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Degrees of Sustainability

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From his Peace Corps roots to his work at Citi, sustainability specialist Bruce Schlein ’96 has crafted a career dedicated to bringing about social change in communities as disparate as Lavongai, Papua New Guinea; Aotau, China; and New York City. He has played virtually every role in the world of sustainability, from NGO project leader to corporate catalyst.

After graduating from Cornell University in 1988, Schlein joined the Peace Corps as a community development volunteer in Lavongai. Two years later, he returned to Washington, D.C., where he worked at the organization’s headquarters and studied at SAIS. After finishing his degree, he continued his career in international development and relief. He spent seven years with Catholic Relief Services in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Save the Children in Westport, Conn.

But by the time 2003 rolled around, Schlein wanted something new.

“What had attracted me to international relief had become the norm,”he said. “I wanted to be immersed again in a context where I was the outsider.”

An outsider is exactly what he became. Schlein joined Bechtel, a global engineering and construction company, where he worked in Aotau and Cluj-Napoca, Romania, and spearheaded the company’s sustainability commitments on projects. Among the many oil and gas professionals working on the ground, he was the sole person focused on local community engagement.

In the rapidly changing rural environment of Aotau, Schlein helped small- and medium-sized enterprises identify and pursue areas of cooperation with Bechtel as the company constructed a major petrochemical plant.

“The pace and scale of development in Aotau were hard to fathom as the area made the transformation from coastal traders, subsistence farmers and fishermen to industry,”he said.

After two years working on project-based initiatives at Bechtel, Schlein headed back to the United States, where he transitioned into a corporate role at Citi, again focusing on sustainability from an entirely new angle.

Schlein now works as an intermediary between the bank and external groups interested in seeing the company and its clients augment or moderate activities that have environmental and social impacts. His work with a broad range of teams has promoted sustainability in communities from Ahmedabad, India, to New York City.

Among Citi’s successes is the establishment of the Equator Principles, an industry voluntary standard for environmental and social risk that now includes more than 70 banks from around the world.

“We are also helping to establish energy efficiency as a new asset class, cracking the code on the financing of a product that is critical for environmental [goals], energy security and job creation,”he said.

Serving as an intermediary, Schlein is in many respects a diplomat, bridging the interests of various sectors of the economy. Here, his education at SAIS has played a significant role in his success.

“The work requires many of the skills, qualities and attributes that are embedded and infused in the SAIS community and education: global view; appreciation and respect for different cultures, views and perspectives; empathy; listening; and negotiation,”he said. “These ‘soft skills’can be more difficult to characterize and articulate than ‘hard skills,’but they are critical and essential.”

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