Nature lover Katherine Huded (MBA ’20) admittedly gets “jazzed” about LEDs and the circular economy. She’s driven by a desire to build a sustainable waste management system that works—for every household in the U.S. (As for those confusing “check locally” recycling labels on polypropylene—don’t even get her started.) Katherine found like-minded peers (“smart people who like to get a little bit nerdy”) while pursuing her MBA at Scheller College. In this latest installment in our series of profiles on sustainability leaders among Georgia Tech alumni, Naveed Ahmad (MBA ’19), advisor of Operational Planning and Customer Service at Southern California Edison, interviewed his former classmate, who is now director of Circular Ventures at The Recycling Partnership. Katherine shares how she made the transition from communications maven to circular economy expert and offers advice for those looking to get “a seat at the table” when companies are setting their sustainability strategy.
On June 15, 2021, Naveed Ahmad interviewed Katherine Huded.
Naveed Ahmad: Katherine, let’s begin with your early life.
Katherine Huded: My dad is a geologist, so a love for nature was ingrained in me from day one. Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, I spent a lot of time climbing trees, camping, capturing tadpoles and watching them turn into frogs...
NA: Did you know you wanted to go into sustainability in high school?
KH: I did not, probably because I took sustainability for granted. I attended Tulane University in New Orleans—arriving for my first semester right after Hurricane Katrina. The devastation that massive storms can have on coastal communities hit home for me.
NA: Did you have a particularly important mentor during college?
KH: At Tulane, I studied communications. In my internship at a boutique public relations firm, a mentor helped me think about career and life being combined. I think that’s kind of the culture of New Orleans in general. People very much have the mindset of “working to live, not living to work.”
NA: So, how did you begin the journey of finding work fueled by your passion?
KH: I worked in communications for ten years—and loved it. I believe that communications done well can drive change. There can be significant power behind the right words, the right visuals, the right presentations. I worked for a few years for a global public relations agency, and one of my clients at the time was UPS. Working in communications on reverse logistics got me excited. Later, I had the opportunity to go in-house at The Home Depot, where I worked on corporate communications, including some sustainability communications.
NA: Did you find joy in that role?
KH: I valued the impact of what I was doing. For instance, I worked on the national phase-out of incandescent light bulbs. I was tasked with working on a strategy to communicate to all consumers in the U.S. that LED light bulbs can be just as good as incandescent bulbs. I emphasized how the phase-out was going to make a positive impact on energy usage across the entire country—and that consumers should embrace the change instead of freaking out and hoarding incandescent bulbs. While many of my coworkers got jazzed about advertising the hot new colors for patio furniture, I was really jazzed about LED light bulbs.
NA: I like the sound of that: jazzed about LEDs!
KH: I was also tasked with amplifying The Home Depot’s response to hurricanes following Hurricane Sandy, which had devastated the East Coast. The Home Depot is one of the first responders in any disaster area because they have the supplies that FEMA and local communities need to recover. We coordinated free workshops at more than 700 stores along the Gulf and East Coasts to help residents learn how to prepare for hurricane season. The opportunity to work on a project that could save lives and livelihoods was really meaningful, especially after having lived in New Orleans.
NA: Where did you go after The Home Depot?
KH: I got a communications job at Novelis, the world’s largest aluminum recycler and producer of rolled aluminum, which really set me off in the direction of sustainability. Novelis was a leader in “the circular economy.” What it means is replacing our “take, make, waste” culture with an economy that puts waste into new products...again and again. It’s like in the natural environment, where things that are past their useful life decompose and provide nutrients for new things to come. After Novelis, I had the opportunity to join a startup, Rubicon Global, which uses technology to address challenges in the waste and recycling industry. In all my early career roles, I realized I was communicating the decisions that executives had made around business strategy, and often how that strategy impacted sustainability. I realized that I wanted to help drive that strategy and make decisions, rather than only communicating them after the fact. I wanted to earn a seat at the decision-making table.
NA: Is that when business school became the next logical step?
KH: Yes. But first, my husband and I took a year off to travel and live in nature. We lived in a small camper-trailer and stayed in National Parks, National Forests, and the like for 365 days. I applied for admission to Scheller while I was on the road and had my virtual interview while sitting in my camper in Santa Rosalía, Mexico. I had workout clothes on and a blazer on top to look presentable [laughs].
Katherine and her dog, Forrest, get photobombed by a butterfly while camping in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
NA: What did the Center have to do with your decision to apply to Scheller?
KH: While I was at Novelis, the sustainability team had done some work with the Center—specifically, [Faculty Director] Beril Toktay)—on circular economy initiatives and sustainability. I also knew the story of Ray C. Anderson and Interface, and the concept of building an entire business strategy around sustainability and circularity. I knew Scheller was the place for me. In the application process, I asked things like, “How early is too early to apply to be a Sustainability Fellow?” and “What do I need to do to get a GRA [graduate research assistant] role in the Center?” I was very pleased with how everyone took my interest to heart. The Center is the reason why I chose Scheller.
NA: Many opportunities came your way in business school. What was it like to evaluate those opportunities?
KH: The internship search and interview process is intense. All around you, people are getting exciting offers from companies everybody knows. I definitely fell into that momentum as well and interviewed at a lot of places. I was offered a marketing position at a large consumer goods packaging [CGP] brand. While I liked the culture and would get to work on sustainable brands in their portfolio, I asked myself, “Will this role get me closer to my overall career goal?”
NA: Did the Center provide you with guidance?
KH: [Managing Director] Michael Oxman and Beril suggested that I contact some people with whom I’d worked on my GRA. Through the Center, I was pleased to work with The Coca-Cola Company on their World Without Waste initiative. I talked to a lot of folks about how I was torn between the marketing role at the CGP brand, an internship opportunity on broader sustainability with the Environmental Defense Fund, and an opportunity at The Recycling Partnership (which would involve working with big brands to help them achieve their circular economy goals).
NA: And you decided to…?
KH: Ultimately, I felt it was my moment to switch gears. I didn’t want to give up on my big dream of working wholly in sustainability, and specifically the circular economy. While The Recycling Partnership wasn’t a big household name, the role was exactly what I wanted to do.
NA: What made The Recycling Partnership the perfect fit?
KH: I actually wrote in my Scheller application essay that I believe communications can bring together the three entities that are necessary to bring about huge societal change: businesses, government, and NGOs. The Recycling Partnership was an NGO working on government policy and bringing businesses together. All three entities were at the table. The organization’s sole focus was to create a recycling system in the U.S. that truly worked and enabled a more circular economy. I knew my expertise was circular economy, and that was the direction in which I needed to go.
NA: You started as an intern there…
KH: ...and accepted a full-time job right after my internship ended. I started as an intern in marketing, and they offered me a full-time role on the policy team. I finished the second half of my MBA as an evening student. I also became a mother during that year. So, if anyone’s wondering: You can do it all! I finished my MBA, have a wonderful toddler at home, and I work on the circular economy 100%. My role involved talking to policymakers and big companies on how policy could improve the recycling system in the U.S. I ended up being the lead author on our policy report that was published a year after I started. It was incredible that I was able to spearhead a project within the first year of being there (one of the benefits of being in a smaller organization). My current role is director of Circular Ventures, which is on our innovation team.
NA: Tell me about some of the work that excites you.
KH: We look at materials found in the home recycling stream (that is, what you put in your recycling bin). One such material is polypropylene. It’s in so many things: yogurt cups, margarine tubs, takeout containers, coffee pods… The value of polypropylene is that it can go up to really high temperatures. Here’s the problem: The recycling system in the U.S. has not been upgraded in many years because most of our material was getting exported to places like China and elsewhere. When China and other countries changed their import policies, our country didn’t know how to manage this material. In 2020, polypropylene was downgraded by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition—from “widely recyclable” to “check locally” due to these recycling challenges. I’m leading our polypropylene recycling coalition, focused on solutions to improve the recyclability of polypropylene in the U.S.
NA: What does that entail?
KH: Our team built a membership of funding partners across the polypropylene value chain. We’ve created an action plan for addressing the challenge of how to recycle polypropylene. We need to put the right equipment into materials recovery facilities (or MRFs), so they can sort polypropylene and sell it as a commodity in the marketplace—which will improve its recyclability. We recently started to provide grants to MRFs across the country for optical sorters and robotics to sort polypropylene. In just the past year, we have improved access to polypropylene recycling by 6%, which impacts more than 15 million people across the U.S.
NA: So, you’re seeing the big picture now.
KH: That’s right: a true circular economy strategy—how to get the material out of someone’s home, to the recycling facility, and to an end market so it can be made into new products.
Katherine overseeing a waste and recycling sort and capture study at a materials recovery facility (MRF) in the City of Chicago.
NA: It must feel fulfilling!
KH: Definitely. MRFs that receive our grants are now capturing polypropylene that otherwise would have been sent to landfill. Each additional grant we can provide (based on fundraising dollars that we’re able to pull in) makes a direct impact on the environment and the circular economy.
NA: What advice would you give current students who are interested in sustainability?
KH: Find the area of sustainability about which you’re most passionate and make yourself an expert in it. Allow yourself to get caught up in the excitement of internship interviews, but don’t think you need to jump at the shiniest job opportunity. Take the job that’s the right fit. You’ll be developing your knowledge and your resume in the direction in which you ultimately want to be going. It’s really hard not to fall into that peer pressure of accepting a job at a big brand. But will that job bring you joy two years down the road, or ten years down the road? That’s the question.
As told to Jennifer Holley Lux