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Nurit Katz | Chief Sustainability Officer, UCLA

Nurit Katz is UCLA’s first Chief Sustainability Officer. She was recognized as one of the top 100 business trailblazers in the Women Worth Watching 2015 issue of Profiles in Diversity Journal. This is her story.

Progress isn’t linear. Yet, you can’t get discouraged. You need to keep pushing society forward.
— Nurit Katz

Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I attended Humboldt state for undergraduate and went to UCLA for a joint MBA and Masters of Public Policy degree.

Tell us a bit about your journey to where you’ve gotten to today. 

I’ve always had a strong interest in the environment. It started with a love of the natural world and the outdoors. I like the problems sustainability is trying to solve e.g. how do we feed, clothe and provide jobs for future generations. ‘How do we enable future generations to still have access to resources?’ is a pretty important question.

I had great mentors [and come from] a family of strong women. When I was younger, my aunt bought me some books related to this topic which helped to cultivate my interest. During college, I realized I loved teaching but could have a bigger impact at the management and policy level.

I think a lot of people are coming to this field because they are seeking meaning and looking for work that is aligned with their values. What they all share is a connection to a sense of purpose of making people lives better.

I became the first sustainability officer at UCLA eight years ago. We built the [sustainability] program from scratch. The constant challenge is how do you coordinate across a large organization and connect with 80,000 people. Communication is key.

Tell us one way exercising leadership has always come easy to you, and one way it has challenged you.

As the oldest sibling with three active younger brothers I would help wrangle and coordinate our family. I think that started me off on some sort of management path. Through teaching, I’ve developed a comfort in public speaking and communication which are skills needed in management. I also naturally enjoy connecting, putting resources together and introducing people.

I’m learning to delegate [more]. My job is broad so it’s about strategically knowing what to say ‘no’ to. 

Name one of the most satisfying leadership roles you have had, and briefly tell me what made it so. 

Being Chief Sustainability Officer at UCLA. It’s been an incredible journey. I love my work. I was doing a lot of pieces of this job as a student, mostly as a volunteer. It’s been such a gift to find a position and get paid for what I was already doing in my free time. I encourage everyone to go find it. If you’ve been given opportunities in your life like a good education or supportive parents, you have a responsibility to find that thing [because] not everyone gets to do that. 

What is the best and worst decision you've ever made?

Coming into my current role at UCLA, I had to take a risk. I applied for another role and got an offer in a shorter timeframe. I could either take this sure thing or hold out for the job I have now, even though I was up against people with more years of experience. But I knew this [Chief Sustainability role] was for me.

As a student I created the sustainable resource center and directed it for two years. I ran for student body president [and won]. It would’ve been better for that program and my role as president to have separated both. Sometimes when you create something as an entrepreneur, you need to know when to let go

What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?

There are a lot of cultural drivers that are big barriers. Women aren’t taught to be confident and assertive, and when you are, you are judged for it. There are strong stereotypes of how men and women need to behave. I grew up with three bothers so my communication style is pretty masculine. I worked as a mentor for young women, and rough stuff was happening to them. They were offered classes on difficult topics, including self-defense and learning how to say no assertively and loudly. It was about helping them find their strength in terms of tone and volume. I don’t think those [qualities] are biological. I think it has to do with how we teach young boys and girls how to behave. 

What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?

We’ve made a lot progress [for women] but it’s easy to get comfortable with that. We are seeing regressive actions push back on that progress. Progress isn’t linear. Yet, you can’t get discouraged. You need to keep pushing society forward. 

What woman inspireS you and why? 

My mother and grandmother. The women in my family have had a big influence on me. My grandmother went back to school to get a Ph.D. after having five children. They have inspired me a lot. My aunts are also inspiring because they have taken very different [life] paths – traditional business leader, artist, stay-at-home mom and volunteer. They’re all very powerful in their own way. Each created their own path. What’s often missed in the debate of women and careers is if they are happy. It’s ultimately about choice. I have a large family with different women and each were leading their lives in a way that was right for them. This helped me see that there isn’t one path.