing commissioning and energy-modeling services. “Many of the people I became close friends with are decision makers at their firms, and some of those friends also happen to now be business partners, clients, collaborators on projects,” Amann continues. “If you aren’t thinking about young professionals in terms of their potential, you’re selling them short. You never know who someone is going to be in the future.”