Anahita Williamson knows about making connections.
From her time as one of the first environmental engineers at Xerox Corp. to her current post as head of the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute at Rochester Institute of Technology, Williamson has relied on her ability to interact with professionals from different backgrounds to convey the importance of sustainability.
That is a key skill in her current job. The Pollution Prevention Institute-known as P2I within RIT-must relay information about best practices and get industries on board to make changes.
The institute is a statewide research and technology center that aims, by offering its expertise to businesses in various sectors, to make the state more sustainable for workers and the environment.
It would be oversimplifying to say Williamson's job is just about making connections.
At P2I, she leads a team of 10 employees who coordinate an effort with research partners spread across the state and projects ranging from Rochester to Long Island.
From its founding in 2007, the center has been funded with $12 million through the state Department of Environmental Conservation and has a $4 million annual budget. Williamson, 36, notes the center has secured outside grants as well.
She plans to seek more funding as the institute grows and assumes greater stature statewide.
"There are so many opportunities to improve overall sustainability and impact on the environment," Williamson says. "You can touch it in almost any sector, and now it's just up to us to find out where we should put our resources to find the biggest impact."
Starting at Xerox
Williamson was hired at Xerox as a senior environmental engineer in 2005, one of the first hires into the position. She joined an effort to reduce the amount of waste throughout the company and produce cost savings.
"We had different responsibilities, but a lot of what we did was working with manufacturing processes to reduce costs and decrease the footprint," she says. "We were there to share with everyone the importance of our environmental priorities."
Williamson was involved in projects to reduce pollution output, starting by evaluating manufacturing processes to establish a baseline then used to suggest performance improvements.
She and her team worked closely in toner design, developing green engineering techniques in the toner process and designing a way to better understand the physical properties of chemical toner.
"We looked at the entire life cycle, finding out the cradle-to-grave impact," Williamson says. "This is important in the idea of going green. There's been quite a bit of interest in companies of reducing their output, but if you're going to market something as green you need to be able to quantify that based on something. That's why the cradle-to-grave analysis is so critical."
She also co-led a green team that established worldwide environmental requirements for renovating buildings and for new construction across the company.
While she was working to make Xerox greener, Williamson was developing other employees and adding tools to her own arsenal. While at Xerox she was certified in Lean Six Sigma and developed an internal Greenbelt Lean Six Sigma training package that included environmental concepts.
Much of her work was not done inside a laboratory but in colleagues' offices and meeting rooms. Williamson was tasked with educating others and communicating the priorities of the green engineering process.
"I learned to build relationships at Xerox and foster collaboration with the different people we would be working with," she says.
Coming to P2I
Those skills would be vitally important once Williamson came to P2I.
She signed on as director in 2009, close to a year after the institute's creation. As Williamson helped to set the direction and focus areas for the institute, she also had to serve as an ambassador to a business sector that could be skeptical of her work.
"In the business world, this kind of thing isn't always an easy sell," says Elizabeth Meer, special assistant for pollution prevention and green procurement with the state DEC. "It can be difficult for some of them to understand the value in what we're doing, but she does such a great job explaining it to them and getting everyone on board."
The institute's E3 project in Tonawanda, Erie County, is a perfect example of this skill, Meer says. P2I works with manufacturers in the area to reduce energy, environmental impacts and associated costs.
The project is funded with a $130,000 Source Reduction Assistance Grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Its goal is to create a model of collaboration among local, regional and federal agencies as well as utilities, manufacturers and other stakeholders.
Bringing all the sides together takes a careful approach, Meer says. It is one Williamson has mastered.
"There is a whole political side to this, working with stakeholders in labor, the manufacturers and then balancing those interests with business groups and (non-governmental organizations)," Meer says. "She does a great job getting input from all sides, explaining to businesses what we have to offer and getting everyone on board."
A lot of preparation is needed to make this work, Williamson says. Before P2I approaches businesses with projects to reduce emissions or prevent future pollution, the team does a careful analysis that explains what the business would need to do and what the cost benefits would be.
The team then sits down with business owners, presenting the findings and explaining the process. These meetings serve two purposes, Williamson says: They show business owners P2I understands their industry and how they can bring cost savings, and they build an important level of trust that would be needed to complete the project.
"A lot of companies are afraid to take major risks in this environment," Williamson says. "So we'll do a feasibility study that lays it all out for them. They want to see at the end of the day the value of what we're doing.
"Building relationships with them is so critical. People have to see the value of these projects and understand that we're there with them to help."
Room to grow
So far the institute has embarked on some major projects spanning industries, such as an effort to inform dry cleaning companies about the waste involved in their process and encourage them to make it greener.
Williamson sees room for more projects-and successfully seeking new funding sources.
But P2I has an advantage in its ability to make long-lasting changes, a quality that has helped it attract additional federal and state funding in the past few years.
"Overall the environment for funding is competitive, but we do a lot of research upfront and try to write grants in a way that will make the work self-sustaining," Williamson says.
The institute will always have challenges in completing its work, says Nabil Nasr, director of the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at RIT.
"If companies are growing and doing well, they often don't want to deal with things like this," he says. "This kind of work is not as attractive as working on the design of a new project or process, but the results are tremendous."
The way to overcome that is through raising the stature of the institute, following through on Williamson's efforts to create connections across industries, Nasr says.
Williamson says the institute has a goal to continue to raise its profile over the next five years and is embarking on a concerted marketing effort. That also coincides with a general increase in environmental awareness within companies and the public.
"The idea of sustainability has come a long way," she says. "It started as a very broad term that's growing more specific as people and industries take ownership and set their own goals and priorities for pollution reduction."
Williamson credits growth so far to the staff at P2I, which has increased from five employees when she started to 10.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of this staff," she says. "They're all passionate and competent people, and we lean on them as we grow and expand our efforts."
One of the most important assets for P2I going forward is Williamson herself, says Matthew Fronk, who worked with her from 2009 to 2010 while he was the director of the Center for Sustainable Mobility at RIT.
"She has a really interesting combination of intellect and people skills," Fronk says. "She can actively engage people and help them solve their problems together, and that's why she and P2I have been so successful."
Those relationships have extended beyond her work. Fronk says he remains good friends with Williamson even years after leaving RIT for the private sector.
Williamson's enthusiasm for her job shines through in all she does, he says.
"There are a few ways you can approach a job. You can look at it like a task, or you can have a passion and a vision to your approach," Fronk says. "She definitely has a passion, and you can see that she believes in it and loves it. That's one of her key attributes and the reason she is so well-respected."
Williamson says she has a good inspiration for her work. She wants to make changes that will carry through to future generations, like her two young children. The Brighton resident makes sure she has time outside of work to spend with her children and husband and carves out some time to play competitive volleyball.
Williamson has her eyes on the future in other ways as well. She has become active in efforts within RIT to encourage more girls' study in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Within her work at P2I, Williamson sees two goals. The institute is highlighting changes that will save money across industries and bring a statewide economic benefit but at the same time ensure a healthier future for workers and residents across the state.
"That's one of the reasons I love this job," Williamson says. "We're having a real impact for generations to come."
Position: Director, New York State Pollution Prevention Institute
Education: B.S. in chemical engineering, Clarkson University, 1998; M.S. in civil and environmental engineering, Clarkson University, 2002; Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering, Clarkson University, 2006
Family: Husband Brendan, daughter Lily, 6; son Conner, 3
Activities: Playing volleyball, skiing, playing piano, spending time with family
Quote: "There are so many opportunities to improve overall sustainability and impact on the environment. You can touch it in almost any sector, and now it's just up to us to find out where we should put our resources to find the biggest impact."
11/22/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email email@example.com.
Connecting companies to sustainability
Anahita Williamson knows about making connections.