Having spent 14 years pioneering sustainability at $16 billion food and facilities company Aramark, Kathy Cacciola stepped into her next major challenge in December 2021.
Now working as global sustainability lead of the food program at Google, Cacciola oversees a complex network of international stakeholders, shaping sustainability strategies across a global portfolio of foodservice operators.
In this interview, she discusses the importance of acclimating to a new role, the two skills that are crucial for carving out a successful career in ESG, and the big issues shaping sustainability in global food.
Shannon Houde: Can you tell us a little bit about your exciting job at Google?
Kathy Cacciola: Sure. I joined Google in December 2021 as the global sustainability lead on the food team. So that means that I work at the intersection of the Google food team and our vendor partners, those partners being foodservice companies that are managing the day to day operations across our locations. Coming from my role at Aramark, I’m essentially on what we would call the client side. And thankfully, having that deep expertise and knowledge of what is and is not possible — and where those challenges are — means we can have a mutual understanding as the foundation for a great partnership.
My current work sits under two main areas of focus: food loss and waste; and single-use plastics. So, while my remit is global sustainability and I’m involved in a lot of different initiatives such as balanced plant-forward (using whole grains, beans/legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and healthy oils in the majority of meals), in 2023 we’ll put that broader strategy over our approach.
There’s a really interesting complexity to our organization given the scale at which we work, and the fact that everything at Google is not just about what we do within our operations but about changing practices among our partners, and then scaling more globally around the world as well.
Houde: Do you have any advice on jumping into a new organization and new role?
Cacciola:It takes time to get acclimated and to understand all the different stakeholders. For me having been at Aramark for 14 years, and then coming to Google, I lost my whole ecosystem of colleagues, many of whom are also dear friends. Thankfully, at Google, during the first few months of my role, at least in the food team, our leadership team gave a lot of space to just learn, listen, absorb and ask questions but not make any decisions. There are so many basic administrative pieces to get up to speed on in a new role, let alone the subject matter and then the stakeholders. So, give yourself — and hopefully your leadership team can give you — the patience and grace to build a strong foundation so that when you are told to run, you’re actually able to run.
Houde: Do you have any recommendations for folks transitioning from careers in NGOs, government or think tanks to the private sector too?
Cacciola: I would just think about what skills and expertise you have that can be applied within a different sector. A lot of the time, people will get caught up in what sector they’ve been working in, but if you think about stakeholder engagement or project management, these are universal skillsets. So, get really clear on what your skills and abilities are and how they apply in a new setting. And get really clear explaining that.
Be ready to pivot, and understand what they’re going to call you out on that’s missing and have your answer as to how you’re going to be successful.
For example, I was interviewing for a job at the World Cocoa Foundation many years ago. I didn’t have any cocoa subject matter expertise, and I was in the final interview process with the president of the organization. He looked at me and he said, “Oh, you don’t have any cocoa subject matter expertise.” And I said, “You have 40 people on staff who have cocoa subject matter expertise. The last thing you need is one more person with cocoa subject matter expertise. You need somebody who knows how to ask those people the right questions, and then apply the answers.” (P.S. I did get the job offer.) Be ready to pivot, and understand what they’re going to call you out on that’s missing and have your answer as to how you’re going to be successful.
Houde: Food systems are one of the most expansive areas within sustainability because they are so complex. What do you see as the most pressing ESG issues related to your work?
Cacciola: In addition to food loss and waste, and single-use plastics, the other area that I’m working on with our procurement team is updating our procurement guidelines.
We’re working on updating our overall standards and those standards are definitely not limited to plastics and food waste alone but include a whole variety of topics and issues — whether it’s sustainable seafood, animal welfare or deforestation. Another broader overarching topic that every food company is thinking about these days is around carbon emissions overall or specifically associated with your purchased goods and services — oftentimes the bulk of a food company’s emissions. Once we have a sense of what we’re purchasing, it’s then understanding what emissions are associated with those purchases so that we can continue to reduce emissions over time as we drive towards our net zero goal.
Houde: And what do you love about your job at the moment?
Cacciola:Well, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out my love for the food here at Google (free healthy snacks are everywhere!) and our food program overall. But what I really love is that I’m working for an organization that’s truly committed to driving change. As I alluded to earlier, it’s not only within our business and ecosystem, but across our partners and the broader marketplace overall. The level of ambition is quite significant. Even the food waste goals that we announced earlier this year to cut food waste in half for each Googler and send zero food waste to the landfill by 2025. As many of you might be familiar with, U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 sets a goal to halve food waste by 2030. Ours is by 2025. So it’s a go big or go home attitude, and that level of commitment and ambition is consistent across everything that we do.
Houde: Tell us about the challenges that you face on a regular basis.
Cacciola: I would say the biggest challenge is around navigating our ecosystem of stakeholders. The level of complexity at Google is significant. I partner with our own food team, and we partner with all of our vendors, of which we have more than 40 around the world. And then we’re also engaging external stakeholders, whether it’s consultants or NGOs. So, there are a lot of interests, there’s a lot of points of view. There are also a lot of sustainability teams across the organization. Engaging the right people at the right time is really, really key to being successful and is often one of the most challenging aspects of the role.
Houde: And given that, what two skills do you think are the most crucial for you to be effective in your role?
Cacciola: I think patience and the ability to listen and learn to understand context and different points of view is critical. The other skill is digesting large amounts of information and synthesizing it into clear and simple recommendations. Those two skills are really important for sustainability professionals. Subject matter expertise as the foundation for all of it, but you have to be able to do those two things in order to put your sustainability subject matter expertise into practice.
Houde: Are there any specific credentials or degrees or certifications you can think of that someone should look at to try to be in a role like yours?
Cacciola: I always recommend academic experience but also practical or hands-on experience. Whether it’s through an internship with a company or a fellowship, you really need to apply the knowledge that you’ve learned in an academic setting. I went to undergrad in [Washington, D.C.] so I did internships all through college with different organizations in the D.C. area. And that was definitely helpful for me to get that exposure. And then I interned with the Student Conservation Association on a wildlife refuge in Alaska for a summer. I know a lot of professionals participate in the EDF Climate Corps program, which is a fabulous program, too. So, there are programs out there that you can look to beyond company-specific internship programs to get that broader experience.
Shannon Houde is an ICF certified career and leadership coach who founded Walk of Life Coaching in 2009. Her life’s purpose is to enable change leaders to turn their passion into action and to live into their potential — creating scalable social and environmental impact globally. To follow more stories like these, join Shannon for Coffee & Connect where she interviews sustainability practitioners every month to learn more about what their “day in the life” involves.