By Kat J. McAlpine

The impacts our rapidly-warming world will disproportionately affect the lives of Gen Z, also known as the “climate change generation.” Rising concerns about the future are driving many of today’s students and newest members of the workforce to pursue careers in sustainability and the environmental sector. To help new graduates hit the ground running, Manomet’s U360 business sustainability internship program prepares young adults to be future leaders on environmental, social, and economic fronts.

Every U360 intern (to date there have been nearly 150, hailing from 20 universities along the East Coast) engages with up to 25 unique small businesses across America. Through deep-dive interviews with small business owners, interns learn about sustainable business in a head-on manner, and then develop action plans for businesses to further optimize their use of sustainable practices that benefit people and our environment. U360 not only empowers interns, but also thousands of small businesses across America, helping to boost their business sustainability and resilience.

After completing the U360 program, 95 percent of former interns say they plan to seek post-grad jobs with employers that prioritize incorporating sustainability principles and practices into their businesses. Lillian Brown and Ashlyn Tomer are two of those U360 alumni.

Last year, Brown and Tomer completed their bachelor’s degrees and landed positions at National Grid, which supplies gas and electricity to customers throughout Massachusetts, New York, and until recently, Rhode Island.

Brown, who graduated from University of Vermont with an environmental science degree, and Tomer, who earned her degree in business management and marketing from University of Southern Maine, were both offered spots in National Grid’s graduate professional development program. We caught up with the former U360 interns to learn about the work they’re doing at National Grid and ask them to reflect on their U360 experience.

Q&A: Lillian Brown & Ashlyn Tomer

What’s your role at National Grid?

Brown: My official title is associate coordinator for project management. I work on the electric transformation team, the group that’s in charge of bringing National Grid into the energy future. I’m supporting projects that enable the use of new digital technologies. We’re moving toward preparing the electric business for carbon-free energy. Part of what my team does is to implement digital products that can better predict future needs for things like grid maintenance and vegetation maintenance [along pipelines and around power stations], and we’re even partnering with our robotics team to automate some of those activities. To do our work, we run workshops that pull people together from many different teams across National Grid.

Tomer: I’m an associate analyst in strategy and performance. Essentially, I support our team on plant accounting, general finance, procurement, as well as compliance and business continuity work that ensures National Grid can be financially resilient in the face of potential challenges or unforeseen events [such as IT outages or damage from natural disasters].

Why did you choose to work at National Grid?

Brown: The sustainability and environmental focus was a big draw for me. The company is so focused on making that transition, moving into the future, and being on the front edge of that. National Grid also has really strong diversity, equity, and inclusion commitments, which are really important to me. They also have a graduate development program designed for recent college graduates entering the workforce, and so I knew through that program I would get development opportunities and the chance to meet other people my age across the company and coming into our first jobs together.

Tomer: While in college at University of Southern Maine (which I chose for its proximity to my Native American tribal affiliation in that area, the Penobscot community), I worked for the insurance company Unum, which had a professional development program. That’s when I first got exposure to professional development, and I knew I wanted to keep pursuing those types of programs and opportunities. That led me to U360, and then to National Grid. What I like about National Grid was that they demonstrate a strong commitment to retaining employees, growing [skills and experience in] employees, and giving employees a chance to shadow other positions or career paths within National Grid. Personally, it’s really important for me to work at a company that nurtures growth in such a way.

At National Grid, I’m also part of an employee resource group for Native Americans. I’m currently working online to earn my master’s degree in leadership and organization through University of Southern Maine, and here in Syracuse I’m getting to see authentic leadership through my engagement with the local Wabanaki community. There is a Christopher Columbus statue in downtown Syracuse that we are working together to get taken down. We’ve also participated together in a walk of remembrance dedicated to Native American children who were taken from their families and put into schools [led by colonizers] to try and assimilate them.

How did U360 prepare you for the work you’re doing now?

Tomer: Completing U360 was a huge accomplishment. What I learned best is how to communicate professionally, how to approach talking to someone on the phone, what to do if I feel flustered… [U360 Director] Lora Babb’s guidance helped me so much with learning how to respond. I also really admired that, within our cohort of interns, people frequently shared mistakes they had made and how they learned from it. Throughout the program, it felt like we were all on one big learning curve together.

Brown: I would echo a lot of what Ashlyn said. U360 was really the experience that moved me from being a college student to a professional working in the sustainability industry. It taught me how to be organized, how to manage an inbox with a large influx of emails, how to manage communication and track necessary follow-up tasks.

U360 also broadened my worldview of business sustainability, and how different industries and people might view sustainability. I was able to talk to so many different business owners from different industries, spanning grocery stores to construction to waste management to architecture firms, representing companies of sizes varying from five to 400 employees. It allowed me to see what sustainability looks like in all those scenarios, and the unique challenges each company faced.

Based on the small businesses you worked with during U360, what do you think about the state of sustainability in America?

Tomer: I had very interesting conversations with business owners who, at the beginning of our interviews, would say they didn’t think they were doing much on sustainability. I think there’s a misconception that sustainability is all about being “greener” with your business practices, but it’s about a lot more than that. It’s also about how you work with and retain employees. And a lot of businesses I worked with were already doing many positive things on those fronts. While they might not think of that as a sustainability initiative, they might forget the amount of resources it takes to train new employees.

Brown: I was surprised to learn how much business are already doing. I think there’s a negative perception about businesses, that they only care about money and not the environment, but many business owners I talked to had environmental issues that felt important to them, and they had already implemented sustainability practices to try and address those. Then, when the U360 interview helped them think about more sustainable actions they could implement, I came away from those conversations feeling very optimistic.

Brown is team captain of U360’s 2022 “36 Hours for Our Future” campaign, supporting future U360 interns and Manomet’s goals for expanding the program to reach even more college students. It’s not too late to support Brown’s fundraising efforts and make a donation that will empower the future business sustainability leaders of America.