If IKEA sounds like an unlikely co-op employer for an Environmental Studies and Sustainability major, it’s not news to Sumita Gangwani. The sophomore received questioning looks when she told friends that she would complete her first co-op in corporate communications at the Swedish retail giant’s North American headquarters.
“My co-op position was definitely different — I was used to the hard sciences and field work — but I liked the idea of being on the consumer and retail side,” she says. “With sustainability, if you can’t communicate the science, you’re never going to make a difference. Helping people understand the problem is the first step.”
This interdisciplinary perspective has motivated Sumita Gangwani to pursue an accelerated MS in Science, Technology and Society, and to amass a diverse skillset through scientific, communication and policy-related roles after completing three years at Drexel.
Soon into her role at IKEA, Gangwani was partnering with communication and sustainability managers across divisions to support the company’s Earth month initiatives. During her first month, she helped oversee the company’s sustainable living challenge, an app-based rewards program for consumers and employees across North America.
Tasked with getting inside the mind of the consumer, she drew on the sociological perspective she had developed under the mentorship of Kelly Joyce, PhD, professor of sociology, at Drexel. Joyce had hired Gangwani as a STAR scholar on a project about renewable energy policy, and also introduced the then-freshman to the field of science, technology and society (STS).
“Dr. Joyce has been with me since week one on campus and has pushed me on an intellectual level. She has taught me that there is always a different perspective to consider,” Gangwani says.
She took her first graduate STS course online during her co-op; at the same time, IKEA provided her with a model for how a multinational retailer can take sustainability into account at every level. She came to appreciate how her work, which included writing external communications, analyzing public relations data and assisting with a store opening, connected her to the heart of the company’s activities.
“I didn’t realize how much sustainability factors into consumerism and retail. I was shocked to see sustainability managers working on many different teams, independently but with a common purpose,” she says.
Innovation in Washington, D.C.
Going into her second co-op, Gangwani had a number of offers for diverse positions, including roles in retail merchandizing, renewable energy operations and nonprofit member relations. After returning from an intensive course abroad, where she studied green energy in Iceland, she was invited to interview at the Retail Industry Leaders Association in Washington, D.C.
The trade organization, whose membership includes many of the nation’s largest retailers, emphasizes improving sustainability practices across industries. Though RILA does not usually offer co-ops or internships, Gangwani got her foot in the door with the help of her manager at IKEA.
“I understood what RILA did as a whole, but I didn’t realize how deep its work went before the co-op. It was interesting to be part of a third party that’s bettering the industry as a whole, and is so sweeping that it affects everyone,” she says.
At RILA, Gangwani worked on teams that spanned innovation, sustainability and marketing. A favorite was RILA’s (R)Tech Center for Innovation, which provides retailers with tech-based research, insights and collaboration.
She found herself on the other side of the sustainability conference calls that she had first sat in on at IKEA — what she calls her “starstruck moment” at RILA. She also created resources for an annual Board of Directors meeting, attended by CEOs of retailers like Walmart and Target, and attended meetings with government affairs and responsible sourcing managers from the likes of Gap and Abercrombie and Fitch.
“It was intimidating at first to be with these higher ups, but then I realized that they care about a lot of the same things that I do. I was also proactive at networking with them — they invited me to follow up about future job opportunities,” she says. “I never felt like the intern.”
Part of the Change
Now back at Drexel, Gangwani continues her involvement as a founding member of Drexel’s Climate Reality Project chapter and as president of the STS Collective, a graduate student organization. She currently plans to go to law school to create policy-related change, but is keeping her options open and considering sustainability management positions in retail. Her experiences have reinforced her view of sustainability as an overarching concept that requires strategic, creative approaches.
“People are the driving force of change. If I am able to inspire someone to take a small step toward sustainability, then I’ll be happy knowing I made a difference,” she says.