Social Impact Heroes Helping Our Planet: Why & How Monalisa Prasad Of Chartwells Higher Education Is Helping To Change Our World
An Interview With Martita Mestey
Be passionate about what you are doing- That is what keeps you fired up in the long term. Also, you cannot convince someone else if you are not convinced and feel strongly about it yourself.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Monalisa Prasad, National Sustainability Director, Chartwells Higher Education.
Monalisa Prasad is the National Director of Sustainability for Chartwells Higher Education, a foodservice provider for over 300 U.S. colleges and universities. Her work certifying five New York University dining halls as Green Restaurant Certified played a vital role in being recognized as one of Foodservice Director’s 2021 Rising Stars in Foodservice and as a Sustainability Honoree at the 2021 New York University State of Sustainability Address. Monalisa holds an MSc in Sustainability Management from Columbia University, NY and an MBA specializing in Sustainable Operations and Supply Chains from University of Exeter, UK.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I was born in the Andamans, an island within the Indian archipelago. Living in a boarding school for most of my schooling years made me responsible and self-reliant at an early age. As a consequence, it also made me question everything in order to seek clarity and make informed decisions.
I would travel home to the islands for summer holidays and enjoy and cherish my proximity to nature with pristine beaches and an unpolluted environment. Over the years, I witnessed the rapidly deteriorating change where trash and litter covered spaces which were once lush green. Also, rapid infrastructure development and vehicular congestion ended up significantly destroying natural habitat and wildlife. Such an unsustainable approach of conducting tourism business in the islands instinctively felt wrong to me at many levels. This gravitated me towards choosing sustainable tourism as my specialization during my undergraduate studies.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
I believe that to be sustainable, as an individual or an organization, we need to stimulate two core values: collaborate and communicate. Collaboration is just not a buzz word in the sustainability space but is essential to deliver upon our sustainability goals. Aligning closely with UN Sustainable Development Goals, we have focused on the ones that we believe can make the most positive social impact.
The biggest one being food waste. As part of one of the world’s largest food service providers, we realize that food waste is not only a moral issue but a key contributor to climate change. Reducing food waste is a necessary implementation not only at an organizational level but also at individual one. At Chartwells, we pursue a two-pronged approach: (1) using technology and data to understand our food waste footprint and incorporate measures to halve it by 2030. (2) enhancing education on the topic, while also creating awareness within our guests and associates. In a consumer driven society, the change needs to happen not just from the top, but inside-out, where consumers are the point of focus, and specifically to us, — Gen Z students. With students, we are purposeful in our approach — creating impactful events to raise awareness, offering opportunities for students to participate in interactive Teaching Kitchens to learn how to cook root to stem and understand the attributes of the ingredients used to make more sustainable choices.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
While in England pursing my masters in tourism and hospitality management (at the time I was focused on sustainable tourism), I joined a call for volunteers for Feeding the 5000. This event was a coalition of Fareshare, Love Food Hate Waste, FoodCycle, and Friends of the Earth, led by food waste expert Tristram Stuart. It aimed to serve 5000 free meals using foods like imperfect fresh fruit and vegetables that would otherwise have been discarded. Having served five thousand curry servings in Trafalgar Square made largely using wonky carrots, odd-shaped potatoes, tomatoes with that odd green splotch, I seriously began researching the magnanimity of food waste impact and its associated waste of water, energy, labor and their collective carbon footprint. The existing complexity within the current food practices and policies need urgent and utmost priority is all what I could think of and I wanted to be a part of the much-needed change.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
Not an aha moment, but a gradual, steady build up during my own self awareness about the urgency and need for sustainable development in the agriculture and food systems space. I started off with tourism and hospitality focus, and eventually gravitating toward hospitality and food service which now is my niche. I strongly felt about being that change maker and have an impact on this topic. The need for specialization in the ever-emerging sustainability space, led me to pursue a Masters in Sustainability Management from Columbia University. Several case studies from the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015 had a prioritized focus on the food systems, with all fingers pointed to showcase that the global food system was not operating sustainably. That was my final trigger point if you will, I inherently and instinctively had a deep passionate in this subject. I was back working with Chartwells, a division of Compass Group for who I previously worked for 2+ years during my time in the UK and haven’t looked back since. The ability to introduce change as food service professionals is enormous. Even more so, when our guests and customers are Gen Z and todays generation, who will be our future leaders and decision makers.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
This may sound clichéd, but I have to say I would not be in this position without the unconditional support of my parents. In the years leading up to my selection of an undergraduate course, training to be a doctor or engineer were the most sought-after career choices. My parents insisted on me taking up something which I strongly felt about and would work towards it with innate conviction. In an industry perceived to be male-oriented, I could not be more thankful to two fearless leaders: Chartwells’ CEO Lisa McEuen and CMO Salli Darden- who have encouraged my unconventional and sometimes high-risk endeavors. Their experienced insights and feedback whilst supporting initiatives and strategies I showcase, reinstated my sense of being a valued team member. For example, we are working with our partners to enable transparency in our overall food sustainability strategy. Such unwavering support is hard to come by and something that every professional wishes for in such a dynamic and rapidly evolving sector.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or an example?
Businesses that want to succeed in the future need to believe in the absolute certainty that being sustainable is the right way forward. In the long run, with ongoing policy changes and consumer support, it will eventually be profitable. This clearly implies that in order to be profitable they need to recognize the first-mover advantage. It only makes sense to lay the foundation and integrate sustainable practices into their existing business models to be on par with others who have already overcome the hurdles in their learning and implementation curve. There needs to be an awareness of the seismic shifts already taking place in terms of regional and local polices regarding sustainability expectations. Additionally, one must have a firm belief in the positive customer reciprocation towards sustainable measures taken by businesses. It is evident that we are at that juncture where consumer demand for environmentally conscious, fair-labor products and services are on the rise. As an example, we have eliminated Styrofoam containers across all our campuses and from our ordering systems and have replaced them with more reusable and more sustainable alternatives. This decision has resulted not only in profits but also a reaffirmation of consumer acceptance towards these changes.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.
- No solution is straightforward- the only thing constantly evolving is change, and solutions to problems must be considered with the associated timeframe.
- Learn to embrace adversity- it is a certainty, given the dynamic, fast-paced environment.
- Do not hesitate to take calculated risks, because no new problem is solved with an old strategy.
- Be passionate about what you are doing- That is what keeps you fired up in the long term. Also, you cannot convince someone else if you are not convinced and feel strongly about it yourself.
- Communication, communication, communication: as a sustainability professional, you’ll interact with people upstream and downstream who may not have the same knowledge and perception of the initiatives. Get them on the same level field by seeking and sharing responsibilities.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
It was almost 40 years ago that the United Nations Brundtland Commission was created to reflect ways to save the human environment and natural resources while preventing deterioration of economic and social development. The commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The most important reason for everyone to start making strides toward a positive impact is avoid crossing that point of an irreversible damaged future!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
A role model, someone who puts sustainability at the center of business strategy, and who was always clear on his goals for Unilever, advocated for a purpose-driven leadership: former CEO of Unilever- Paul Polman. Unilever is one of the best instances of a company that lives up to its mission, with iconic brands like Ben & Jerry’s, Dove, and many others. The company implemented its ambitious Sustainable Living Plan, which sought to double its growth, halve its environmental impact, and treble its social effect during Polman’s ten-year tenure as CEO. Unilever’s yearly sales increased from $38 billion to more than $60 billion as a result of the strategy, and the business became a beacon for people who wanted their job to matter. In Polman’s recent book, Net Positive, he lays a strong emphasis and proves that a holistic, all-inclusive business model, rather than working in silos is one of the critical factors to create a net positive impact on climate change as a whole. I would highly recommend it to gain a renewed perspective through an experienced lens, from one of the stalwarts of the space.
How can our readers follow you online?
The best way is via LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/monalisap/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Social Impact Heroes Helping Our Planet: Why & How Monalisa Prasad Of Chartwells Higher Education… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.