At a recent Women in Focus event, Yasmin London hosted a conversation with Di Mantell, CEO, Celsus, the Royal Adelaide Hospital, and Allys Todd, Co-Founder, Val.AI. They share their respective journeys to here, why quality frameworks and data aggregation are essential in driving outcomes and change, and how to bring people on the journey.

Di Mantell’s purpose-led path

When discussing the tapestry of Di’s career, she recounts many years in nursing – where she ran an ICU department and became Director of Nursing – before moving into non-clinical roles. For Di, the driving force and motivation behind each new leap has always been the same: “If I’ve got an opportunity to leave the world better than it is now, then that’s my job.”

Now at the helm of Celsus, the commercial operator of the Royal Adelaide Hospital, Di is blazing a trail in building sustainable social infrastructure. Celsus secured the first sustainability loan in Australia and the first in the global healthcare sector for $2.2 billion, raising the standard for sustainability goals and social inclusion in major infrastructure projects and healthcare more broadly.

Performance underpinned by strategy

Being the first of its kind, there were no blueprints to follow for ensuring the success of the sustainability loan, and so best-practice guardrails were borrowed from other industries and sectors.

“We needed an ESG strategy and framework to have a clear process and purpose. But because we were the first to do it, we didn’t have any templates or other projects to reference to make sure we’d get things right,” says Di.

The goal for the strategy and framework was to form a solid path forward so performance could be easily measured based on their ambitions and targets. Each principle, being environment, social and governance, required equal weight with clear articulation. In the end, Di wrote the green and social finance framework herself before progressing with endorsement.

Validate goals and actions

“Once the framework was complete, it had to be ratified,” explains Di. It also had to be “aligned with the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, and very structured and specific.”

Celsus undertook the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark (GRESB), a 60-hour survey which uses a consistent methodology to independently assess the ESG performance of businesses against their peers. “If your business is looking to validate its decisions to a board, then this is a way to do it.”

Having completed the GRESB for the last three years, Celsus most recently achieved an impressive 96 out of 100 in 2023. “It’s like getting your school report back,” says Di. She believes the assessment is a critical measure for organisations, with third parties likely to consider it when comparing projects in this space.

Allys Todd on the ground; to the ground up

Allys’ background is mostly in the not-for-profit sector, in community engagement and working on the ground for climate, the environment and nature preservation. She spent “a lot of time on country, digging holes and planting trees”, where she worked directly with communities and corporates to bring them along on the journey of delivering action for climate.

Because she wanted to support climate action at scale Allys moved into political advocacy. She became more aware of the gap between business and government expectations around establishing and progressing with sustainability targets.

Making solutions more accessible

From here, Val.Ai was born. The Australian-based climate-tech company in on a mission to contribute to decarbonising the economy in the residential space, driving low-carbon living, and helping to make sustainability more accessible to more people. Allys is at the forefront and continues to work towards finding solutions that will help bridge the gaps between policy and practice.

“We’re here fundamentally to embed climate action into our economic systems, assisting our clients to grow their portfolio and reduce it’s carbon footprint.”

Sustainability at scale

The built-for-scale platform assesses and manages green property data, showing how a home compares to others in terms of insurability, energy efficiency and sustainability. Val.Ai engages with insurers and large financial institutions to provide them with meaningful information for their risk and compliance, and insurability measures. Ultimately, the goal is to support embedding simple actions in everyday lives to make a big difference.

“We know that Australians care, but at the end of the day, what really matters is if you have the finances available to manage that asset and is that asset going to be making you money into the future,” says Allys.

Progress and the path forward

Di and Allys share the sentiment that we’ve seen a lot of progress when it comes to commercial and residential sustainability, yet as a nation we aren’t quite there yet. Allys likens this to other societal disparities and challenges such as gender equity. “Things have been achieved, but we haven’t been able to embed the systemic change that we need,” she says. “The world hasn’t yet been re-organised to fit everyone in it.”

In working with global leaders and governments, both Di and Allys suggest that Australia isn’t up to speed with the rest of the world. Most other nations, particularly in Europe and emerging economies, are transparent in acknowledging the issues their people and communities face. And it’s therein that lies so much opportunity in the ESG space for emerging leaders in the Australian landscape to make a positive mark.

Prioritise a human-centred approach

Bringing people along on the journey is essential to any organisation’s success when implementing change. “Unless you can make something feel from the heart, speaking to the intrinsic value in a human being, it won’t spur any action,” says Allys.

For Celsus, the team wanted to make a big difference in the community outside clinical walls, so they had to convince the board it was the right thing to do. They found ways to justify action beyond social good, re-thinking KPIs and metrics beyond profit. “Just because something isn’t in the contract, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done – giving something back in a tangible way shouldn’t be overlooked because it’s too hard,” says Di.

Since its inception, the team at Val.Ai has grown significantly, and Allys proudly backs the diverse group. She believes their unique perspectives support innovation and problem solving at no end. “They’re a bunch of great humans,” she says. “Diversity certainly helps our team thrive and access different ways of thinking.”

Effective ESG is vital for us all

As well as being an integral part of corporate culture, ESG can help drive society and communities forward and create better outcomes for organisations and their stakeholders. Despite differences in Di and Allys’ journeys to here, the two leaders have found success in their synergies; particularly in pushing boundaries and finding optimal solutions that can achieve the biggest impact.

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