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.
TriplePundit: Briefly describe your role and responsibilities, and how many years you have been in the business.
Jennifer Silberman: As Vice President of Corporate Responsibility at Hilton Worldwide, I am responsible for overseeing the development, integration and communication of Hilton Worldwide’s corporate responsibility strategy around the world. I joined the company in 2010, after eight years at APCO Worldwide, where I was Vice President in the corporate responsibility practice, counseling Fortune 500 companies and global foundations on strategy and program design, business integration, stakeholder engagement and results-oriented philanthropy. I have more than 20 years of experience working in the U.S., Latin America, and Africa in the areas of economic development, sustainability, human rights, women’s empowerment and youth opportunity.
3p: How has the sustainability program evolved at your company?
JS: Sustainability has deep roots at Hilton Worldwide. Our namesake and founder, Conrad Hilton, always believed that one “should assume your fair share of responsibility for the world in which you live.” In 2009, we formalized this conviction with the creation of five-year sustainability goals to reduce our energy use and our carbon, waste, and water outputs across the full range of our hotel operations. We created tools to manage and assess our performance against these goals, officially launching LightStay™ – our proprietary sustainability measurement tool – in 2010. Then gradually, we began to integrate sustainability into our entire business by making it a brand standard across our global portfolio of hotels.
In 2011, we combined our global social and economic goals and indicators into our corporate responsibility platform, Travel with Purpose™. Today, our commitment focuses on creating shared value for our business and for the communities where we live, work, and travel. Travel with Purpose ensures that across the full range of our more than 4,000 properties, in 90 countries around the world, we continue to create opportunities for youth to succeed, to strengthen our communities by supporting local suppliers and human rights, to celebrate the cultures and diversity that thrive around us, and to live sustainably in order to have a positive influence on tomorrow.
3p: Tell us about someone (mentor, sponsor, friend, hero) who affected your sustainability journey, and how.
JS: The first person who comes to mind is Lee Weinstein, formerly of Nike, and my former client at APCO. He put such trust in me that it opened up opportunities to test my own knowledge and strategic thinking. In doing so I learned just how much I love this line of work – leveraging the power of global commerce to influence a sustainable, responsible future. Lee gave me the exposure and confidence to learn by enormous strides just by working with such a powerful brand. I was able to see not only how much a global company can positively influence society, but also how much positive impact I could have on the company itself. After working with Lee I not only had the skills, but also the drive, to ensure that more companies leveraged their own potential for social impact.
3p: What is the best advice you have ever received?
JS: I have received many influential pieces of advice throughout my career, but one of the most valuable has been to “act now and ask for forgiveness later.” This isn’t to say that you should proceed with blinders, without thought, or without communication to and with stakeholders, but rather it’s to allow you to believe in your convictions; to go with your gut and take calculated risks when you truly believe in them. Sometimes these risks are successful, and sometimes you have to be prepared to face unappealing consequences – either way, learning to test and trust your judgment is the only way to continue to grow as leader and innovator.
3p: Can you share a recent accomplishment you are especially proud of?
JS: It’s hard for me to define a singular act that I feel most proud of since joining Hilton Worldwide. We’ve done so much in the last few years to collect, aggregate and communicate new and ongoing corporate responsibility efforts that I feel as though the sum of those parts is too impressive to break down into anything smaller. But along the way, we’ve had some amazing “firsts” – our first corporate responsibility platform, our first public corporate responsibility report, and our first Global Week of Service. We’ve done this incredible thing: with the collaboration of stakeholders across our business, we took discrete, individual celebrations of service and hospitality and integrated them, scaling them to blanket the world so that our entire company sees the value of these activities.
3p: If you had the power to make one major change at your company or in your industry, what would it be?
JS: I think in our industry there is a tendency to lead with the easy solutions for societal impact, with the fix that looks best or sounds best rather than what actually works best. I would try to change people’s minds about what impact means in the hospitality sector; we have incredibly complex issues to address which require sophisticated responses. Simply put, it has to go deeper than just reusing a towel.
At Hilton Worldwide, it’s why we invest so heavily in making LightStay™ as robust as possible, and continuously stress its value to our properties and Team Members. It’s also why we have invested in the development of a Youth Wellbeing Index with our partner International Youth Foundation and asked our peers and competitors to engage with us – so we don’t just give youth jobs, but work together to find out the root causes of youth disenfranchisement so that we can find and implement long-term solutions. The travel and tourism sector needs to be working harder and getting more creative in supporting and sustaining the environment that we want on every level – the natural environment, its communities and its people.
3p: Describe your perfect day.
JS: My perfect day would start with a cup of coffee and the Sunday New York Times. I’d follow that with a Barre class or tennis, or hiking the Billy Goat Trail in Potomac, Maryland with my family. (If I’m really going for the perfect day, the hike might be followed by some spa time, too). And there’s no better way to end any day than cooking together and eating dinner as a family, and going for an evening walk with my husband.