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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)


22 January 2019 – Natasha Walji, Sector Lead for Telco, Government, Entertainment & Technology at Google Canada, on forcing change, elevating the sustainability agenda and becoming a leader through her experience on CISL’s Master's in Sustainability Leadership.

Giving back to the world has been part of my life since I was 17 years old when my mentor (a professor of Mathematics) asked to me: "How will you use your education and knowledge to serve humanity?"

I’ve thought about how I could respond to this challenge throughout my professional and academic life and have ensured that has played a part in my life, from serving on boards and founding an NGO focused on special needs children to leading task forces focused on poverty alleviation.

I decided to pursue the academic programme at Cambridge to deepen my understanding of systems thinking and better understand the intersectionality of poverty and climate change. In addition, the programme structure enabled me to balance my career and attracted talented people from all over the world.

The ripple effect

I found it extremely valuable that subjects including climate change and poverty alleviation were examined in a holistic way, allowing me to think about sustainability in a broader context. Tutors spoke about how different elements were interconnected and that the network impact of geopolitics, policy and climate change have a ripple effect that filters down to the poorest people in society.

Visiting professors were exceptional and introduced insightful case studies. In one example, the founder of M-Pesa, a mobile phone-based money transfer, initiated by Vodafone, demonstrated a micro-financing and money transfer service that has helped hundreds of thousands of people out of extreme poverty in Africa by giving them a mechanism to safely exchange funds for their own businesses. To date, they have facilitated $6bn of cash exchanges. This M-Pesa model resonated given the balance of profitability, sustainability and positive impact on society.

I also learned a tremendous amount from my talented and thoughtful classmates who came from a diverse range of backgrounds. It’s testament to the depth of these connections I made that I’m still in touch with many of them.

On a personal level, CISL reframed the way I looked at my own life, including my ecological footprint and how I could reduce it.

After graduating I utilised CISL’s teachings on urgency for change models. This was especially helpful at Google when I worked as part of a geographically distributed crisis response team, over the 2014 West African Ebola crisis.

Initially, I put together a mathematical model that looked at the compounding impact of Ebola, if it was to double every few weeks, and the resulting impact. I was then given one day per week, to work on the Google crisis response.

Thanks to this team's effort, Google donated $30m to Ebola relief efforts and, in conjunction with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF),  devised an “Ebola-proof” tablet device that could withstand being doused in chlorine.

Improving lives

I’m grateful for being able to work at Google where sustainability is very much top of mind. We’ve made great strides in moving our carbon footprint towards neutral and ensuring our technology improves quality of life for society. In one example, Project Loon aims to provide internet access to 4bn people - a game changer for access to education, healthcare and commerce. A network of recyclable balloons, travelling at the edge of space, will deliver that connectivity.

In partnership with the Puerto Rican government and AT&T, Google recently used Project Loon to bring 200,000 people back online following a hurricane. It accelerated the process of delivering humanitarian aid and helped get the country back on its feet. The Project Loon model is now becoming commercialised, starting with our partnership with Telekom Kenya.

I believe the three greatest challenges of our time are climate change, poverty alleviation and dealing with the ethics linked to science and technology. Given this, we will need leaders who are very thoughtful, have strong ethics and values and want to make a difference to society.

There are some companies and leaders who are driving this agenda forward. Under Paul Polman, Unilever have nearly cut their carbon footprint in half and aim to be carbon positive by 2030. We need more bold leaders who set lofty goals, not just for financial gain but also for the planet.

That said, I do wonder whether sustainability and leadership are sufficiently integrated into the modern education system, which is why CISL is such an innovative program.

I am grateful for having had the opportunity to study sustainability at such a leading institution as Cambridge. It was a wonderful experience as it was enriching, insightful and enjoyable, because of the faculty, curriculum, beautiful environment and my talented classmates. This programme offered a unique opportunity to follow my passion while continuing to accelerate my career at Google. Furthermore, it allowed me to reframe how I think about poverty alleviation and sustainability, which will allow me to have a much bigger impact on the world in future.

The part-time Master's in Sustainability Leadership is designed to develop leadership capacity to tackle critical sustainability challenges, with practical assignments and a research dissertation. The course is delivered over two years via a blend of online modules and four residential weeks in Cambridge.

About the author

Natasha Walji

Natasha Walji is the Sector Lead for TGET (Telco, Government, Entertainment & Technology) at Google Canada where she works with C-Suite executives to drive sales and build brand equity.

Natasha has over 17 years of experience, nine at Google, four and a half at McKinsey & Company and four years in software development. She has held various management roles at Google in Strategy & Operations, Finance and Sales in New York and Toronto. Prior to Google she was a Senior Engagement Manager with McKinsey, having previously worked as a software developer.

Natasha serves on the Ronald McDonald House Canada Board and is a Ambassador for the Canadian Red Cross. She holds a BSc. in Computer Science from the University of Victoria, an MBA from Yale University and an MSt. in Sustainability Leadership from the University of Cambridge. Natasha was recognised as one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network (WXN) in 2016.


Guest articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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