How to … set out on your own sustainably

How to … set out on your own sustainably

Blog by Carolina Karlstrom – Founder, Jade Advisory, climate coach and Senior Lead Environment & Climate Change, SGN

To mark Earth Day 2020, sustainability specialist and climate coach Carolina Karlstrom talks about her career journey in energy and sustainable development, and what setting up as a consultant taught her.

I’d like to say that sustainability and saving the planet has been at the forefront of my life since I was a little girl growing up in Sweden… but, alas, that is not quite true! Throughout my career I have been of the firm belief that work should be fun. I want to, most days, wake up with a smile and be excited about the day ahead of me. That has been my driver. Working in the energy industry, and in particular with renewable energy, was what made me go fully green.

So it was more by chance than choice that I ended up at Vattenfall when I graduated from Royal Institute of Technology with my MSc in Engineering.  I had focused on land surveying of all things in this world – which just goes to show how unpredictable your career route can be.  It’s certainly helped me discuss A levels and university with my 16-year-old, showing the choices might seem very important now in setting the direction for the rest of your life but … they aren’t … really.

At Vattenfall I got to learn about wind energy, and I can safely say that this is when my passion for working in the energy industry was cemented. Grabbing an opportunity, I moved to the UK in 2000 to join RES, one of the world’s leading renewable energy companies to develop wind energy projects in Scandinavia. I don’t think it’s very common these days to stay 17 years with a company, though that is what I did. True to myself I enjoyed every moment of it advancing from project development, to strategy and finally being promoted to Head of Sustainability.

I am no longer ashamed to admit that it was being made redundant that resulted in leaving the safe harbour of the corporate world – propelling me to take a path I had never imagined myself on – that of an independent consultant and starting my own company. I took my skills and my experience, backed it all up with another master’s degree, this time in Sustainability and Responsibility, and was ready to take the world by storm.

I’ve never regretted this step. I learned so much, a lot of it the hard way I must add, and yet when it all worked and there was a flow in what I did (including paying clients) I thrived.

Being a consultant has big challenges, which I didn’t fully appreciate when starting out – having to constantly think of the next client and pay check, finding the clients in the first place, selling myself and realising my value.

It also has big pluses! I was my own boss for the first time, and the freedom of deciding when, where and how to work is very liberating and, I must add, helpful when you have child caring responsibilities. Not to mention that every time I was paid for a piece of work, I felt immensely proud – the client paid me for my work, I wasn’t just part of a big machinery or an overhead. That built a lot of strength and self-confidence.

Working on my own built my resilience. It’s about being able to stand up when that wave pushes you over and over, again and again, like a surfer in high seas. It also allowed me to try new things, to be brave and put myself out there. I wrote blogs worrying no one would read them, arranged events nervous no one would show up, networked A LOT which I used to hate, an introvert by nature. Now I realise it is not that hard – you can always get people talking by asking them about their favourite topic – themselves!

What would I recommend for anyone starting out on their own?

  • Speak to your contacts and speak to your contacts again. The majority of my work came through my well-established networks.
  • See if you can find a charity or a cause close to your heart to work with. I have been a Director for Ecoed Life and Organiser for Sustainable Development Goals Network, amongst other things. But also make sure you limit this time unless you have an endless supply of money to sustain you.
  • Upskill yourself – take advantage of opportunities to learn and expand your expertise.
  • Be brave and don’t be afraid to try new things and ideas – you will learn from them, however it goes.
  • Take time out to rest from “everything” and find what nourishes you – you are likely to need it.

After three years as an independent consultant – and I am very proud to have made my living all by myself for that stretch of time – I started contracting for SGN, a gas distribution company managing a network of natural and green gas to 5.9 million homes and businesses across Scotland and the south of England. Now, as their Senior Lead on Environment and Climate Change my focus is on the future of heating and the ambitious target we have set to be net zero by 2045. It’s a great role and a huge challenge.

Today sustainability, energy and climate change are still high on the world’s agenda and it’s definitely where I see my future.   I aspire to lead (in collaboration with others, for the climate change challenge is way too big for anyone to take on alone) at Board level. It’s where I believe the skills and strengths I have learned along my career journey, in particular from going it alone, can drive the most positive and sustainable change.