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Emerging Leaders shine at GreenBiz’s Circularity 20 online event

BASF sponsors a mentorship program that opens doors for up-and-coming circular-economy trailblazers.

GreenBiz handpicked 12 recipients to take part in the Cicularity20 Emerging Leaders Program, which offered scholarships for students and gave early-career professionals the opportunity to attend the Circularity20 online event. (Photo courtesy of GreenBiz)

Growing up in a lower socio-economic neighborhood of Richmond, Calif. – Ignacio Franco saw the ways those communities were affected by a “take-make-waste” (linear) economy.

His hometown was a frequent “case study,” or a prime example, due to the effects of “harsh” city policy (which leaves poorer communities at a disadvantage) and “environmental injustice.”

“People who don’t have much to begin with are often forced and encouraged to replace items and clothing that aren’t built to last,” said Franco. “In high school, I gained the vocabulary to articulate this distress, and learned much more about how climate change affects communities of color like mine.”

This conundrum inspired the 23-year-old son of Mexican immigrants to choose a career in a field that seeks to improve such issues in any way possible, including through climate advocacy and data science. 


Franco graduated with an Urban Studies degree from one of the world’s most respected universities – UC Berkeley – in 2019 and went on to become a city planner for the City of Piedmont, Calif., where he gets the opportunity to work with ordinances and regulations that target climate change and CO2 emissions. Now, the future is bright for this young Latino.

“I hope to bring big change to cities around the world and I want to start by electrifying our marginalized communities,” he added.

Michelle Mestres, 23, holds both a B.A. in Environmental and Sustainability Studies and a B.S. in International and Global Studies from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Growing up in Miami, Fla., she was exposed to some of the world’s most unique environments, such as the Everglades and Florida beaches.  Her marine-themed magnet high school opened doors to several STEM classes, which inspired her to get interested in the field of sustainability and circular economy. She is currently a sustainability specialist at Legrand, a French electrical and electronics manufacturing company.

“Applying sustainability or circular economy to any project, whether it’s a product, a service, a building or a business model, there is so much room for innovation and collaboration with others,” said Mestres. “It keeps me excited for the future of my profession.”

It is no wonder that both Franco and Mestres are two of the 12 recipients of the Circularity 20 Emerging Leaders Program, which were recently announced at GreenBiz’s Circularity 20 online event. Young adults increasingly are leading the way in climate advocacy and environmental justice by pushing institutions to take stronger action in addressing the climate crisis. And BASF is paying attention. The chemical company sponsored the EL program this year, which is designed to empower up-and-coming economy leaders to solve world’s most complex problems. The GreenBiz team hand-picked these rising stars from across the region and among diverse backgrounds in the field of sustainability and STEM. In line with BASF’s strong focus on Diversity & Inclusion, the program will provide the cohort with opportunities to further develop their wide range of skillsets. These recipients will have the chance to engage in a six-month mentorship program with BASF employees and executives, starting in October 2020.

“The sponsorship underlines BASF’s commitment to supporting the next generation of problem solvers and creative thinkers to help find innovative, sustainable solutions,” said Mitch Toomey, Director of Sustainability, BASF North America. “We want to provide the Emerging Leaders with an opportunity to be inspired and grow as professionals.”

To say that sustainability and circular economy are high priorities for BASF is an understatement. These concepts are, in fact, embedded in the company’s corporate strategy – creating chemistry for a sustainable future. Therefore, BASF puts sustainability goals at the same level of importance as financial growth.

“Sustainability has been a strategic driver at BASF for years. Now, we are increasing the relevance of sustainability in our steering processes and business models,” Toomey added.

The Emerging Leaders program launched three years ago at GreenBiz17, an annual conference for corporate sustainability professionals and leaders. This year, the recipients got to participate in a three-day, solutions-focused event at the forefront of the circular economy – Circularity 20.  The online program featured engaging and informative sessions, which included some high-profile guests such as Ellen MacArthur, from the famed Ellen MacArthur Foundation, as well as former American football fullback Ovie Mughelli, who has a foundation of his own – educating young children and teens about environmental issues. Multifaceted topics spanned from the current state of Bioplastics, to Material Health Selection, to Unlocking a Circular Carbon Economy, to Circular Electronics, to Advanced Recycling: What, When & How to Scale. The last panel included BASF’s Director of Sustainability, Toomey, who spoke about the company’s ChemCycling project, serving as an industry best practice. Launched by BASF in 2018, the ChemCycling project aims at manufacturing products from chemically recycled plastic waste on an industrial scale. (Chemical recycling is the technology of converting post-use plastics back to its original building blocks).

The impressive virtual circular-economy conference surpassed both Franco and Mestres’ expectations in terms of platform and content, as well as the networking opportunities that were available to both.  

“I was surprised to see so many incredible solutions to the world’s most common issues, and even more surprised that they haven’t yet been implemented on a larger scale,” said Franco. “I feel very fortunate to have been a participant and to be part of the Emerging Leaders Program.”

For Mestres – having a professional mentor is a first and she could not be more excited.

“I hope to get some personal and professional guidance on how to navigate the ins and outs of the corporate sustainability world,” she concluded. “I hope that my mentor and I end up connecting well and staying in touch long after the program is over.”

To learn more about the BASF-sponsored Emerging Leaders Program, click here.

The Circularity20 online panel on Advanced Recycling: What, When & How to Scale with BASF's NA Sustainability Director Mitch Toomey is available on replay, here.



Published on Oct. 6, 2020 by Anna Spiewak.

For media inquiries or to repurpose this article, please contact Lisa Brown.