The Modern Environmentalist

By Seth Robinson

Tania Smith finished her undergraduate studies at the University of Melbourne in 2007, graduating with a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Commerce. Now, 12 years later, she is a Director of Sustainable Finance at ANZ. It’s a job that didn’t exist five years ago. We spoke with Tania about what it means to be a business leader at the forefront of a burgeoning sector, which will shape the future of our world.

When Tania was young, she wanted to be a park ranger. When she began her undergraduate studies, she knew she wanted to do something environmental, but wasn’t certain what that would be. Her studies lent her strongly towards a career in environmental consulting, but with time, came a broader understanding of sustainability, and the role of business in driving change.

“There are different perspectives people take when it comes to sustainability, whether it’s from a policy perspective, or a risk perspective, or the more traditional environmental perspective. It depends what part of the business world you’re working in. Leadership in sustainability can take many different forms and the career paths leading to those roles don’t always exist when you leave university. When I finished uni, it was right around the time that the Garnaut Report was released, and discussion of carbon trading was just hitting the mainstream in Australia. I went to a careers fair, and visited every stall, asking them if they did ‘sustainability consulting’. Most of them responded ‘what’s that?’ But one lady, from Arup, responded, ‘Actually yes, we do, we’ve just started a team’.”

This moment marked the beginning of over a decade long  career in environmental consulting, that saw Tania spend time working in Europe and the United States. It’s a career that’s been defined by the intersection between the natural world, and the world of business.

“I’m most interested in exploring the big social and environmental issues, such as climate change and the provision of sustainable infrastructure. I’m interested in working out how you actually get solutions to those problems funded or financed. You can seek out government grants and try to rely on philanthropic sources, but it’s very rare that those sources of funds will be sufficient. So, it’s about looking at how we can find a revenue stream to help offset the cost of these projects, so that we can actually generate cash flows and hence gain greater access to sources of finance. I think that’s the role that consulting firms should be playing in this space, advising people about how to pay for the solutions of tomorrow.”

Tania Smith
Tania Smith – Image courtesy of Arup.

Now, after building a career abroad, Tania has returned home to Australia, to enter her new role with ANZ.

“Now is a good time to come back to Australia, career wise, particularly in this field. Sustainable finance is booming overseas, but in Australia, it’s only in its early days, and ANZ is at the forefront. I’ve found the leadership at ANZ to be exceptionally supportive. The CEO has a brilliant vision for the company, and the firm’s purpose of ‘shaping a world where people and communities thrive’ is really in-line with what I value. There are three pillars by which they deliver on their purpose, one of them being environmental sustainability, and that’s where Sustainable Finance can contribute most. They are trying to change the way that people think about business. In my fifteen years of consulting, I’ve actually never come across an organisation where I have seen so much sustainability buy-in at so many senior leadership levels – it’s really inspiring.”

While she was living in the UK, Tania worked closely with the University of Melbourne Alumni network. Now that she’s returned home, it’s given her a chance to reconnect with friends, and continue her work with the University’s alumni community. Most recently, she hosted a table at the Faculty of Business and Economics’ Business Leaders Breakfast.

“The alumni network was actually one of the best things about moving to the UK. It gave me a really strong link back to home, and other Australians. I think when you live overseas as a young adult, it’s important to find, and connect to those roots” she says. “It was great going to the Business Leaders Breakfast. I liked being able to contribute and give back, but there’s always a hesitation that comes from thinking ‘Am I really a leader? Do I have valuable insights to offer?’  Thankfully, when it came down to it, and I was in the room, I realised I could speak about my leadership experience overseas and that I did have a lot of useful knowledge to share. I talked about the different leadership styles I’d experienced in the US and the UK vs. Australia, and how some of the cultural differences come into play. I think it takes moments of reflection like that, to reconcile what good leadership is and that it doesn’t always come from where you might expect.”

For students beginning their university studies, Tania has one other piece of advice .

“I think the best way to really kick off your university experience on a positive note is to get involved in the extracurricular activities that take place during O-week and throughout semester – such as the O-week camps and student committees. I made so many of my friends there. It gives you established connections, helps you ease into the rhythm of university life and gives you opportunities to develop your leadership skills. The friends and connections you make through those activities, stay with you all the way through your studies, and beyond. When I came back to Australia, those were the networks I tapped into to get jobs, to reconnect, and network with. It was really easy to reconnect with all those friends, even though I hadn’t been here for seven years. Those people remember you, and are happy to open their doors to you. What’s more, most are now business leaders in their own right .”