Meet the new VIPs of ESG leadership

ARTICLE | September 7, 2023

Meet the new VIPs of ESG leadership

Companies are increasingly elevating ESG leadership into a management role. Here are four leaders shaping the contours of these critical new positions.

By Howard Rabinowitz, Workflow contributor

Over the past decade, amid rising concerns about climate change and social inequity, environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues became top priorities for organizations large and small. Despite economic headwinds and political pushback, companies are staying the course, with many creating new leadership roles that are laser-focused on overseeing ESG policy and strategy.

Whether the job title is chief of sustainability, chief ESG officer, head of ESG, or another moniker, this nascent role is still very much under construction, and the folks filling these positions have followed varied career paths ranging from communications and finance to legal.

Here are the stories of four executives who have stepped into this role. They have diverse backgrounds and experience but have one thing in common: a shared passion for ESG



The road to ESG success

Although he’s hung up his cleats as a former All-American college rugby player, Justin Dunn still leaves it all on the field every day as sustainability director for SteelWave, a Silicon Valley–based commercial real estate firm. 

“I’m still very competitive,” he admits, “but now I compete with myself. I try to get 1% better every day. And that’s what we do at SteelWave in terms of ESG and sustainability.”

Not yet 30, Dunn comes to SteelWave with a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and master’s degree from Oxford University in sustainable development. SteelWave manages business parks and campuses, industrial and creative offices, and lab spaces for life sciences companies. The company has worked with HP, Apple, Google, the Los Angeles Chargers, and many other major organizations.

In July 2021, after Dunn had been working for a year with SteelWave as a project manager, he and CEO Barry DiRaimondo created the sustainability director position together. Monitoring compliance is “a huge part of the job,” he says. “I track the performance of both our company and our real estate. What is the operational carbon footprint of each building? How is the owner offsetting it? Internally, there’s the social aspect. How are we caring for our people? Are we being thoughtful about them and our impact on the community and the world?” 

Among Dunn’s other duties are financial ESG reporting and brand strategy around the company’s sustainability mission and achievements, including SteelWave’s LEED gold-certified projects like Sunnyvale’s Central Station (whose rooftop solar array provides 47% of its energy) and San Jose’s America Center, which transformed a landfill into a Class A office complex.

But Dunn isn’t resting on any laurels—he’s still competing to improve every day. “It’s cliché, but if you can get 1% better every day, over a year, that’s significant,” he says. “People make huge net-zero commitments, saying, ‘We’re going to be 80% better in 10 years.’ Well, that starts with 1% tomorrow. People miss that, but we’re not going to miss it at SteelWave.”


Justin Dunn, sustainability director, SteelWave Justin Dunn, sustainability director, SteelWave

Most workdays, rain or shine, Mikel Wilkens bikes 12 miles to work, including a stretch on Five Mile Creek trail in Dallas’s Oak Cliff neighborhood. It’s an urban greenbelt that Wilkens helped transform from a poorly maintained open space to give Dallas’s 1.3 million residents access to 23 miles of forested paths through four parks.

Wilkens has always been an outdoorsy guy, since growing up in a rural area near Greensboro, N.C. “We lived on a lake, so I was always connected to the water,” he says. “I spent lots of time in the mountains. It’s the space where I feel most comfortable.”

It’s not hard to connect the dots from Wilkens’ love of the outdoors to his B.S. degree in environmental engineering from North Carolina State University and, ultimately, his role as director of sustainability at TBG Partners, a landscape architecture and planning firm devoted to large-scale urban greenspace projects.

It’s a position he co-designed three years ago with TBG’s then-chairman of the board Jim Manskey. Many TBG clients are municipalities with ESG compliance needs, and Manskey felt it was time to bring on a leader devoted to ESG strategy and compliance across the firm.

In this role, Wilken is a key member of TBG’s foundation community leaders committee, a working group of architects, designers, and executives that evaluates each potential project and sets its sustainability objectives. He meets with clients to discuss projects, outlining the benefits to preserving environmental ecosystems. And he is often on-site with engineers to oversee their execution.

Dealing with so many stakeholders, Wilken notes, he has to communicate in “a lot of different languages.” With architects, he must speak to their aesthetic goals. With a client, he must speak to cost savings. “Maybe a project owner doesn’t particularly care about water quality,” he says. “If I communicate a design choice that is ultimately going to provide water quality benefits, but also provide benefits aligned with their end goal, that’s hugely important.”

And when he’s biking through the hushed forest of the Five Mile Creek trail, he doesn’t have to speak at all. He can soak in the beauty he has helped to preserve and witness its benefits for Dallas residents, from joggers to commuters freed from congested highways. For an outdoorsy guy like Wilkens, the silence speaks for itself.

Mikel Wilkens, director of sustainability, TBG Partners Mikel Wilkens, director of sustainability, TBG Partners

When you’re chief of staff, Edua Dickerson says, “you get to do all the fun stuff.” Not long after she joined ServiceNow in 2020, that meant working on projects and plans around the company’s ESG initiatives, reporting to CFO Gina Mastantuono.

Dickerson put up her hand to take the lead. Up until that point, ESG leadership had been focused on matters related to employee engagement and defining areas of strategic priority. But as Dickerson stepped into the role of head of ESG and finance strategy, she greatly expanded ESG’s purview. It now includes developing and articulating the overarching ESG strategy with leaders across the company; corporate social responsibility initiatives such as community outreach and employee engagement; reporting and governance; and partnering with product teams to develop risk products.

“Every day is very different,” says Dickerson. The variety seems tailor-made for Dickerson, whose career has spanned a range of different functions, including audit, product, operations, executive and talent strategy, consulting, and leading a group around diversity, equity, and inclusion at a former employer. This breadth of experiences has made her confident in her ability to handle ESG’s wide remit. “It’s a dream job,” she says.

Having started her career in governance, she finds it easy to be enthusiastic even about seemingly mundane facets of her job. “What I found in this space was that it’s very easy to be passionate about people and passionate about the planet, but not always as easy to be excited and passionate about governance—but that’s natural for me, a former auditor,” says Dickerson.

Dickerson also brings to her role a commitment to give back, with a focus on helping underrepresented and disenfranchised communities. She forged a partnership between ServiceNow and GivePower that includes a three-year, $3 million commitment to provide clean water to 200,000 people in Kenya.

“We’re answering the call so when the world needs something new from us, we will lean in,” she says.

Edua Dickerson, vice president of ESG and finance strategy, ServiceNow Edua Dickerson, vice president of ESG and finance strategy, ServiceNow

Growing up in Manhattan in a family of writers and journalists, Rebecca O’Neill thought of animals and nature as somewhat exotic. Yet she found the natural world not only “fascinating, but also honestly delightful,” she says. That interest led her to pursue degrees in biology and environmental technology, and to start her career in the public-interest sector, working in communications for a nonprofit with a focus on biodiversity.

When she joined Marvell Technology, a Santa Clara, Calif.–based semiconductor company, in 2020, O’Neill held the company’s first job title with “ESG” in it: senior program manager, ESG. At the time, Marvell had disparate threads of ESG-related initiatives across the organization. “My role was to pull together the company strategy and identify and activate key areas of opportunity for driving the most impact we can on ESG issues,” she says.

In 2022, her role was elevated into a new position: global head of ESG. Today O’Neill reports to, and works closely with, chief legal officer Mark Caspar. She leads an ESG leadership committee composed of C-suite leaders and Marvell’s head of engineering to align on strategy and decision-making.

Unsurprisingly for an offspring of writers who also worked as a reporter early in her career, communications is a big part of the job. O’Neill acts as a key liaison with Marvell’s stakeholders, from investors to customers and employees.

One of the messages she articulates with passion is the long-term value of Marvell’s ESG efforts. “Energy use is only going to grow with the rise of AI and machine learning,” she says. “The semiconductor industry has a role to play in improving our collective technology footprint on power. That’s a challenge, but also an opportunity for us.”

Marvell has a wide range of initiatives focused on that opportunity, from designing a silicon chip that transfers data at 45% lower power to ensuring that all of Marvell’s strategic suppliers pass an audit certifying that they meet tech industry standards of ESG best practices.

O’Neill can’t think of a job that better suits her interests and passions. “Even though we’re newer to this than some other companies, we’re actually making progress toward our goals,” she says. “We’re not just saying we’re going to do it. We’re actually doing it.”

Rebecca O’Neill, global head of ESG, Marvell Technology Rebecca O’Neill, global head of ESG, Marvell Technology

Workflow Quarterly

Why ESG strategy matters now

Related articles

How manufacturers can meet the ESG challenge
How manufacturers can meet the ESG challenge

As factories digitize their operations and supply chains, they must accelerate ESG tracking and measurement efforts to maintain competitive advantage

What leaders know about ESG initiatives
What leaders know about ESG initiatives

Now more than ever, purpose and profit are inextricable

Blockchain sustainability
Blockchain sustainability

Distributed ledger technology could power a new era of automated ESG reporting

Is sustainability at odds with good CX?
Is sustainability at odds with good CX?

Consumers want companies to care for the environment, but that can come at the cost of convenience. Here’s how to be green and still offer a great experience.



Howard Rabinowitz is a business and technology writer based in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Loading spinner