Women in Business: Monique Oxender, Chief Sustainability Officer, Keurig Green Mountain, Inc.

05/04/2015 05:43 am ET | Updated May 04, 2016

Monique Oxender leads Keurig Green Mountain, Inc. efforts to Brew a Better World. Monique joined Keurig Green Mountain in 2012 and has navigated a path for integrated sustainability management during the recent period of growth and change. Her journey, which is informed by a multitude of internal and external stakeholders, brings her to the intersection of sustainability and business, the place where she sees the most potential to deliver societal benefit and create business value. Prior to joining Keurig Green Mountain, she spent eight years with Ford Motor Company where she designed and developed a leading supply chain sustainability program spanning the company's $65B buy from 60 countries. Issues under her responsibility included human rights, indirect carbon and water footprints, and raw material transparency. In addition, she served as Chair of multiple industry workgroups for the Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG) and represented Ford on United Nations Global Compact, US State Department, Department of Labor and OECD advisory groups. With a background in secondary education and sustainability, Monique has an MBA and an MS from the University of Michigan.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I'm one of five children and the only girl. With four brothers you either barely survive or you thrive. I like to think I was able to thrive. I learned to lead when I knew I could make a difference and follow when others were better suited to clear the path forward. I also grew up in a small town and I believe that my small town experience prompted my strong interest in the big picture - the larger world. I view business challenges and opportunities through a very broad lens and I love to work in the areas of intersection where business has the power to change so much.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Keurig Green Mountain?
I started my career as a high school teacher and what I learned during those years in the classroom carries forward today in the boardroom. As a teacher, I knew early on that having a strong presence and understanding how your content relates to the audience's reality, while also being inclusive and relatable, was critical to my success. The same holds true for me as a business leader.

After changing careers and entering corporate America, I realized another carry-over lesson from the classroom. You have to be multi-lingual. I'm not talking about Russian, French and Spanish, but rather the professional languages that make you relevant to the lawyers, the engineers and the finance teams. When I worked at Ford, I worked across the organization, with the industry association and with suppliers. There were no boundaries if you made an effort to understand and speak the right language at the right time. This is immensely helpful at Keurig, as we are intentionally creating a boundary-less organization where innovation is second nature. I'm ensuring that sustainability at Keurig is fully integrated and seamless here - and not spoken as a separate language.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Keurig Green Mountain?
The major highlight for me is what I call the "white space." It's so exciting to work at a company of this size with this much white space. Everyone can help define the path forward. It's not about just executing on a plan that's already been mapped out. At Keurig, we focus on innovation and learning. We either succeed or fail, but we have permission to be creative. That's very empowering.

The flip-side of this white space presents the challenge. We are living in a period of change, with new personnel and evolving technologies. It can feel like you are taking two steps forward and one step back due to the complexity of the business, new product launches, etc. It's important to stop long enough at certain reflection points to recognize that we are making real change, no matter how incremental, before we start running again.

How has sustainability impacted upon your career?
I started out with a science degree and began my professional career as a science teacher. Throughout my career, I have always been involved in the intersection between science and something else. It's never been enough for me to just know the facts, but how to apply them. My career has never been about being an environmentalist or activist or saving the world. It's been about looking at the challenges in the world and figuring out how to address them in a realistic and practical way. I tell people I am a realist, not an optimist. That is not to say that I don't have high expectations for companies - and society more broadly, but rather that purposeful and thoughtful ACTION today will result in the collective impact we all need to make together. This is what our CEO, Brian Kelly, calls "relentless incrementalism" - a perfect description of my career.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
I've learned "strategic patience." Much of my time is spent expanding horizons - helping people to understand a different perspective, a new way of looking at things. I encourage people to change the way they think about their day-to-day job and the impact of their individual actions from the factory floor or cubicle to the boardroom. It is a long process and strategic patience is essential to realizing actual behavior change and accountability.

Strategic patience requires me to know when I need to seed ideas, when I need to push ideas and when it is time for me to sit back and wait for those ideas to take root and grow. I need to make these decisions, while also assessing the people with whom I am interacting and understanding the language they speak. Sometimes this means raising my own knowledge and awareness. So, continual self-assessment and improvement is a part of this process.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I struggle a little with this question as I'm not convinced I do this effectively. Part of why this question is hard for me is that it's a fuzzy line between work and life for me. I do what I love. I love what I do. And I do it so that my kids and their kids can live in a better world. I was talking to my husband once about the importance of making time for his hobbies, which help keep him balanced and sane. I started getting upset when I realized that I don't have any hobbies. He just laughed and said "you're work is your hobby!" While at first glance that might seem sad, it's so true. I love reading about, traveling to experience and analyzing all the ways that commerce intersects with human interests and the natural world. And I've made a career of ensuring that intersection is a positive one.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The biggest issue for me is exemplified by why I struggle so much with the work/life balance question. Women in the workplace are supposed to quietly and privately "deal" with that balance and not let it affect - or even be visible - at work. This is an expectation that is no different for men but the societal expectations of the role of the woman as a mother are certainly different. That is why this question comes up much more often for professional women than professional men. I was speaking with an executive colleague once about an upcoming trip and he referenced my nanny. While he knew I had kids because I had worked through two pregnancies at that company, he knew nothing more about my personal life. I didn't have a nanny. I've never had a nanny. But the assumption was that someone else must be doing the "mother" role for me as it's impossible to do both.

I see this slowly changing with younger fathers who are more involved in parenting and the associated responsibilities, but not at the level of company leadership. While equal opportunity/recognition and equal pay are definitively still challenges, work/life balance is a silent struggle that few companies address well. That's a loss because simple support structures like on-site daycare can increase productivity, morale and loyalty significantly.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I would have to say that my mother has served as my strongest role model and mentor. She's my biggest cheerleader and inspiration - a brilliant, professional woman who started a whole new career after raising five kids and taking care of aging parents. I've never had a professional mentor. Rather, I've had moments of mentorship from those passing through my professional life at different times.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and a human rights advocate, is a woman I greatly admire. Mary was the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and led an advisory group of which I was a member via the UN Global Compact. She truly made a lasting impression on me.

Mary's advocacy for women leaders and specifically promoting women to "lead as women" with those skills and attributes that are innately ours rather than emulating male leadership qualities, has had a strong influence on me. There is this expectation, whether unspoken or explicit, that women should lead within the standard format. And yet, I see examples of amazing women leading in new ways and that is so exciting to me.

What do you want Keurig Green Mountain to accomplish in the next year?
I'd like to see us revolutionize the beverage industry with our beverage and technology line- up and set a new bar for leadership in terms of resource efficiency. My goal is for Keurig to deliver something that our consumers want, but in a resource-efficient way. We are in an industry that has faced challenges related to ingredient sourcing and water use, but I think Keurig does things differently and has a unique lens for how we interact with the world. That marriage of product and sustainability innovation within the beverage industry is an exciting opportunity for Keurig.

In the next year, we will focus on three areas. The first is making an interim step toward our 2020 goal to make 100 percent of all K-Cup packs recyclable, by implementing a take-back program for at-home consumers, transitioning to polypropylene and continuing our work with the Closed Loop Fund to improve recycling infrastructure.

The second priority is to continue our innovative approach to engagement with coffee farmers to build a more resilient supply chain, and expanding that model as appropriate to new areas of our supply chain including manufacturing.

The third focus is on water stewardship. Given the local nature of water -- distribution, access, and quality issues are unique to local conditions and communities -- it is important to take action "at home." Keurig Green Mountain's new water balance goal was designed to address this. We have developed a target to balance the 2020 brewed beverage volume of all our beverages, ounce for ounce. In other words, for every cup our consumers brew, we will match the same amount through projects in North America that restore water for natural and community uses.

We will begin to develop these quantifiable projects in 2015 with an emphasis on projects that build or promote natural infrastructure, provide source water protection, and restore riparian zones and urban waters. We expect to work in communities that support our operations, our consumers, and our suppliers.

As we begin to plan our balance projects, we are keeping in mind principles important to sound water management and to our business. Namely, we will focus on projects that have local relevance and are of importance in a given watershed, that are robust and durable for the long-term, and that embed education and outreach to raise awareness for water stewardship. We will seek to have the greatest impact possible by continuing our partnership approach for collective impact.