‘Keeping it Clean’ with Byeronie Epstein, Manager for Mobility at WBCSD (World Business Council for Sustainable Development)
Part 17 of the ‘Keeping it Clean’ interview series, shining a light on experts making significant impact in the world of sustainability, clean energy and clean technology.
Growing up in South Africa fuelled Byeronie’s passion for entrepreneurship and driving positive change in Africa pertaining to healthcare, energy, and mobility. Byeronie has a zest for creative problem solving and believes in the power of collaboration to achieve the seemingly impossible.
Byeronie has worked for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) as a Global Project Manager since 2016. She has led various projects in Climate, Energy and Transport and is currently the Manager for Mobility for WBCSD.
She has mobilised over 27 multinationals that have a combined revenue of over $2 trillion to implement sustainable transport solutions in cities. She has also been the liaison to organisations like the World Bank and has implemented projects relating to sustainability in Europe, South America, North America, and Australia. This exposure has provided her with the skillset to grow and deliver projects as well as initiate strategic partnerships.
Byeronie has a Master’s in Engineering for Sustainable Development from the University of Cambridge and a BSc in Chemical Engineering from the University of Cape Town. In her spare time, she’s a bit of an adventurer and has even been found riding reindeer in outer Mongolia!
Let’s see what she has to say…
Byeronie, I’d love to start with your education. You’re certainly in the minority in the industry in having studied Sustainable Development. First of all, what led you to this choice?
Growing up in South Africa, a country that faces many challenges, you see the potential to implement many solutions that could positively affect a lot of people. We often had power cuts and no access to electricity. Our health system is under resourced and not accessible to all, and our transport system is far from sustainable (safe, accessible, efficient, clean). 68% of people in South Africa use public transport daily and 95% of them spend between 45–70% of their salary on transport. Crazy!
I always knew I wanted to work on projects that would positively impact people. I initially studied Chemical engineering at UCT. There I met some of the brightest people, and had many humbling experiences. One of the people I met was the first of his family to attend university. He learnt English two months prior to coming to study chemical engineering and somehow was coping. He was driven to make a better life for himself and his family. I felt so inspired. I ended up leading the operations and marketing for Engineers Without Borders UCT where I was involved in building low cost solar panels and various other community projects. This solidified the fact that I wanted to specialise in sustainability and was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Master’s in Engineering for Sustainable Development at the University of Cambridge.
Can you tell us a bit more about your degree?
The Master’s in Engineering for Sustainable Development is designed for professional graduates who want to help tackle pressing global problems by developing practical engineering solutions. As engineers we must operate within an increasingly complex set of constraints, and therefore must be capable of dealing with a range of challenges. The hope is that by the end of the masters you are an engineer who is equipped to lead sustainable change.
I was able to tailor my masters to focus on renewable energy, disruptive innovation and technology, business model innovation, climate change and policy. This was the most incredible experience. Meeting people from all over the world, with various professional backgrounds, able to debate all topics. This provided me the opportunity to widen my lens of sight and incorporate new perspectives into my way of thinking.
How has your education helped in your early career?
My education gave me the ability to encourage a multidisciplinary approach to problem formulation; through a dialogue with other subject specialists suitable solutions can be developed and wider constraints on engineering activity can be understood, including awareness of natural, business and social environments.
I can understand the “benefits” of sustainability and communicate these with various audiences, which has greatly helped me in my current field of work at WBCSD. Thanks to my background, I am able to work with other specialists to shape strategies in the climate, energy and mobility space and prioritise areas for collaboration.
Who inspires you in the industry?
Sustainability is extremely broad and there are so many inspiring people. It’s hard to single out one person, when I’ve been inspired by so so many! 😊
For those who haven’t come across it, what is WBCSD?
For anyone who isn’t already familiar with them, The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) is a global, CEO-led organisation of over 200 leading businesses working together to accelerate the transition to a sustainable world. Read more
As global business faces new and complex challenges and opportunities, their science-based approach and targeted business solutions aim to scale up business impact. They target the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through the six work programs below to achieve systems transformation.
Working for WBCSD must be incredible…. is it as amazing as it sounds?
When I was starting my career, I never thought I would be in the public sector. However, when I got a taste of what WBCSD does, and the passionate people who drive the organisation forward, I wanted to be a part of it. We see ourselves as the voice of business. We have an opportunity to push business leaders to be more ambitious with their actions related to sustainability. Working there you feel like you are helping accelerate the shift to a more sustainable word, and the feeling is infectious! Given the challenging time we find ourselves in with COVID-19, now more than ever we need to build back better and factor in sustainability and resilience.
Can we discuss the mobility program?
Transforming Mobility is one of the high-profile programs being delivered by WBCSD. It brings together leading companies across the extended mobility value chain to lead the system transformation of mobility. With an aim to accelerate the transition towards clean, safe and efficient mobility for all,WBCSD’s companies build on emerging mobility trends (digitalisation, vehicle electrification, energy generation from renewable sources and shared mobility) to achieve four Sustainable Mobility Goals worldwide (Universal Access, Clean, Safety, Efficiency).
I read about the project catalysing corporate leadership to take mobility actions in Lisbon, can you tell us more about this?
The Corporate Mobility Pact has been an exciting initiative I have led with the City of Lisbon and 7 leading companies. We co-developed a pact that aims to galvanise corporates to take mobility actions that would support the city in transforming the urban mobility system to be more sustainable. These actions could range from transitioning their fleet to electric, providing employees with public transport passes, staggering commuting, or endorsing teleworking and others. We launched on 9 December 2019 and now have 84 signatories who have collectively committed to implement over 444 actions impacting over 100,000 people. We are now looking to scale this initiative to other cities.
How has COVID-19 impacted Africa and what can be done to help?
All countries and all people have been impacted by COVID-19. Africa is home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies due to the rise of major cities, expansion in healthcare capacity across the continent and a maturing business environment. The tropical climate of Africa already makes the continent the largest reservoir of infectious diseases, particularly malaria, tuberculosis (TB), and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Considering Africa hosts only 3% of the world’s healthcare personnel who must cope with 24% of the global disease burden we already faced significant challenges pre-COVID-19.
COVID-19 has devastated the continent. In South Africa, many struggle to put food on the table, lack access to running water and face mass unemployment. From a medical perspective Africans are the most genetically diverse people on Earth. Some of the world’s brightest minds are working tirelessly to discover what drug candidates can be repurposed to develop vaccines for COVID-19. However, only 90 out of the 8,000 genetic samples of COVID positive patients sequenced have been from Africa. This poses a significant threat. The eventual drug treatments or vaccines created my not be effective for people in Africa. We need to mobilise resources in Africa to support with the scale up of diagnostic testing, as well as provide the infrastructure for whole genome sequencing.
I know you are passionate about education; how can we let children know what options are available to them?
One of my favourite quotes that summarises how I feel about education is from Nelson Mandela — “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
There is still a lot of work to be done to ensure education is accessible to all. I would like to help bridge this gap in South Africa. Even given the internet, which many children in Africa do not have access to, it remains difficult to find the information about available scholarships and bursaries for both primary and tertiary education. If you can find that information, then comes the challenge of understanding the application process, and very often being connected to someone who can help get you access. Through bridging this gap and consolidating this fragmented information, we can help many children understand and access education opportunities that they may not be exposed to.
You told me a story about a young lady from Kenya who you met at university. Would you share that story?
“Vision without action is just a dream, action without vision is just passing the time, but vision with action can change the world”. During my time at UCT, I interacted with many inspiring individuals with their own unique back stories. One that I will never forget, was a lady who came from a rural village in Kenya. They did not have access to running water. She had dreamed about being able to bring water to her village.
She decided to study Mechanical Engineering so that after graduating she could return to her village in Kenya and build infrastructure to deliver water to her people in the village. This just demonstrates how one person with vision and drive can really have far reaching impact. Not only has she changed the life of her family, her village but now she also inspires many other children to follow their dreams.
We’ve talked before about women’s leadership, what do you think we can do as a collective to promote women in leadership and increase their presence in the future?
This is a topic I feel passionately about. For the most part society still has a very specific idea of what qualities a leader should possess and how they should appear. These societal expectations are still, to the most part, aligned with agentic traits that are typically associated with males. Interestingly, studies have shown that women and males in top leadership roles share similar traits. However, in the beginning of a woman’s career if she possesses these traits she is seen as being unapproachable, harsh, and difficult to work with. It is on all of us to change this perception on leadership.
In industry, women are typically under sponsored and over mentored. As a woman, I feel we need to get better at asking for help and leveraging our network for support whether it be for a job, professional advice, or skills development.
We’ve gone a little off track and started discussing the Mongol derby, but let’s share the story, it’s great!
I love horse riding, going on adventures and doing things that put me outside of my comfort zone. I wanted to do something that pushed me passed my physical and mental barriers — I believe that is how you grow. That’s what led me to apply to and compete in the Mongol Derby — the world’s longest and toughest horse race. It retraces the Genghis Khan’s mighty horse messenger system that used to connect half the planet.
This race involves riding semi-wild horses across 1000 km of Mongolia using GPS coordinates to navigate yourself across some of the world’s toughest terrain. You need intuitive horsemanship, physical fitness, mental endurance, navigation skills and a sense of humour for when everything goes belly up.
This was a journey that changed my life. Experiencing nomadic life, receiving unconditional kindness from strangers, being alone in the great outdoors with some of the most incredible horses I have ever ridden. After losing most of my key equipment in the first 40 km of my 1000 km race and then injuring my knee, which prevented me from walking after day 3, to then winning the race, I was exhilarated. This was one of the most challenging experiences I have done, shattering any perceived barrier I thought I had. It shaped my mindset and how I now approach challenges personally and professionally.
Finally, please tell me about the reindeer…
Well after competing in the Mongol Derby I fell in love with Mongolia. A friend, whom is an adventurer, became “family” with a nomadic Mongolian tribe. Through this connection he was welcomed into the close-knit community of the Tsaatan people — last tribe to ride reindeer living in Taiga, North West Mongolia. I was lucky enough to join him on one of his trips to go visit and stay with with this Tsaatan tribe. We took a flight from Ulaanbaatar, drove two days in a Russian van (off-road), then spent two days on horseback riding up into the mountains to find the Tsaatan tribe, whom we then stayed with for a week. Living in teepees, milking reindeer and eating mutton.
One of the most special and unique experiences I have had. We also had the lucky experience of helping this family move camp. We packed up all their belongings and packed the reindeer. We were each given a reindeer to ride and spent about 5 hours crossing the rocky, wet, cold landscape to find and set up a new camp. This was an extremely rare experience which I feel so blessed to have been a part of.
Thanks Byeronie, I loved your stories, and can see how you will go on to inspire many others.
Byeronie recently shared this link to the latest McKinsey report ‘Climate math: What a 1.5-degree pathway would take’ with me a week or so back, and it was a great read, so thought I’d share it with you …
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