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Gail Whiteman is professor of sustainability, management and climate change and Ecorys NEI chair in sustainability and climate change at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University in the Netherlands. She has been teaching there for nearly 10 years, having joined after completing a PhD at Queen’s School of Business in Canada.
Prof Whiteman has studied business administration for most of her education. However, her studies have also included an experimental term at art college and a two-year period living with the Cree in sub-Arctic Canada where she researched her dissertation on the “ecologically embedded management approach of indigenous people”. This included living off the land with a Cree hunting family during the winter, without electricity or running water.
Before joining RSM, Prof Whiteman worked as a brand manager of Dentyne chewing gum, an advertising and communications director and an aid worker in Nicaragua. Eventually, she realised her interest lay primarily with environmental issues.
Along with teaching, Prof Whiteman enjoys lying in a hammock, being in deep wilderness, reading National Geographic, cycling and making soup.
(1) Who are your business influences?
Ray Anderson, founder of InterfaceFLOR, is a real trail-blazer in sustainable business. I have had the pleasure of meeting him twice and his practicality, enthusiasm and courage to make such a radical shift in business gives me hope that a low carbon future can be realised.
Others, like Peter Bakker, CEO of TNT, the Dutch multinational logistics group, also inspire me through their personal and professional commitment to changing the system. When Mr Bakker told me that we needed to offer only a vegan menu for a dinner we were arranging for executives (because of the CO2 footprint of most of the world’s meat production), I was shocked. I had heard that he drove a hybrid car, but this was really provocative. He also pushed me to consider how a business school professor could help reinvent the system of commerce.
(2) What has been the best piece of advice given to you?
There is no single best piece of advice, but there a few great pieces. My godfather, Bob Williams, told me to live below my means. That’s savvy advice economically but also ecologically. My undergraduate mentor, Douglas Snetsinger advised me to do a PhD (I would not have even thought of this if he hadn’t brought it up). Freddy Jolly, a Cree hunter, told me to pay attention to nature with all of my senses. And my late father told me to never let the world get me down.
(3) What academic achievement are you most proud of?
I was extremely proud when a research article that I had worked on for a number of years was accepted by the Academy of Management Journal. I had published there previously, but what made this so special to me was that the article was quite unusual from an ecological perspective and the editor said that he thought this to be one of the finest he had seen in his tenure at this journal. I was overwhelmed.
(4) How do you deal with pressure?
I deal with pressure in three ways: by getting down to the task at hand, by doing a regular yoga routine and by going outside into nature. I recently bought a kayak which I hope to use regularly in the canals in Rotterdam, however odd that may seem to locals.
(5) If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?
I would do an ecology degree first and maybe try to look at ants with E.O. Wilson. And I would learn to skateboard.
(6) What is the strangest thing you have ever done when teaching?
The strangest thing that I have ever done while teaching is to ask business students to hug trees during a lecture for my masters’ course Companies in Ecologies. This course uses an outdoor location at the Trompenburg Arboretum in Rotterdam near the university. The outdoor location appears to energise the study of sustainability in a way that a regular office-style classroom simply cannot do. At the beginning of the exercise, students can’t believe that I’m serious. But with some prodding, they do it.
(7) What advice would you give to women in business?
My advice would be to find your inner strength and use it.
(8) What is your earliest memory of school?
My earliest memory of school is being four and asking the teacher if I could stop playing games and start working on some of my own projects. She agreed. I liked playing with the other kids but after a while wanted to cut and paste together books on topics that interested me. I vividly remember a project on the letter “P”. The teacher brought in other teachers to watch me work, something that I did not like. It felt like being in a zoo. But being able to create my own projects was a great thing.
(9) What is your biggest lesson learnt?
(10) What are your future plans?
I will continue my work on sustainability and business. I am also writing a book called “Generation CO2: A Mother’s Guide to Climate Change.”
By Charlotte Clarke
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