Q&A with llze: Perspectives on sustainability, business and collaboration from UN Foundation

Since its creation in 1998 by global news media pioneer Ted Turner, the UN Foundation has helped mobilize over US $2bn to solve and scale cross-sector Sustainability issues, including climate, health, gender, diversity and poverty eradication. Through its private-sector focused leadership group, the Business Council for the United Nations (BCUN), the organization has long been at the forefront of working with leaders from a multitude of geographies, backgrounds and viewpoints. It has facilitated the sharing of best practices and real-life examples and worked with leaders across industries and sectors as they look to leverage their capabilities to inspire, nurture and scale innovative solutions to the complex issues that we as a global community are trying to tackle.

A long-time friend, mentor and supporter of HelloScience, Ilze Melngailis from the UN Foundation and BCUN, shares her thoughts and perspectives with us.

Ilze Melngailis, Senior Director, Business Council for the UN and Private Sector Engagement, UN Foundation:

Ilze Melngailis’ career has focused on applying business approaches to international development – accelerating gains in health, gender equality and poverty alleviation. She leads the Business Council for the UN (BCUN) and Private Sector Engagement at the United Nations Foundation, where she connects business with the UN and promotes companies’ participation in the UN’s historic Sustainable Development Goals.

She also develops innovative corporate partnerships with the UN and other partners that help elevate the impact of each sector’s ability to drive progress. Previously, Ilze has developed and overseen social marketing programs and public-private partnerships in over 30 developing and emerging-market countries through leadership positions at GBC Health where she was Vice President, Partnerships and Impact Initiatives, and prior roles at the USAID-funded ACQUIRE Project at EngenderHealth, International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), and consulting roles for the UN and other clients. A professional point of pride is having been the youngest-ever Executive Director of a global IPPF affiliate, when she founded and ran Latvia’s Association for Family Planning and Sexual Health, the first organization of its kind in the region following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

IIze earned her Bachelor’s degree at McGill University and a Master’s degree in Business Administration with academic distinction from Yale University School of Management.

18 December, 2020

Q: UN Foundation and BCUN and its core group of 30 or so Corporates are pioneering sustainability related approaches, from innovation to inclusion. How has that space evolved in the past few years?

A: This is definitely an exciting time to be working with companies because the most enlightened corporations are embedding sustainability into their corporate strategies and they are striving for transformational, not incremental change – it’s not enough to simply map existing ‘corporate responsibility’ activities to the SDGs.

In fact, Novozymes was the one of the first, if not the first, company to fully embrace the SDGs holistically and throughout the company – to do so was bold at the time but is now the gold standard for the most sophisticated and enlightened global multinationals. The shift underway in the financial sector toward investing in sustainable, purpose-led companies is a critical driving force toward (not away from) sustainability. This shift took hold in climate but is spreading now to areas ranging from anti-microbial resistance to diversity and inclusion. One of the ‘cutting edge’ challenges now is the need for transformational system change at tremendous speed and scale, but how to put that into practice is where we need to rapidly evolve new forms of innovation and collaboration and for everyone to stretch outside our comfort zones.

Q: UN Foundation and BCUN have worked alongside both Novozymes and HelloScience for several years now: What are the stand-out elements from HelloScience’s activities that most resonate with you?

A: Openness, scientific inquiry, creativity, collaboration, commitment, and passion are what stand out about HelloScience. Of course, at the UN Foundation and BCUN we were thrilled to see this investment grounded in solutions for the SDGs.

But beyond that I have been impressed by the open-source approach of HelloScience. The initiative is also bringing fresh thinking and new voices into the world of sustainability and global development. It has covered a lot of ground since its founding. Finally, it has a cheery and a bit cheeky culture – HelloScience stories exude the excitement of discovery which we need to sustain the energy and focus required to achieve the SDGs.

Q: As we end 2020, and look forward to “building back better” in 2021, from your long experience combining business approaches with international development, where do you see innovative corporate partnerships making the biggest positive impact?

A: The collaboration between competitors that emerged in response to the pandemic is intriguing and ideally will remain. Issue-based industry coalitions and cross-industry collaborations on climate, food systems etc. have the potential to drive truly transformative, widespread change – in both policy and practice.

We need nothing short of this in order to achieve the kind of impact the world expects on big complex issues such as climate change, global health and meaningfully tackling inequality. Insofar as we need to build back not only better, but differently – I will say perhaps provocatively, that at this juncture, many of us need to have the ‘courage to be second’, to find a way to foster adaptation of the most promising innovations and solutions regardless of the innovator, company or country that originated it.