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Sandra Taylor, former SVP of Corporate Responsibility at Starbucks, joined Chatham as the new Falk Chair of Socially Responsible Business. What follows is an excerpt from our conversation.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your background?
Sure. Well, for my undergrad, I attended Colorado Women’s College in Denver. It looks a lot like Chatham’s Shadyside campus, so I feel right at home! After I graduated, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I went to Boston University School of Law. Because I had majored in French, I decided to do international law, and from that point on, my career has pretty much always been international. After law school, I went to Washington, DC to work for the State Department as an international trade lawyer, which then set me off on my corporate career.

Q: I heard that you got your MBA after finishing your corporate career—is that correct?
(Laughs) Yes – I did my MBA much, much later. What happened was, I was at a chemical company, then Kodak, then Starbucks. As I moved up, I was given increased responsibility in public affairs, public relations, global market access, even though my training was as a lawyer. When I was at Starbucks, as part of the senior team, I was part of all the strategic planning, and attending all these board meetings and I realized it was a gap in my education. Then after Starbucks, I started a consulting company, and by then I was on two corporate boards, and I thought “I really need to do this.” I was literally hiring a tutor to help me understand the financials before every board meeting.

I decided to do an MBA, and I decided to do it in a way that was going to be interesting for me. So I did a wine MBA, in Bordeaux, France. There’s probably five universities that offer this degree in the world.

Q: How did you get interested in wine?
During my very first job with the state department, I would spend summers in Geneva, Switzerland. On weekends my colleagues and I would go to France. I became fascinated by wine. I took courses on wines, wine regions, winemaking, to really understand all aspects of it, and eventually became a wine collector. It’s something I enjoy and became very knowledgeable about.

Everything I learned about sustainability around coffee, cocoa and tea at Starbucks was applicable to wine as an agricultural product. I wrote my thesis on what motivates sustainability in wine supply chains, and turned it into a book.  

I thought, “I want to be the global thought leader for sustainability and wine. But I don’t know if that pays anything. So maybe I could teach and write, too.”

That’s how I evolved to be here.

Q: How did you get started in sustainability?
 I always say “on the dark side,” since my first corporate job was with a huge chemical company (laughs). I started there as an international trade lawyer, trying to influence environmental regulations that affected the company. I was eventually promoted to VP of Public Affairs, where I served on a team of people from a bunch of other chemical companies, and we decided to create a code of conduct for the industry above and beyond EPA expectations. It was my first involvement in “responsibility”, which is what it was called instead of “sustainability” back then.

Sadly, in 1995, an ammonium nitrate fertilizer product that we made was used to make the Oklahoma City Bomb, and we were sued by the families for negligence. I spent a lot of time in Oklahoma City, dealing with the media and building a community outreach program. We literally had to explode the product in the desert in New Mexico, as part of our defense. I was in a helicopter, flying over these explosions.  

Our image was so bad, we were on the nightly news all the time. Then the media storm died down, but the litigation continued. In the middle of all this, I received a call from a headhunter, and I got a job offer from Kodak, and I was like “Aaaah!” (loud exhale).

Q: Can you tell me about a “responsibility” project that you worked on at Kodak?
Sure. I had told the CEO there that I didn’t just want to do policy and PR, I also wanted to do marketing, so he asked me to figure out how we could re-enter the South African market, since we had disinvested during apartheid. I went down there and hired a firm of local young, black marketing people who helped me put together a really good strategy that involved community outreach, giving back, and being socially responsible.

Q: What was your role at Starbucks?  
A: As SVP for Corporate Responsibility, I was in charge of making sure Starbucks’s values are reflected in their business practices. That company leads from the heart, I always say. But they didn’t really have a leadership team that had the experience in business and sustainability that they needed. That’s why they brought me in. There are so many hot-button issues around Starbucks, from social responsibility in coffee-growing regions to where we open stores. My job was to integrate their values into their business.

Q: How did you come to Chatham?
After I left Starbucks, I started my consulting firm, Sustainable Business International, and the University of Pittsburgh gave me an Exemplary Leader Award (part of which involves having students write a case study on me and leadership that they use for one of their courses). They usually give it to leaders of nonprofits or people in government—I was the first businessperson they gave it to.  

So Pittsburgh was on my radar. Then I knew Jennifer Potter, who is chair of Chatham’s Board of Trustees, when I was working for Starbucks. She always said “Oh, I’m so busy with Chatham, you should go and meet them,” and one time I said that I was going to be in Pittsburgh in a couple of weeks, so she sent emails to (Chatham President) David (Finegold) and (Falk School of Sustainability & Environment Dean) Peter (Walker) and some others.

Now I’m teaching two courses here. There’s an MBA course called Leading Organizations and Projects, but we really focus on leadership and culture. And I’m teaching a course in the Bachelor of Sustainability program called Introduction to Corporate Social Responsibility, and the students are so energized, and so vocal and engaged; I’m really enjoying it.  

We talk about how you can’t be socially responsible if you’re not profitable. You can’t give away money, or invest in new energy technologies. The course is about “companies should be behaving in certain ways”, but there’s nothing wrong with companies. They do a lot for the world, they make progress; we just want them to do it in a more responsible, sustainable way.