By Susan Hitchcock
Founder & Host Emerita of Women in Leadership
Professionally, Elizabeth Rowe is engaged in what might be described as a “hot” – but often divisive – field. While her business is environmental management consulting, perhaps her vision statement best defines her true focus. In her own words, Elizabeth says, “I’m passionate about creating climate change policy solutions that work collaboratively with diverse stakeholders to build resilient solutions.”
Hers is an interesting and inspiring story of how she came to her career path and her specific area of focus – as well as what distinguishes her perspective and consulting work from others in her field. She’s much more a climate change ‘whisperer’ than a die-hard environmentalist.
It’s not clear if growing up in a military family, living abroad, or attending 9 schools had any particular impact on Elizabeth’s choices regarding higher education or career path. However, what is clear is that the time she spent in the rural South definitely had an impact, specifically time with her maternal grandfather around Statesboro, GA. “He was my environmental teacher and inspiration,” Elizabeth said. “My grandfather has a natural respect for the land, sustainability and recycling. A favorite memory of mine is seeing him stop near someone’s house where there were unpicked blueberries. He’d pick a bucket full and then return them to the people plus keep some. Today, while my grandfather and I don’t share the same views on certain subjects, I still look up to him and he’ll always be a major influence for me.”
When it was time for college, Elizabeth chose Agnes Scott College (ASC) in Decatur, GA. It turned out to be serendipitous that there was a new sustainability focus on campus spearheaded by an outstanding climate advocate who was Director of the Center for Sustainability – Susan Kidd.
Susan became a role model for Elizabeth. In 2015 after Elizabeth graduated, Susan became her boss when Elizabeth accepted a position as a Sustainability Fellow. In addition to her admiration for Susan Kidd, what Elizabeth loved about her time at ASC is the practicality and “real world” nature of her experiences there. (Note: After a distinguished career Susan Kidd retired in 2022.)
In 2018 to pursue a master’s degree in her chosen field, Elizabeth enrolled in one of the very few – and very expensive – programs of its kind in the country – Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “I was extremely proud and felt like I’d found my people. However, I came to realize that the program wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t just that it was hard, it was supposed to be a policy and economics program but I really got an economics degree! All the while, my personal interests were more pragmatic.”
Elizabeth received her master’s degree in 2020 including a Certificate in Climate Science. While her program may have not been what she expected, she learned two very important things: (1) how U.S. policy works, and (2) confidence to respond to related questions and the perspective of ‘assume you know nothing in your approach to research or new things.’
Finding her path
Now ready to jump into the job market and start her career, Elizabeth found the timing was clearly “not good.” At this time during the pandemic, many organizations simply weren’t hiring and the option of working on her own wasn’t appealing. “I wasn’t getting good advice and I wasn’t willing to settle,” Elizabeth said. “Fortunately I found some small consulting jobs with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).”
Based in the U.S. EDF is one of the world’s largest nonprofits founded in 1967 and its mission is to “preserve the natural systems on which all life depends,” i.e., the entire biosphere. Working with the EFP, “One project led to another and I began to cobble together not only a series of meaningful projects – but also a career.”
Somewhat surprising herself, Elizabeth discovered that she loves consulting. She also liked the flexibility and autonomy of choosing her own projects – leading her to start her own consulting firm in April, 2021 – E. Rowe Consulting, LLC.
Since then, she’s engaged in various projects looking at climate innovation and technology and strategic solutions particularly in rural communities. Among her EDF projects are rural attitude surveys and a current project involving interviews with over 25 community stakeholders across the country. All of Elizabeth’s work is related to climate change and she says, “It uses all of my skill sets and allows me to make recommendations that go from the ‘big picture’ to what’s actually happening on the ground at the community level.”
Making an impact
Reflecting on several special projects, Elizabeth highlighted her work with ASC and the City of Decatur. She’s proud of her role in facilitating a Climate Resilience Plan, a plan that in 2022 received national recognition for the collaboration between the college and the city.
Also in 2022, Elizabeth was interviewed by NPR and quoted in a piece about voluntary land conservation programs being turned into a culture war – an issue along the political divide. About turning up on NPR, she said, “I didn’t realize it was a professional goal of mine to be included in a NPR story until it happened!”
A more subtle example of Elizabeth’s impact is the positive feedback she’s received from some of her stakeholder interviews. “Typically, they’re very reluctant to even do the interview with me, but at the end, that feeling has completely changed. They have come to see me as a non-judgmental storyteller, not an environmentalist. That feedback is a personal ‘win’ to me.”
A similar example of how Elizabeth is able to build trust with those she interviews stems from her being on the ground with some N.C. hog farmers where a future “hog war” is possible. “The farmers there said no one like me had ever come to them and actually listened.” It’s clear that Elizabeth employs a different approach from others in her field with her more collaborative, non-judgmental demeanor.
If you want to know what excites Elizabeth, here’s an authentic response. “I’m seeing a paradigm shift at the community level,” she said with conviction, “from interviews I did while in grad school to the ones I’m doing now. People are no longer denying climate change and aren’t hung up on what’s causing it. They’re coming to see that without solutions, things will only get worse. And one thing a lot of farmers are looking forward to is Ford’s electric truck!”
Conversely, Elizabeth has plenty of concerns. “There’s a huge amount of federal money about to be available at the community level for conservation, etc. But without the proper structure or capacity to manage it, it will fail. There’s also a lot of misinformation across the spectrum.”
Elizabeth said she finds inspiration meeting with young women, students who are deeply interested in the environment and sustainability. However, one thing she doesn’t like is to see or hear anyone who believes in perfectionism (e.g., being completely carbon neutral, zero waste and vegan.) “As an individual, to be a perfect steward of the planet is an impossible goal. Unfortunately it’s a big concept in the environmental / sustainability field.”
As for any specific “audacious goals,” at this early stage of her career, Elizabeth is pleased to be where she is as a consultant with her own firm. She added, “I know the work in climate change can be depressing and so I practice strong boundaries. I’ve also learned to be flexible and to adapt. In the future, I trust myself to know the right next thing.”
Lastly Elizabeth said: “Should I ever burn out, my Plan B is to open a bookstore!” But anyone who knows her expects great things from her long before any possibility of this. Elizabeth actually seems quite wise and capable beyond her years with tremendous potential for the future. Applying her unique approach and perspective in her work, this climate change ‘whisperer’ is on her way to making a significant difference in her field.
Interview & Profile by: Susan Hitchcock, Founder of The Age of SHEroes
Explore more of Susan’s Shero interviews and articles by visiting Women in Leadership.