Sandra E. Taylor, CEO of Sustainable Business International LLC, combined her passions to create a corporate social responsibility and sustainability career that has taken her around the globe.
By Melissa Brazier
Sandra E. Taylor’s father, Leo, worked for an aircraft company. As a young girl growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, she had heard many tales of travel, but had yet to take flight herself. That is, until her family’s first trip internationally, when she was 12-years-old. Destination: The World’s Fair in Montreal. At the Fair, Sandra was given a “passport,” and each time she entered a new pavilion she received a stamp. She remembers fondly, “I thought, one day I’m going to have a real passport and I’m going to travel to all these places.”
Her mother Bernyce, on the other hand, was a social worker, and hearing how her mother had helped others is where Sandra’s interest in social responsibility began. Coupling these two passions has always driven both Sandra’s career and her personal endeavors.
Sandra received a Bachelor of Arts in French from the Colorado Women’s College, and a Juris Doctorate from Boston University School of Law, where her focus was on international finance transactions and international trade law. This led to her first government position as an International Economist in the U.S. Department of State. Her negotiation skills were really put to the test on her first assignment in Jamaica, where she worked to successfully renegotiate the U.S.-Jamaica extradition treaty. After that, she decided to move to the United Nations (UN) where her work on the Economic and Social Council would be more centred around attending and reporting on negotiating sessions.
Sandra always wanted to end up in the private sector, she just wasn’t sure how or in what capacity. She also knew that the move from government to private sector would not be an easy one. “I have always tried to [ask] ‘what are the transitional jobs and assignments I need in order to get to the next step?’ My entire career, I’ve also always just told people—colleagues, friends, mentors, influential people—‘here’s what I’d like to do’ and somehow or another they keep me in mind,” she says.
Working her connections, Sandra went on to a position in the U.S. Senate as a Legislative Assistant for the International Trade Subcommittee. She knew then that this was one piece of policy that had a direct impact on business and could be a good stepping-stone to the private sector. She was right. The result of drafting trade legislation and influencing trade policy allowed her to get a job with ICI Americas Inc., where she worked to translate government policy that affected international business.
Eventually taking the reigns as VP of Public Affairs, Sandra faced a major challenge when the company’s agricultural chemical product (a.k.a. fertilizer) was used to create the bomb that devastated Oklahoma City in 1995. Spending months working on crisis communications, Sandra also got involved in helping with Responsible Care, which was a set of standards chemical companies put in place that went above and beyond legal and regulatory requirements in order to push companies to be more accountable.
“This was my first exposure to a code of conduct for responsible behaviour,” Sandra recalls, “and a lot of what I’ve done since is about these codes of conduct. Thinking: What is our responsibility as a company to communities, to dispossessed people, and to the planet?” It was the beginning of Sandra’s commitment to drive awareness of sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR).
Sandra doesn’t hesitate to list her greatest accomplishment in this area: the Starbucks Coffee Company and Farmer Equity Program (C.A.F.E.). As the Senior Vice President, Corporate Responsibility, she felt it was important for her to see and understand what the needs of the coffee regions were firsthand, in order to help reach what she deems the triple bottom line—environmental, social, and economic sustainability.
Prior to Sandra joining Starbucks, very few senior-level executives had actually travelled to the coffee regions. Breaking with convention, her visits included Rwanda, Ethiopia, Costa Rica, and Kenya. She also went to Chiapas, Mexico, in partnership with Conservation International to help farmers learn to grow coffee in the shade, eliminating the need to cut down precious rain forests while helping to increase their earnings.
It was her trip to Ethiopia for the ribbon cutting of a bridge that Starbucks helped build that directly demonstrated the big impact a small project can have. “People would build these very unstable bridges across rivers and streams. It’s how children got to school and how women would get to the market, but it was also how our coffee would get to the warehouse and then the port, and the community had had fatalities as a result of this bridge. I just remember people relaying stories of the lives that would be saved as a result of simply having a strong bridge.”
After six years at Starbucks, Sandra decided it was time to strike out on her own. Many people outside of the industry had been calling to chat about how she’d accomplished what she had for the company. “I knew there was a consulting business somewhere in there. This would also let me do things I knew how to do and that I cared about.” In 2009, she launched Sustainable Business International LLC, which helps companies develop sustainability and corporate social responsibility strategies.
When asked why CSR and sustainability are so significant to her, both personally and professionally, Sandra sums it up perfectly: “It’s important that corporate executives know how much CSR can benefit their business. But it’s just as important for us to have a moral compass to guide our leadership and to know how much CSR can benefit the people in our communities who need help the most. CSR is changing the way we do business. But I believe it can also be a way to transform the world.”