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Smeal Sustainability Advisory Board Profile - A Q&A With Scott Golla

The goal with this series is to feature the work of our Smeal Sustainability Advisory Board members and show students a variety of business leaders contributing to the advancement of sustainable business.

In this interview with Scott Golla, I was reinforced with the idea of how all-encompassing sustainability is. Golla, with a firm grasp of the importance of sustainability in business, doesn't shy away from asking difficult and "out there" questions to get to the root of an issue. He believes in tackling challenges within institutions and encourages diverse thinking to ensure inclusive solutions. He is a proud family man, Penn State alum, and sustainably responsible citizen.

Why are you on the SAB?

“I’ve worked with several other universities and have been dealing with student teams for about 15 years on sustainability and I had met Erik at several external sustainability conferences before. He asked me to join this org and, being a Penn State alum, I was excited for the opportunity.

I also think there was a gap – I have more of an industrial background which is different than most of the other board members, so I think I help fill that gap as well.”

What is that industrial background that you bring to the table?

“I graduated from Penn State a long time ago with a degree in Environmental Resource Management. I worked in consulting for the first half of my career, generally environmental and sustainability consulting to industry, and I’ve seen how just about anything in this world is made. So very much a manufacturing background.

I went back to get my MBA at another university with a finance concentration and for the past 15 years, I’ve worked in corporate sustainability. So, the traditional environmental, compliance and management part never went away.

From there I’ve worked in integrated manufacturing, medical devices manufacturing, a little stint in financial services, and I’ve worked in a couple of different metals manufacturing organizations.

Now I’m at Howmet Aerospace which manufactures highly engineered metal components in the airspace industry and it’s pretty unique. Our whole business is around reducing the carbon footprint of our customers and that’s kind of our mission – to use our different technologies to reduce the carbon footprint of our customers so that they can enable lightweight, more fuel-efficient air and other forms of transportation. Also, sustainable power generation – some of our products are used in ground-based power generation turbines as well as many of the fasteners we make are used in solar and wind power.”

Many students are interested in careers that make a difference. Can you share how you came to be doing this work? What sparked your interest in sustainability and how did you make that a focus of your career?

“It was always part of me. Sustainability affects every single industry and every function in any kind of business.

That’s why I chose the technical bachelor's in environmental resource management. I like tackling difficult challenges and difficult problems. I’d rather try to take on the challenges and fix them within the culture that exists.

I’ve had the unique opportunity to work with many kinds of businesses. Flus, I worked for over seven years for a Japanese owned business, and several years for a Dutch headquartered business, and those global perspectives can be very different than an American perspective.

It's important to understand how other parts of the world are either more advanced or progressing a little bit faster than we are in traditional U.S. based industries. Every company is different, but you have to tackle the problems within the culture of the company. I love to do that.

The business degree that I have has been helpful in translating sustainability into any other function within a business. One of the techniques I’ve developed over my career is figuring out a way to integrate within the functions of a business. Asking, what are the key metrics of the function? What are the key continuous improvement initiatives? How is the function governed?

Ultimately, with the answer of those three questions, you find something sustainability related that you didn't originally realize. Then you choose to work on that.

Sustainability doesn’t have to be any kind of separate function. Sustainability is business. But the underlying element of all that is that a business is a continuing concern. That’s the synonym of sustainability—to be a continuing concern. There are issues that we need to address in any business to make sure that we are a continuing concern in the climate that we have.

I enjoy working on the Sustainability Advisory Board on the Research Committee because that gives me the opportunity to share what businesses are struggling with right now to help point in the right direction for what the needs will be five years down the line, using business research that would be really applicable to how sustainability operates within the business world.

My core mission is to continually learn, adapt, share and engage others in the topic of sustainability. Sustainability is always changing – there’s always new definitions and new material topics that fall under sustainability – but to engage people in understanding sustainability and then integrate it into their decision making, both in business and in life, is the key.”

Transforming business education is something that the Center has been promoting and is a foundation for what it's trying to do. What transformation do you wish to see within business education?

“That’s part of the reason I’m involved in this board. I really think that academia needs some business view to understand what the current needs are for a business in sustainability.

If there was one skill I would like every graduate of Smeal to come out with it’s how to do a business case for an initiative that incorporates intangibles. Not the quantitative EVA or net present value or payback period, but really learn to incorporate the value of intangibles into your business case because that’s the soft spot where sustainability becomes difficult, and the difficult decisions get made.

Have you considered your impact on everything else in your business case? In most cases I’ve seen, the full value chain impact isn’t considered.

If undergraduates and graduate students could come out with that skill set – how to think creatively about the total cost and benefits to society, not just the cost to the business of a particular decision – then they can use that to influence decision making and be more ethical citizens.

A piece of advice I like to share with students is that your major is going to get you in the door for your first job but that’s when you start to apply your interests and your real diverse background. Bring your whole self to the solutions. That’s the whole point of diversity – bringing your whole background to the role, not just your schooling – because you’re going to learn a whole lot more in your first couple of years on the job than you did in the four years at Penn State.”

If there was one world issue that you could solve at the snap of your fingers, what would it be?

“It’s a little bit more nuanced, but I think materials management is a critical issue. By that I mean considering the value of materials and asking questions like, can we eliminate the whole concept of waste?

In my view, materials are like blood in the circulatory system – you can’t afford to lose too much of it. Considering materials as waste anywhere in the system is essentially losing blood in your circulatory system. We can save so much in terms of carbon emissions and expenses and so many other things by managing materials in a circular fashion from industry to industry.

We have a disposable society – people think too much about what they call ‘take make waste' – and if we change that linear thinking into something more circular, it's better for everyone.

This can happen through design. If you design your business so that you crave your products back at end of life, or if you set up the marketing structure so that it’s to everybody’s advantage that the company gets the products back at end of life, then it’s much more efficient to get those materials back into new products through some sort of reprocessing or redesign. I really think that that concept makes a ton of sense for our future.

Disposal affects all different aspects of society that are typically not considered in business decision making. If we can think circularly in terms of materials management, we can get really far.

I’m proud of Howmet in that more than 60% of our products are made from recycled material – some of our products are 100% made from recycled materials. Just thinking that way really has a lower impact on society and on the environment.

If I get frustrated, I like to ask a lot of questions. One of the core questions I like to ask that usually throws people off in the business environment is, ‘would you eat it?”. People question what I mean by this, and I say, this material is ultimately going to end up somewhere in somebody’s food, air, or water. If you don’t want to ingest it, let’s try to find the next technical use of this material rather than disposing of it.

That’s a really simplistic view, but if you ask those simple but difficult to answer questions, you get really unique answers.

Those types of questions really get people thinking, do we make life worse anywhere in our value chain for anybody? And if we do, how do we mitigate that?

I like to ask people to consider these types of questions. Questions to help them consider how to innovate, to help them work through a problem, to help them see the impacts.”

What is something surprising about you that most people wouldn’t know?

“In my personal life, I am a proud father of three amazing young women, and I am 100% confident that they are going to make an impact on the world regardless of their field. Whether they can see it or not, I have a lot of confidence in them as a father, and I have a lot of confidence in them to impact their careers.

Also, fun fact, my family has been in Pittsburgh for more than 175 years! My career has taken me out of Pennsylvania a few times across the many years, but most of it has been in Pittsburgh.”

Do you have any messages for our students?

“Learn how to do the robust business case that incorporates the value of intangibles, and be curious, learn everything you can, and then start sharing what you’ve learned.

Here’s one specific piece of advice: if you’re at a gathering for your company, major or profession, gravitate toward the people you don’t know and learn something from them. Even if it’s a social gathering, avoid the people you know and approach the people you don’t! It’s a learned skill, but it will pay significant dividends to meet new people and be curious and explore their backgrounds and how they apply their backgrounds to their career.

Also, sustainability is not something to be afraid of. I really enjoy trying to translate this very amorphous topic of sustainability into what it means in any part of a business. But my advice for any business graduate is to try to learn what you can and then share what you learn and polish those influence skills. Work on how you influence other parts of the organization that you end up in. You have to calibrate to the culture of any organization but then you can, very respectfully, drive change.”


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