Kelly Burton, chief sustainability officer of Material Exchange, received a 2021 Emerging Leader Award from the Harvard Extension Alumni Association. Here’s what she had to say about her time at Harvard Extension and her plans for the future.

What brought you to Harvard Extension?

After almost a decade in ethical fashion and clean beauty, working on raising citizen-consumer awareness to the impacts of the climate crisis, I realized that for change to have impact quickly, it needed to come from the inside. I wanted to transition to a corporate role and knew I needed some academic foundation on sustainability to make the move.

Who were some of the most influential instructors, advisors, or staffers you worked with? 

The program was rich with leading-edge practitioners. I’m grateful for the industry perspective on [environmental, social, governance (ESG)] from Sophia Mendelsohn, on Systems Thinking from Mark Esposito, Ph.D., and on the effects of the climate crisis on public health from Dr. Aaron Bernstein. 

Additionally, I was selected for the first cohort of the Climate Leaders Program for Professional Students at Harvard, a student-led, faculty-advised program for master’s and professional doctorate students across all Harvard graduate schools, developed in partnership with the Harvard University Center for the Environment (HUCE). That student interest group was key to connecting me to a multi-disciplinary group of like minded classmates and we had exposure to some incredible thinkers. One of the more memorable was a water diplomacy workshop with the incredible Dr. Lawrence Susskind from MIT.

Tell me about the work you’ve done since graduating from Harvard Extension. 

Immediately after completing my capstone with L’Oréal—where I helped them launch their Green Teams—I joined a New York-based fashion retailer for corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy and communications. Then Covid-19 hit and I was furloughed and eventually let go as the company filed for Chapter 11. 

Luckily, Material Exchange had just closed a round of funding and I was hired as the chief sustainability officer. It’s exciting working for a tech start-up. It marries my passion for digitization with sustainability. In my first project, I crafted a new sustainability search tool that will simplify sourcing for responsible materials for the $2-3 trillion industries of apparel and footwear.

Did your experience at Harvard Extension change your career trajectory? How? 

My Harvard experience exceeded my expectations. I hoped that going to grad school would give me a deeper understanding of the issues affecting business, for today but also for the coming years. And I really got that. 

I enjoyed the wide variety of perspectives – from Dan Schrag and Gina McCarthy (executive sponsors of the Climate Leaders Program) sharing their insights on how to build consensus from their time(s) in the Obama administration, to Sophia Mendelsohn sharing how she changes her message to meet a corporate social responsibility (CSR) versus an ESG audience.

I am extremely grateful that I get to join the esteemed faculty and share my knowledge of fashion with the next cohort of Sustainability students. I teach Sustainable Fashion for both the Harvard Extension School and the Summer School.

What’s next for you?

This year I was named a Fulbright Fellow, to mentor a post-covid challenge focused on digitization, and I am keen to continue work at the intersection of digital transformation and sustainability. There’s so much more we have to do to make significant change in the world and I’m thrilled to graduate from, but still be part of, this program that pulls together so many talented, like-minded students to the fight.