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Alumna Spotlight: An Interview with Marybeth Bucklen (MBA ’19)

A recent MBA graduate carries her passion for sustainability from Scheller College to her position with the City of Brookhaven.
Marybeth Bucklen (MBA ‘19).

Marybeth Bucklen (MBA ‘19).

In this alumna spotlight, Brandi Thompson, communications officer at the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business (“Center”), talks to Marybeth Bucklen, a 2018-19 Scheller College of Business Graduate Sustainability Fellow. Marybeth, who was enrolled in the Evening MBA Program, graduated in December 2019. She has worked for the City of Brookhaven since 2016. She has been in her current role as sustainability program manager and management analyst for the City Manager since early 2019.

What first sparked your interest in sustainability?

Growing up, I didn’t give too much thought to how I disposed of my waste. Later, when I had the opportunity to travel around the world, I was exposed to sustainability issues in countries with different levels of development. When I moved to Japan in 2009, I was introduced to a new practice for waste disposal. We would separate our waste into color-coded bags for plastics, glass, and landfill. Each color-coded bag had its assigned day of the week for curbside collection. Since Japan is a smaller country with limited space and resources, its strict rules for garbage disposal are culturally relevant and taken seriously. Japan also has an extremely group-oriented culture. I think this helps with national sustainability initiatives because people consider how their behavior impacts society more broadly.

Marybeth Bucklen at a festival in Isesaki, Japan.In April 2010, Marybeth Bucklen (back row, center) gathers with her taiko (drum) group before her first performance at a festival in Isesaki, Japan.

When you returned to the United States, what was your reaction to our country’s sustainability practices?

When I returned to the United States in 2015, I lived in California. At the time, California was a lot more focused on creating sustainability initiatives than Georgia (the state I’ve called “home” since I was ten). Living in California made me reflect on the amount of waste that is generated from single-use plastics designed for our “convenience.” When you visit a grocery store in California, you don’t get a plastic bag. You bring your own bag or pay for one. On the other hand, when you visit a grocery store in Georgia, a cashier often immediately bags (or even double bags!) your items.

For the six years that I lived in other big cities around the world (such as Isesaki, Japan; Busan, South Korea; and San Francisco), I relied on public transportation. Now that I have moved back to Atlanta, I’m not able to do things or go places without a car.

We are now well aware of the damage being caused by plastic and traffic. We need to start making changes.

What is your academic background?

I graduated from Georgia State University with a bachelor’s degree in international business and Spanish. I spent a lot of time studying languages (Latin, Spanish, Japanese, French, and Korean) early in my academic life and career, and I also received a certificate to teach English. At the Scheller College of Business, from which I graduated in December 2019, I had two concentrations: strategic sustainability and international business.

As you think back on your experiences with the Center, what stands out most to you?

In the course, MGT 6359: Business Strategies for Sustainability, taught by Center Faculty Director Beril Toktay, I learned to see sustainability through a business lens. By operating more efficiently and saving resources, companies can actually save money.

Then, as a part of MGT 6369: Sustainable Business Consulting Practicum, taught by Center Managing Director Michael Oxman and Center-affiliated faculty member Bob Lax, I completed a project on how to improve collection rates of cans and bottles at gas stations and convenience stores. As my team researched this recycling issue, we faced many challenges. We had to assess human behavior. For instance, could we trust that people would use recycling bins appropriately for only bottles and cans—and not contaminate bins with other trash? We had to ask logistical questions, such as: “Who pays for the employee who collects the items?” The project gave me insight into why it is so hard to implement changes in regard to recycling.

What was your experience with the Carbon Reduction Challenge?

I worked with a team of MBA students on a project for Delta Air Lines. We wanted to find a scalable solution with the biggest impact. We looked for ways to improve Delta’s “triple bottom line”—by reducing costs, improving the consumer and employee experience, and creating a sustainable solution.

Marybeth Bucklen and her teammates share their 2018 Carbon Reduction Challenge project for Delta Air Lines with Challenge Faculty Directors Kim Cobb and Beril Toktay. Left to right: Beril Toktay, Iris Lu (BME ’12, M.S. in Bioengineering, Ph.D. in Bioinformatics ’19), Lauren Borrelli (MBA ’19), Kim Cobb, and Marybeth Bucklen.

We thought about the total weight of paper copies of Sky Magazine on each flight. Delta averages 15,000 flights per day, and we estimated that each flight carries roughly 100 pounds of magazines. By removing all paper copies of Sky Magazine from planes, Delta could save $2 million in jet fuel per year.

Our team’s idea was to offer Sky Magazine digitally on Delta Studio, the airline’s personal onboard entertainment system. An online magazine could feature content in different languages and target advertising based on the location. Older editions of the magazine could be accessible, and consumer data could be used for article suggestions with the intent to increase viewership. Delta would reduce its carbon footprint while improving the experience for consumers, flight attendants, and businesses.

Although we didn’t win the competition, it was great to come to a deeper understanding of stakeholder engagement. We learned how creating a digital Sky Magazine would impact IT teams, magazine printers, long-term advertisers, consumers, marketing teams, and in-flight services teams. Through the competition, I learned more about how businesses try to get different parties on the same page when they want to integrate sustainability solutions. 

What is your current role?

I am currently the sustainability program manager and management analyst for the City Manager of the City of Brookhaven. The city was incorporated in 2012, and in many areas, we are still developing. Even though sustainability is included in the City’s mission and vision, I noticed that we didn’t have a strategic framework for how we were going to approach sustainability. As a municipality, we should be looking far into the future—figuring out what legacy we are leaving for our residents hundreds of years from now. By focusing on economic development alone, we can make money that may benefit current residents. However, we need to think carefully about the types of development that we support today. Removing too many trees or increasing local traffic now can create problems for future generations.

City leadership tasked me with creating a strategic sustainability framework for Brookhaven. Last year, I presented the strategic plan to the Council. I am proud to say that in 2020, for the first time, sustainability is included in our budget.

If students are reading this, I think it is worth mentioning that I basically volunteered myself for the job of creating the sustainability framework. I repeatedly talked about my ideas and created a proposal for creation of a sustainability department, which I gave to the City Manager. After he read my proposal and talked about it with Mayor John Ernst Jr. and City Council, he asked me to draft a strategic framework, which grew into a full-blown program. In many organizations, sustainability roles don’t exist. If you have passion for sustainability, speak up and try to create those roles!

What does the strategic framework for the City of Brookhaven entail?

Our framework has five elements: natural environment, built environment, financial sustainability, organizational sustainability, and civic governance. Within the focus areas, we have made 24 commitments for our sustainability program.

One initiative is to introduce fleet electrification. We are changing all of our administrative and police vehicles from internal combustion engines to electric or hybrid transportation.

Marybeth Bucklen stands beside the Brookhaven Police Department’s Tesla Model S. One of the goals within the Sustainable Brookhaven strategy is changing vehicles in the fleet to electric or hybrid models.

We are working on increasing the number of electric vehicle charging stations. We have placed several free charging stations in most of our parks and at City Hall. Our next step is to place more charging stations at our new public safety building.

Through a partnership with Keep Chamblee Beautiful, we cosponsor recycling events with the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM). At pop-up recycling events, recycling vendors collect items such as Styrofoam, old batteries, plastics, glass, and light bulbs from residents. We’ve had only two of these events thus far but have already diverted over 20 tons of trash from landfills. Imagine if we had a permanent facility where citizens could dispose of their waste properly!

The Covid-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of organizational sustainability, which is an element of the framework I created. At this time, businesses and other organizations are seeing just how resilient they can (or cannot) be during times of distress. They’re asking, “What investments can we make that will reap long-term benefits for the organization itself, as well as for stakeholders and customers?” Before this crisis, Brookhaven already asked those hard questions and made a commitment to a sustainability program that includes the creation of a knowledge management system, the introduction of intranet usage among City staff, the establishment of an emergency operations center, and the implementation of a continuity of operations plan.

What advice would you give students interested in pursuing a career in sustainability?

Don’t apply for a particular role that is in “sustainability.” Instead, identify what you’re good at and what you like doing. Pursue that career and work to incorporate sustainability into it.

Yes, there are problems all over the world. But there are solutions, too. Keep this mindset: “Someone has to create a solution. Why not me?”

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