Welcome to our series of interviews with leading female CSR practitioners where we are learning about what inspires these women and how they found their way to careers in sustainability. Read the rest of the series here.
Triple Pundit: Briefly describe your role and responsibilities, and how many years you have been in the business.
Deborah Holmes: I’m the Americas Director of Corporate Responsibility for EY. About a decade ago, I launched this function and helped leadership to define EY’s corporate responsibility strategy, which rests on two pillars: (1) enabling our people to use and enhance their skills (“skill-based volunteerism”) and (2) focusing on three areas of content, which we call “the 3Es” – entrepreneurship, education and environment.
3p: How has the sustainability program evolved at your company?
DH: At the start – and it holds true today – we had people that were very involved in corporate responsibility. So in a sense, the ground was fertile for CR. The difficult part was getting people to understand that to take advantage of EY’s scale and really make a difference, we couldn’t support everyone’s favorite cause. We needed a CR strategy that aligned with our business strategy. So we’ve concentrated on investing in the 3Es because they’re in harmony with who we are as a firm, and where we’re going.
A decade later, we have thousands upon thousands of EY people who are regularly involved in our CR programs. That involvement ranges from signing up for EY Connect Day (our Americas-wide day of service) to making a multi-week – or multi-year – commitment to mentoring young people, or promoting sustainability, or supporting fledgling entrepreneurs in our communities. For example, we’ve been able to take widely held values, like a commitment to education, and use it as a foundation for our team-based mentoring program, College MAP (Mentoring for Access and Persistence). This fall, College MAP will be in high schools in 24 U.S. cities. Our EY mentors will help more than 350 disadvantaged youth make the dream of college a reality.
Another example of the alignment between our CR efforts and our business strategy is the investment we’ve made in helping entrepreneurs. In the global market, EY has the leading brand in entrepreneurship, but we know that many entrepreneurs can benefit from EY’s experience and skills long before they can afford to pay for the services of a Big Four firm. Through our Corporate Responsibility Fellows program, we’ve helped more than 65 high-impact entrepreneurs in Latin America at no cost to the companies served. In the U.S., we’re teaming with the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship to inspire the next generation of youth entrepreneurs. It’s especially gratifying to meet up with entrepreneurs we’ve helped in the past at the annual EY Strategic Growth Forum and see how the time our EY people contributed helped them take their business to the next level.
3p: Tell us about someone who affected your sustainability journey, and how.
DH: Oh, that’d be Leisha John, our Americas Director of Environmental Sustainability and a “sustainability friend” on our shared journey. I brought her on board to help get us on the path to sustainability. Over the past five years, she’s been instrumental in greening EY and building awareness among our people.
One proof of the success of those efforts is the Earthwatch-EY Ambassadors program, EY’s signature volunteer environmental program, which sends high performers below the manager/assistant director level on a week-long Earthwatch Institute expedition in Brazil or Costa Rica. While abroad, the volunteers conduct field research and provide skill-based volunteering services to a local organization. Now in its fifth year, the program is so popular among EY professionals that we can only accept 10 percent of applicants – making it almost as selective as Ivy League universities! Leisha is a great leader and does more than walk the talk: I can always count on her to one-up me when it comes to her personal sustainability commitment.
3p: What is the best advice you have ever received?
DH: Without a doubt, it’s the advice I got after accepting the Chairman’s offer to come and work for him personally to lead the firm’s first Gender Equity initiative. The very next week after accepting the offer, I found out I was pregnant! I went to him and shared the good news, but also my anxiety over my situation: I’d just accepted this incredible role but was given another important role – becoming a mother for the first time.
And that’s when he gave me some advice that I’ll never forget. He said, “Put one foot in front of the other until you can’t anymore.” So I did. And that guidance stayed with me as I visited 19 cities in my first trimester, as I went through the rest of my pregnancy, and as I continue to grow in my career – and family. That first son is 16 now, and I’m still putting one foot in front of the other.
3p: Can you share a recent accomplishment you are especially proud of?
DH: A few weeks ago, I learned that the Global New Partner Program, being held in Miami this year, will include CR programming and panelists.
For some, that might not sound like much. But it made me really happy because I learned about it after the fact – it was all the brainchild of our Miami Office Managing Partner, Hector Tundidor. I didn’t ask Hector to include CR. His boss didn’t say, “You need to spend some time on CR.” No, Hector wanted to include it because he saw it as a significant part of EY, our culture and our direction.
It makes me proud that I had nothing to do with it. To me, this indicates how corporate responsibility has taken root and spread through every part of the firm.
3p: If you had the power to make one major change at your company or in your industry, what would it be?
DH: I’m proud of how far we’ve come at EY and how ingrained CR is within our organization. What I’d like to do is get more business leadership to understand the power of corporate responsibility as a whole. It reduces risk. It creates opportunity. What business leader doesn’t want that?!
One of the benefits of being a leader at an organization that values skills-based volunteering is the number of people at EY who are passionate about CR. Not too long ago, I met up with a woman who was one of our first CR Fellows and is now a partner – and she shared with me how her time as a CR Fellow shaped her personally and professionally. The more business leaders who have that firsthand experience and understand how corporate responsibility benefits them, and the people on their teams – to say nothing of the good that CR does beyond the walls of their businesses – the better!
3p: Describe your perfect day.
DH: I’d take part in some energizing, intellectually stimulating meetings with colleagues. I’d get some good news – maybe an email with great feedback from someone participating in one of our CR signature programs. I’d spend time outside, perhaps working remotely with reliable Wi-Fi. I’d have some friendly conversation with my two teens and my partner. And I’d end with a good book.