The She Word: Winnie Lam, helping Google do the right thing for the planet
Editor’s Note: The She Word is a Keyword series all about dynamic and creative women at Google. This week, Google and the World Wildlife Fund announced the Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online. We sat down with Winnie Lam, who works on our environmental sustainability team, to learn more about this effort and what it means to be the “Captain of Earthly Elements” (her actual title) at Google.
How do you explain your job at a dinner party?
I’m responsible for environmental sustainability for Google data centers. My team’s job is to help Google do the right thing for the planet.
Have you always been interested in sustainability?
My dad’s first business was a car junkyard—he’d buy the cars that didn’t work and sell the parts. The concept of “reuse and recycle” was part of everything he did, and a big part of my upbringing. My whole family now works in that business.
Tell us about the years-long journey to the formation of the Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online.
In 2012, I led an effort to ban the sale of ivory through Google ads and Google Shopping. I'm not an expert on the ivory issue, so I sought help from World Wildlife Fund, and we dreamed of getting other tech companies to ban ivory and illegal wildlife products. This vision started taking shape at an inaugural meeting with WWF and major tech companies to stop wildlife trafficking online. And now 21 companies across North America, Asia, Europe, and Africa have joined the fight against wildlife trafficking.
How’d you come up with your job title?
I gave myself the title “Captain of Earthly Elements,” because in my job, I work with the four classic elements: earth, water, air and fire.
You’ve been at Google for 13 years! What has kept you here?
I’ve had many roles over 13 years—from site reliability engineering to product management for our ads products to my current role. I’ve been very lucky that I can align personal and professional goals in the same job, and I’ve had several 20 percent projects (side projects that Googlers can dedicate part of their time to) that involve one of my biggest passions, animals. The effort to ban ivory started as a 20 percent project, actually.
Wow, what started as a 20 percent project is now a global coalition. Can you tell us about any other fun 20 percent projects?
For a few years, I recruited Googlers to go on a trip to Belize to measure the turtle population, along with scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society—that was a fun one.
What other things do you do in your free time?
I’m an artist and a musician. When I bought my house, I couldn’t find any furniture that I liked, so I decided to design my own. Now the environment is inspiration for my art—a couple of years ago when California was in an extreme drought, I dressed up as an artificial lawn for Halloween (handmade costume!). Couldn’t turn down the opportunity to make that statement.
What’s one habit that makes you successful?
I keep my eyes on the outcome, and always look for something in common with people. Not everyone cares about the environment as much as I do, but I can find common ground. For example, energy efficiency saves money, which can appeal to someone who works in finance, even if the environment isn’t a top priority for them.
What advice do you have for women starting out in their careers?
There’s no career path—you invent it, it’s in your hands. Figure out what demand there is for the thing you’re passionate about, and how your skills and network can be used.
Who has been a strong female influence in your life?
I’ve had many mentors along the way. I grew up going to an all-girls school, so female influences were everywhere in my life. Women as leaders were the norm. I once met Jane Goodall at a conference and had 60-second conversation with her about my idea to approach chefs in San Francisco, and ask them to stop serving bluefin tuna at their restaurant. She looked at me and said, "That's the only way to do it." She gave me confidence and validation to keep going, and I haven't stopped since.