Meet Executive Master of Sustainability Leadership alum Jessica Lerner

Woman with brown hair wearing blue dress smiles on the beach

Jessica Lerner, a recent graduate of the Executive Master of Sustainability Leadership (EMSL), sees sustainability as starting on an individual level and expanding outward.

“Global issues…can feel overwhelming, but things will only change when we begin to open our eyes and decide to do something about it,” she says.

In the following Q&A, learn more about Lerner’s experience in the EMSL and how the program impacted her career.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study sustainability?

Answer: A few years ago at work, I casually recommended a simple change we could make to improve our environmental impact. I naively thought my boss would welcome the idea without much discussion. Instead, the owner replied, “we are in business to make money, not to improve the environment.” Needless to say, I was frustrated. I knew at that moment I needed more information to make the case for sustainability in business.

Q: Why did you choose the Executive Master of Sustainability Leadership?

A: I chose EMSL because of the people. Everyone I spoke to before applying for EMSL — from Jennifer Griffin to professors to former students — was intelligent, kind and reassuring. I knew going to school while working full-time and taking care of my family would be a challenge, and I wanted to be sure I would have the support I needed. The program seemed perfect at the time, and now that I have completed it, I know I made the right choice.

Q: Are there any particular classes or nuggets of information that have really stuck with you or inspired you?

A: One evening part of our homework included reading and analyzing Patagonia’s sustainability efforts. Even though I had other assignments, I spent hours that evening reading articles and watching the videos on Patagonia’s website. If an organization in the highly competitive apparel industry can pursue sustainability in such a passionate way and be extremely successful, it gives me hope for the rest of us.

Q: Can you tell us about your capstone project?

A: Last September, after wrapping up my homework for the night, I stumbled on a news article that revealed our commissioners had recently voted to send Okaloosa County, Florida’s recyclables to the landfill due to a negligible increase in cost. However, this change was originally not going to be announced to the public. Our recycling bins would be picked up the same as always and we would still be charged for recycling, but everything would go to the landfill instead.

I was shocked at the news and beyond frustrated. Here I am, about to finish EMSL and help change the world, and my county decided to roll the clock back a few decades and send all our recyclables to the landfill. If we can’t pay a little extra to continue to recycle, what sustainable investments can we make?

That evening, I created a petition on that included a video and news articles about the decision and upcoming commission meeting times. I reached out to local environmental groups like Coastal Community Cleanup to enlist their help sharing the petition. I also shared the petition in many local Facebook groups, on the Nextdoor app, and I commented and shared the petition on local news articles about the recycling situation. Also, over the next few weeks, I used the platform to regularly email those who signed the petition with updates about the recycling situation and to continue to ask for their help spreading the word.

Within weeks, over 3,800 Okaloosa County residents signed the petition and it was shared over 16,000 times; these are sizeable numbers for a small coastal community. Dozens of news articles were published about the situation, and the Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners chose to hold a previously unscheduled Recycling Workshop and Listening Session in October 2019 to discuss the situation with residents.

Hundreds attended the recycling meeting, and, with standing room only, a meeting that was scheduled for two hours, went on for more than three and a half hours due to the number of residents who chose to get up in front of the crowd to speak to our commissioners. During the Recycling Workshop and Listening Session, our commissioners announced they would hold another vote and reconsider the recycling contract.

Ultimately, one month after the Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners decided to send our recyclable waste to the landfill, recycling was reinstated to 32,500 households in unincorporated Okaloosa County. The outcome of this project was successful.

Although this project was successful, please keep in mind recycling should be a last resort after we reduce waste and reuse items whenever possible.

Woman with brown hair wearing blue dress works on laptop at beach

Q: How has the EMSL advanced your career?

A: Arizona State University’s EMSL program gave me the knowledge and confidence I needed to start my own business, Real Parks, to share conservation information and promote natural parks, and to start a socially conscious art business, Jess Lerner Art, with 10% of the profits going to marine conservation.

Q: How did you balance your classes with your work/personal life?

A: Family support and self-discipline are what helped me balance school, work and family. My husband, Rob, and son, Brendan, were a huge help! Also, I committed to spending a few evenings a week and at least one full day on the weekend reading, participating in discussions and completing assignments. Although I did miss out on some fun, the sacrifices were worth it.

Q: What does sustainability mean to you?

A: Sustainability, to me, is being willing to open myself up to the social and environmental challenges around me and question whether I can personally do anything to improve. Global issues like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, human trafficking, water scarcity, global warming, food islands, unsafe working conditions, child labor, endangered animals, and the loss of our natural resources can feel overwhelming, but things will only change when we begin to open our eyes and decide to do something about it.

Sustainability is choosing to dig in, research and work to make changes on a personal level while supporting organizations, leaders and businesses that further the causes you care about. Sustainability is now my never-ending journey of curiosity, education and discovering how to change my thoughts and habits before helping others. I am far from perfect, and I still make choices sometimes that I am not proud of. However, I am learning and, hopefully, changing for the better.

Businesses who choose to embrace sustainability have an amazing opportunity to positively impact their community and inspire their employees. They can also create fiercely loyal customers, save money by conserving resources, and find new sources of capital in sustainable technologies. Sustainability is the future of business. As sustainability professionals, I know we can and will be the spark that will create the change we wish to see in the world.