How Salem Afeworki of Value Sustainability built an international career

Salem Afeworki is the founder and program director at Value Sustainability, a Southern California based strategic consulting firm. Value Sustainability specializes in sustainable design, planning, climate change and community engagement.

Salem has over a decade of international experience, providing sustainability, climate change and community engagement services in the infrastructure, transportation, mining and energy sectors. Over the course of her career, Salem has conducted projects for a broad range of clients including Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Agency, the City of Long Beach and the Port of Long Beach.

In her role at Value Sustainability, Salem challenges her clients to set increasingly higher sustainability targets that grow their business and make a positive impact in society. Salem was awarded the 2016 Urban Land Institute Orange County/Inland Empire Emergent Leadership Award for the Category of Engineering and a Certificate of Recognition by Orange County’s Third District Supervisor Todd Spitzer.

Prior to founding her firm in Costa Mesa, Salem began her career with the United Nations and went on to hold management and senior consultant roles in engineering and financial services firms, both in the U.S and internationally. Salem serves as a member of various industry groups in the United States, including the American Society for Civil Engineers, Urban Land Institute and Women in Transportation.

I did my undergrad in Journalism minoring in Political Science in my home country Eritrea and later completed my Masters degree in Environmental Management with a specialization in Renewable Energy Application in Chile. Since moving to the United States in 2014 I have completed multiple leadership trainings in sustainability and climate change at University of California at Berkeley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Southern California.

My first job was working for the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea as a communication officer. It was my initial introduction to the international organization and expat world where I learned the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to problem solving. I also learned how diversity is extremely important in solving some of the world’s complex challenges. I remember my direct boss at that time was from Bosnia, her boss was from Ireland,the operational manager was from Austria, plus I had colleagues from Uruguay, Iran, Ukraine, Nigeria, India – I really loved it!

My career path totally changed once I completed my graduate studies in Environmental Management and joined KPMG Chile as a sustainability and climate change consultant. I remember we worked around the clock, auditing sustainability reports for multinationals, trying to meet impossible deadlines. On the upside, I got to learn about the business case for sustainability and worked for various industries, including energy, mining, telecommunication, banking and transportation.

The one project that completely transformed my life was developing a sustainability strategy for Metro Santiago, Chile. This allowed me to get into transportation, infrastructure and sustainability. Through that experience I learned firsthand how to capture and quantify the value of sustainability from an economic, environmental and social perspective.

After leaving the auditing world I joined SKM, an Australian engineering firm that was later acquired by Jacobs, and worked as a Sustainability Lead for South America and then in business development and marketing at Jacobs California office.

What I learned while working for AEC firms was the importance of communicating clearly how sustainability benefits the project, such as cost savings and risk management, so that the project can be completed on time and budget. I also acquired valuable skills by putting together multimillion dollar bid packages for public sector clients. I learned the importance of constantly educating colleagues, clients and communities why we should care about sustainability.

As a small business owner and consultant my life revolves around projects. Most of time, I’m working on a project that we have already won or putting together a proposal to win a project by teaming with firms. I also attend events to promote the services my firm offers. Even though it might get hectic at time, I enjoy doing different things within the same a day.

A project I’m currently working on that I’m really excited about is communicating the economic benefits of electric vehicles, especially in underserved communities in Los Angeles. Through a grant I recently received from E2, the business arm of Natural Resources Defense Fund, the project aims to advance the science of clean energy communication, help leaders communicate more effectively, and increase the public’s understanding of electric vehicle risks and opportunities.

The project’s main goal is to understand the viewpoints of disadvantaged communities on electric vehicle technology and work to tailor the messaging to address concerns so we can “clean up and green up” the most polluted and underserved neighborhoods.

When I’m not working I love travelling! I am a nomad at heart and I enjoy meeting people from all walks of life and discovering new places with my husband. I also enjoy a good book or movie after a hot yoga class!

I’m inspired by professionals. I’m especially inspired by women that started from humble beginnings or have gone through a life-changing trauma but yet, found a niche to specialize in and they came out strong and successful. Not all of us are lucky to be born in the right circumstances, but it takes courage to go against the odds and succeed.

This isn’t easy to answer, but I would say the capacity to find a common ground with anyone I meet is my secret talent. Having lived in many countries and worked with all sorts of clients, I have fine tuned the skill to find at least one thing to relate to someone despite the differences in age, ethnicity, religion or language.

A friend of mine a few years back made me see the importance of building one’s tribe and connecting with people that care about the same thing. There is strength in unity and there is no limit to what can be achieved together, advancing sustainability while helping our businesses grow.

My biggest achievement in my life is not to be scared of failure, as true growth comes from learning from our mistakes. In my career, I have knocked on all sorts of doors. Some were instantly shut but some, the most unexpected ones, opened and have given me a life changing opportunities. Never be scared to take a calculated risk, most of them do pay off with time.

Looking ahead, I would like to create an enduring legacy by building a resilient infrastructure and communities. I believe entrepreneurs plays a major role in leading the change we want to see in “business as usual.” Organized and empowered communities can influence policy makers to adopt a better, more efficient, equitable and sustainable framework for development.

I must say my career path is not conventional and I still find it difficult to explain what I do in a short sentence. All the experiences I have had led me here and that I am grateful for those learning opportunities that allowed me to find my passion. Sustainability for me is doing what we do better, being mindful of our actions and constantly seeking for opportunities that are good for business, communities and the environment.

You can find Salem on LinkedIn here.

Breaking news…Salem Afeworki has been selected as a top 10 finalist for the CitizenE grant to develop a cloud-based Electric Vehicle communication and resources tool for underserved communities in Los Angeles. Once completed, the project will allow families access affordable electric cars, benefit from rebate programs while fostering inclusive, clean and sustainable economic development in the greater Los Angeles area. Vote for Salem here.


Interview by Octavia Goredema @OctaviaGoredema

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