Raising Green Awareness with General Motors’ Mary Alice Kurtz

May 21, 2014

Mary Alice Kurtz JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have with us today Mary Alice Kurtz. She’s the Sustainability Program Manager from GM. Yes, the iconic brand, General Motors, is in the house again for the third time at Green is Good. Welcome, Mary Alice, to Green is Good. MARY ALICE KURTZ: Thank you so much. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, before we talk about all the important work you’re doing at General Motors, Mary Alice, can you talk a little bit about the Mary Alice Kurtz story. Share your journey leading up to the Sustainability Program Manager at General Motors. MARY ALICE KURTZ: I gotta tell you I was extremely fortunate to have a father that worked for Chevrolet for 37 years downtown Detroit, so I kind of grew up in the car business, and it’s a passion that’s hard to shake so after now 30 years for me, I just was very fortunate to have parents and siblings that were very engaged, very enthused about engineering and continuing our education. So, I was very lucky to have a great supportive family and my coworkers and all of my mentors and leaders have been great at General Motors. They’re very strong in giving you a lot of cross training and mentoring within our program so I just consider myself very fortunate. I’ve got great leaders and I love what I’m doing so I think all of that support externally has really helped me get to where I am now. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so nice because there’s so many young people around the country and the world that listen to this show and it’s so important for the parents out there to understand how big they are to their kids to inspire them in terms of what their paths are going to be and what their choices are going to be so I thank you for sharing that and it’s so great that you’re here today talking about education and General Motors because education is really one of the pillars of our future of this country and environmental education couldn’t be more important at the crossroads we’re at right now so let’s talk a little bit about your great brand that you get to work at, General Motors, and the celebration right now of your watershed or your education program. Share with our listeners what this means and what’s been going on at General Motors in terms of education. MARY ALICE KURTZ: General Motors has developed this education program that we call “Green” and it’s a program that’s really meant to work using our internal environmental employees to help mentor the local community on how we can all have an impact on our local watersheds. This program has really been a great collaborative between our non profit and a partner, Earth Force, our local schools, like I said before, our local watershed groups, and we have those partnerships in over 26 communities across North America. Each year we have literally hundreds of GM employees that want to mentor and be a part of this program. They provide their expertise in environmental and the teachers bring the education aspect and the students, of course, bring all this enthusiasm. The important key here is really to help them understand the environments, how much we can impact them. We try to help them sharpen their problem solving skills by really getting them hands on, getting them down in the river, have them looking at the bugs, testing the water. This year, we’ll have over 9,000 students that’ll be mentored across the U.S. and Canada. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s step back a second. Before it was cool to be green, before it was cool to talk about sustainability and to talk about climate change or anything that has to do with the environment, GM was doing this for the last 25 years? MARY ALICE KURTZ: Oh yeah. Yes, believe it or not, this environmental group is very passionate and the facilities have been very engaged — when I say the facilities, both our non- and manufacturing facilities — in making sure that our impact is offset by our activities. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Twenty-five years ago, how did this program start? Like I said, before it was cool, hip, before it was media-centric to be doing these kinds of things, how did the program start internally? MARY ALICE KURTZ: Officially, in 1984, there were a group of high school students in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They were wanting to investigate water quality due to some illnesses that were occurring in their community. Their teacher, who was actually Doctor William Staff out of U of M, helped them. He actually was part of our first Earth Day in 1970 so he was really the founder of environmental education so we worked together with him way back then and developed this program called Green. GM became both a financial supporter but also we provided volunteers that actually were able to contribute now to this program year over year and again, we keep coming back to this message but it’s really that collaboration between the schools, the community, the manufacturer, and the employees in the area with everyone getting engaged. That’s what continues to allow the program to grow to get stronger by having all of these different types of expertise involved. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is great, and so you said 9,000 students participating this year. MARY ALICE KURTZ: Absolutely. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And is that K through 12? MARY ALICE KURTZ: Yes, the program is very easy to implement at all ages and that’s another important part of the program. Kids can get involved very early. They look forward to as they get older more and more programs they can get involved in. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is great. Talk about the impact. What would you say is the direct impact of this program? MARY ALICE KURTZ: Well, there’s many areas of impact. There’s impact to the community and their own watersheds. There’s impact in the schools and the enthusiasm in the children, getting them to understand more about their environment and how much of an impact they can have and there’s impact in our manufacturing operations. We have commitments to driving environmental quality, whether it’s through energy consumption reduction, water usage reduction, reducing our emissions. We have commitments in our manufacturing and nonmanufacturing groups to drive, to watch, to monitor, and to do everything we can do protect our environment. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it. That’s so great. Let’s look at the flipside of all this though, the value of Green to the educators. Share the value points of the Green program to the educators themselves. How does the program benefit their curriculum and the teaching of environmental sciences and sustainability sciences? MARY ALICE KURTZ: Well, the teachers are really excited about this program because it gives them tools and a way to increase the student’s awareness and excitement about it by getting hands on. These are real life stories. These are getting in there and holding a crayfish and slipping on the mud as they’re reaching into the river so they love the interactive part of it. In fact, our program and the important part of monitoring and getting results is that we have a huge percentage of students that report. Over 80 percent of students that were involved in the program say that they have a better understanding of the issues and I gotta tell you nearly every educator we worked with has either recommended this program to other schools or to other educators. It’s a huge impact. Another thing is we get to connect with, as environmental engineers, we get to mentor so the teachers love to have us come back in, explain to them how much fun we’re having. Engineers don’t just work on trains or aren’t just sitting in a laboratory. We also get out in the environment. We have fun. We’re motivated. We’re passionate about helping our environment so they love those aspects that they can show their students. There’s more to being an engineer than maybe they hear about on TV or through school. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it. For our listeners that just joined us, we’ve got Mary Alice Kurtz on. She’s the Sustainability Programs Manager from General Motors and we’re talking about her Green Watershed Education program today and for those who want to learn more about all the great work GM does with regards to sustainability and the environment, go to www.gm.com/environment. Let’s talk about the employees now. For 25 years, there has to be an inside buzz at GM about this program or the people who volunteer. Talk a little bit about the intrinsic benefit that comes to employees who volunteer to participate in these events. What’s the feedback that you get from the employees and the buzz that it creates just internally in your own company? MARY ALICE KURTZ: It really gives a sense to the employees that they’re engaged, that they’re helping. They’re doing more than our internal work in the manufacturing community. We’ve got employees from over 42 sites right now that are involved and it really provides a sense of accomplishment when they’re able to share their knowledge, their expertise on conservation and getting the kids involved in these stem subjects and then also encouraging them to get involved in their local community activities. We’ve matched over 142,000 students with over 3,000 employees over the past 25 years to get in the water, to test the water, to get involved in these programs that they can have a direct impact. The employees get really excited about that they also can get people excited about their careers. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. You know, when I started the show, Mary Alice, five years ago or so, people would always say, ‘John, green is good but does green cost more money?’ and now as the conversation has migrated towards sustainability actually saves dollars. Sustainability actually makes a company money and actually makes it more valuable and endearing and stickier to its constituents and its clients. Talk a little bit about the sheer business case of sustainability and good environmental practices at GM. What’s the business case? MARY ALICE KURTZ: Well, the GM Green program just continues year over year to benefit GM as well as the environment, of course, in the community that they do this in but it’s led to future recruitment of GM employees. We actually have employees, I saw one today bringing her children through our Earth Day that was a part of GM Green when she went to elementary school and she absolutely attributes her career and her engagement with the environment to this Green program. It can even help sell cars, seriously. When we do these evaluations with the participants, we’ve had comments from people that said the reason they bought a GM car was because of the commitment they saw that GM had to helping schools and their environment. I’ve personally taken Camaros and fun vehicles to the schools when I’ve done mentoring activities and the kids go crazy. The first thing they say is, ‘I’m going to get a Camaro when I grow up,’ so it’s really good, not only for the communities, like we said, but it does help with brand awareness and it helps bring kids back and it is great for employee enthusiasm. The employees love it. The kids love it. The students love it. It’s really a win-win. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And it goes back to what you said at the top of the show. Collaboration is really the win-win. The community loves it. Educators love it and so everyone’s winning with regards to your Green Education program. MARY ALICE KURTZ: Absolutely, so all of those partners keep us accountable. They keep looking for it. They keep wanting us to come back and that’s a big key to getting a lot of people engaged in the program. JOHN SHEGERIAN: In terms of your broader sustainability strategy, talk a little bit about the fit because you have a big puzzle you’re managing at all times and I get that and our listeners get that. You’ve got a great brand. It’s on iconic and legendary brand. How does this program fit into your broader sustainability strategy? MARY ALICE KURTZ: Well, we have several commitments around sustainability topics. Like I mentioned earlier, energy, water, outreach, renewable, but one of those commitments is to conserving water as part of our operations and we’ve got some pretty good results as part of those programs. Between 2005 and 2010, we’ve actually been able to reduce our water use. We measure it as water use per vehicle. We’ve been able to reduce that by 32 percent and our additional commitment by 2020 is to drive even another 15 percent of water use per vehicle in the manufacturing of that vehicle down and really attributing the employee dedication to community outreach really furthers that impact by protecting water and teaching children how critical freshwater is to our future. Not only does General Motors recognize how important it is to our own environmental stewardship but by working with the communities, we’re really giving them the ability to mentor our next generation of leaders. They appreciate civic engagement. We’re preserving our natural resources and getting people excited and passionate about doing what they can in their communities and hoping that that grows into their future careers. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Mary Alice, for our listeners’ sake, give me the wow numbers. You said before this thing started and now we’re here in 2014. Nine thousand kids are participating this year. What’s the first year’s participation? Does anyone have those numbers? Give me the wow, like we’ve grown this from this in ‘84 to this in 2014. What’s the growth look like? MARY ALICE KURTZ: It’s been phenomenal and it just keeps growing and growing. We do have records of that and we actually see that we have impacted over 142,000 students in the US and we have just this year started to grow into Canada so it’s going to be even more than that and that engaged over 3,000 employees. JOHN SHEGERIAN: When you’re with other sustainability managers, program managers in different brands and in different industries and people say, ‘What’s the key to your success? What’s the key to your environmental outreach program?’ what’s your version of the secret sauce at GM in terms of long term environmental outreach? MARY ALICE KURTZ: I think something that’s incredibly important is to every year, look at what’s driving that success. We’ve developed best practices around this program every year so you have to constantly change. The environment changes. The business environment changes so what’s very critical is to have all these partners but also to be very flexible and we’ve learned that over the past 25 years, to be flexible with those changes and to constantly recognize best practices, what works, what’s successful, that’s a very important part but first, like we talked about, is collaboration but first like our non profit partner, Earth Force. We also work with over 20 community organizations across the nation. We build these programs with the communities and all we do is provide the central coordination. We provide that. We provide resources. We empower each of our facilities to provide resources to work with their communities and that, along with the facility staff, along with the relationships they build locally, we’ve been able to grow these programs across the city. Other schools have picked this up but empowerment of each of those partners is really a key aspect. Second of all, this isn’t an initiative that you can throw money at. We do provide some financial support and contribution but it’s really up to the people that get engaged, help develop it, implement the program on an ongoing basis. The GM Green success really requires a lot of commitment, community engagement, and really a lot of effort from everybody that’s involved but I gotta tell you that hasn’t been hard. It’s fun, it’s exciting, and you can really see the impact. And then the third thing is it really, as you mentioned, it really does have to have good business sense in order to have staying power within the corporation. The employee aspect, the ability to drive our facilities to be more efficient are all benefits on top of the impact we can have positively on our environment and our wildlife. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Mary Alice, what’s next for Green? You’ve got 30 years behind you now approximately. What’s next? MARY ALICE KURTZ: We’re pretty excited about getting to expand into Canada. We’ve also been working with some of our partners in the other regions, in Europe, in Brazil, and in China and we’re looking forward to expanding these programs globally. We’ve got a lot of new people in our organization now that we’re excited to get those mentors also engaged so we want to grow within our company because of that workplace enthusiasm that it generates and again, like I mentioned, it’s long term an exciting way for General Motors to get involved, again to increase our brand awareness but at the same time, have a great positive impact on the environment and our employees so we’re looking forward to growth globally and internally with our employees. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s great and we’re going to want to hear more about that growth and we’re going to have you guys back on again, Mary Alice so again, thank you for coming on today and sharing the great story about the Green program and the watershed education program called Green that you’re doing at General Motors and it’s been so successful for 30 years. For our listeners out there that want to learn more about everything sustainable that General Motors and everything in the environment and the positive effects that it’s having, go to www.gm.com/environment. Thank you, Mary Alice, for being a sustainability and green superstar. You are truly living proof that green is good.