Q&A with 2023 USA SDG Pioneer Winner Cristina Villalón
As the Global Compact Network USA local SDG Pioneer winner of the Small and Medium-Sized Companies Category, Cristina Villalón was recognized for her leadership in establishing company-wide SDG-oriented programs at the Puerto Rican architecture firm, Álvarez-Díaz & Villalón (AD&V). As part of her participation in Network USA’s SDG Ambition Accelerator, Villalón led an initiative to work with MIT on developing a representation of Puerto Rico in the Living Wage Calculator. Additionally, she had worked with an external consultant to appropriately scale her company’s employee wages, ensuring all were earning fair wages. Her initiatives also promote gender equality and active participation in industry efforts to achieve net-zero emissions.
We spoke with Villalon recently to understand her company's sustainability goals and how Network USA's SDG Ambition Accelerator helped AD&V focus its efforts on advancing SDG 8.
As the winner of What does winning the Global Compact Network USA local SDG Pioneer mean to you?
This is the most significant honor of my professional career. My concern for our planet has been constant since I was a teenager when they had us watch the Earth Day Special in school. Since then, these thoughts have always been in the back of my mind: What can I do to improve this? What is my role in this? How can I tackle this enormous challenge? How can my small actions make a significant enough impact? I cared deeply and tried to play my part by recycling and composting. Yet, the challenge always felt too big and overwhelming. And I felt small and insignificant in comparison.
It is only recently that I feel I have finally, after almost a quarter of my life, been able to connect the dots, answer the questions in my head, and channel all my concerns into deliberate, focused action, using our business as a force for good in the world.
Connecting the dots felt like a magnificent gift. To be recognized for finally understanding my role in all of this and working on it is beyond exceptional. It is the icing on the cake! And it gives me even more momentum and energy to move forward and continue making a positive impact.
Which SDGs does Alvarez-Diaz & Villalon focus on, and what are your company goals for each?
At AD&V, we are focused primarily on SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) and SDG 5 (Gender Equality). However, our work significantly impacts SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities), SDG 13 (climate action), SDG 3 (good health and wellbeing), and SDG 4 (quality education).
SDG 8: We have embarked on becoming B-Corp certified. We are in the final stages of the process. A B-Corp is accountable for the most stringent social, environmental, and governance practices. Every day we try to do better and be better. It is ingrained in our DNA. We also aim to be recognized as a “Best Place to Work.” We actively survey our team members to take their pulse and continue to tweak our workplace to be positive and meaningful. We have also committed to finalizing the work we started with MIT to get Puerto Rico on the Living Wage Calculator. Once we have the data, we will set goals against the living wage. We want to exceed the minimums and allow people to thrive, but we must ensure we do this sustainably. An industry challenge is that we are traditionally undervalued, and our professionals should be paid more. We actively speak and educate on this subject, trying to drive systemic changes in our industry.
SDG 5: Most of our team is women, and we actively support and provide flexibility for our team to encourage gender equality. At the top levels, our industry is mainly dominated by men. Women often opt out of the profession when they cannot juggle heavy workloads, low pay, and little flexibility. We are tackling all these issues. We are promoting women, empowering them, and allowing them the flexibility to perform and stay in the profession.
SDGs 11 and 13: We recently joined the AIA 2030 Commitment to ensure all our designs are net-zero. Buildings are one of the largest contributors to global CO2 emissions. We are taking significant climate action if we can design better, smarter buildings. We also design urban plans and communities. We apply sustainability practices to all our designs affecting and supporting sustainable cities and communities.
SDGs 3 and 4: Our goals in this space are tied to all the initiatives we encourage in our workplace to promote better health and work-life balance. We provide education and training for professional and personal advancement, not only in the field but in general topics such as emotional intelligence and leadership and management skills. We are tracking and measuring all our efforts to continue improving.
Can you give us more information on how your participation in the SDG Ambition Accelerator impacted how you approach your company's employee wages?
Our participation in the SDG Ambition Accelerator focused our efforts. We had to choose a benchmark and decided, "100% of our employees earn a living wage." This set us out on a mission to discover what the living wage was in Puerto Rico. We couldn’t find any data, so we contacted MIT to form a collaboration to include Puerto Rico in the living wage calculator. We used our relationships and connections to acquire funding for this initiative and have been collaborating on this process for over a year. Since we couldn't wait for the data, we hired a consultant to help us structure an employee compensation package using US benchmarks and data to ensure our wages were competitive. As a result, we raised all our employees' salaries and provided bonus opportunities based on individual and company performance. The accelerator made us more focused, strategic, and deliberate in measuring our initiatives. We tied the SDG goals to all our endeavors and set up an internal dashboard to track our impact and goals. We made our entire operation, including our goals, more visible to ourselves and our team. This dashboard and quarterly reports keep us moving forward with momentum and ambition.
What advice do you have for SMEs just developing their sustainability programs?
My advice is always the same: Look for the low-hanging fruit. What initiatives are you already doing? How can you magnify those initiatives? Start measuring them! Because what gets measured gets improved. Start where you are and do what you can with what you have. Use your connections and use your gifts. Share what you are doing with others to inspire them to join us in our collective mission.
Do you have any advice for new participants in the UN Global Compact?
The UN Global Compact offers many resources and a wonderful caring community that is ready, willing, and able to help you succeed. Don't be shy! Reach out! Make connections! Join their programs. You will learn so much! And you will find a community of like-minded individuals who want to impact this world positively. This will provide you with hope. And hope is what we need most to propel us into action.
Headquartered in Puerto Rico, a vibrant marketplace within a US territory, AD&V has a unique opportunity to embed and promote the SDGs. Considering this, what advice would you offer to other companies in PR or other US territories who may not yet perceive membership with the UN Global Compact as suitable for their organization?
We are encouraging all companies to join the Global Compact. Doing so will provide them with resources and information to help them on their sustainability journey along with some accountability.
Network USA will celebrate the 2023 USA SDG Pioneers during an awards ceremony at its flagship conference, 2023 SDG Summit USA, during the UN General Assembly on September 20.