This Filipino Environmental Scientist is One of the World's Top Sustainability Leaders
Whether it’s become evident or not, a green revolution has erupted across the globe. Developed countries such as the Scandinavian nations, Japan, and Switzerland lead the pack when it comes to sustainable practices. The Philippines is catching up with the movement through projects as simple as the installation of refilling stations to replace plastic packaging or the making eco-friendly tools readily available to the public.
While individuals are slowly subscribing to more sustainable practices, Filipino environmental scientist Janice Lao has been converting corporations and businesses to tread greener paths for the past 15 years.
Janice Lao stands next to a copy of Everyday Superheroes: Women in STEM Careers, an American children's book she is featured in.
When Town&Country met Lao, she was a few months fresh from her win as the Edie Sustainability Leader of the Year, the first Asian to ever be awarded. Last year, Forbes listed her as one of the world’s top female sustainability leaders. Accolades aside, Lao’s greatest achievements are in the everyday changes she’s been helping implement in major businesses worldwide. She is currently the director of corporate responsibility and sustainability of the Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels brand, which directly operates the Peninsula Hotels and other luxury properties. Her work is to solve the hindrances that the hotels face when it comes to sustainable practices. At present, she spends her days in the kitchen, finding ways to incorporate sustainable seafood into the hotel menu.
Lao has developed a very pragmatic way to solve these problems, labeling them as the “knowns” and “unknowns,” as she would in a math word problem. There are days she’s collaborating with different departments of the hotel while other days she spends at the corporate office, conducting further research on the problems she’s aiming to fix. She then goes back to the departments and presents them with options and tools they may use.
Lao proudly holds on to her Edie Sustainability Leaders Award in 2019
“Everyone has to understand why we’re doing [what we do]—from the waiters to the board,” she explains. There might be a good cause but Lao makes it a point to sell the idea well enough to make everyone believe in it because only then will it stick.
“I want to be able to create as much change in business as I can,” she says, “If you’re going to scale something massive, I think business is the way to do it.” She's right. Unlike the government, businesses have the manpower and structure in place to make long term commitments, she’s learned. “They’re the ones who can scale that [change] the fastest.”
Tale of Two Teachers
As sure as she is of what she wants to achieve in her career, Lao’s path was not always defined. Armed with a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Science from Ateneo de Manila, Lao was leaning toward either becoming a researcher or professor. It was during her time at the University of Oxford that she had the opportunity to marry both science and business. While at the prestigious university, she took up a masters program in Environmental Change and Management, with a diploma in business from the Oxford Saïd Business School. An internship at the World Resources Institute made up her mind. She was tasked with looking for ways for banks to become more sustainable and researching on which green investments are worth taking a closer look at. From then on, she never looked back and was determined to become a businesswoman for her science.
With her background, however, she admits studying abroad was never in the equation. “We had no connections, we couldn’t afford it, and [I] didn’t even dream about these things because I had to manage my expectations,” she says.
Lao with her parents, Francis and Estrellita, during her Oxford graduation
She’s the youngest of two children, and both her parents were the first college graduates in their families. Her father, Francis, is a first-generation Filipino-Chinese mechanical engineer from Maguindanao and her mother, Estrellita, hails from Leyte. Her parents did everything they could to provide a loving environment for their children—a space where they could learn and “there was no such thing as a stupid question” at home. When Janice entered first grade, she was surprised by the way her teacher treated her curiosity. “Nagulat lang ako na nagalit yung teacher na ‘don’t ask me anymore questions,'” she said, “And I believed that narrative.”
(“I was surprised when my teacher scolded me: 'don't ask me anymore questions,'” she said, “And I believed that narrative.”)
Estrellita Lao, Janice Lao, and Francis Lao
Five-year-old Janice delivers a speech as the top student of her class at her pre-school graduation
If her story started with one teacher, it took another teacher to empower her once more. After shifting three times and finally deciding to complete her degree in Environmental Science in Ateneo, Lao was presented with a challenge: She was told not to take a certain thesis adviser if she wanted an Easy A. Being the overachiever that she is, she took the difficult adviser. “I wanted to learn as much as possible and if I failed, at least I would fail under the teacher who was known for being demanding of his students—there was no failure in this situation.” The aforementioned adviser accepted her only if she was willing to work on her thesis one year in advance. Not only did she ace her thesis on breaking down the chemical make of tricycle emissions, her professor—an Oxford alum— encouraged her to pursue her Master’s Degree at Oxford and even provided her with a glowing recommendation.
Lao receives the Global Sustainable Leadership Award in Mumbai in February 2015.
Raising the Next Generation of Science and Math Lovers
Now with children of her own, Lao inspires her daughter Esther and son Isaac to follow in her footsteps and develop a love for science.
Nature is her greatest inspiration for her work, she tells us, and it’s also the easiest and most practical way to pass on that passion to young ones. An afternoon at the park or a family vacation to the Great Wall of China can easily be turned into a science lesson on oscillation and scaling, respectively.
Lao shares that she makes her children work for their leisurely iPad minutes by completing a code. “They don’t have to be an environmental scientist—that’s fine with me. [They] can be a journalist and still have a love for science and write about it. [They] don’t have to be mathematicians, they can be lawyers and decide to love math,” she says. “I want my kids to understand the magic of science so they don’t get intimidated by it.”
With husband Mike and children Esy and Isaac at the Great Wall of China
Children can be anything they aspire to be. This is the general message that the children’s book, Everyday Superheroes: Women in STEM Careers aims to impart. Lao is a character and the only Filipina scientist featured in this book by Joshua Sneideman and Erin Twamley. Here are Lao's own tips to raising lovers of science and math:
1. Reflect. Relate math and science to your everyday.
2. Observe. Know what your child loves.
3. Choose and deduce. Words matter—yours and theirs.
4. Experiment. Practice makes perfect but make practice fun.
5. Discover together. Go out into the world and learn the manifestations of science and math outside malls.
6. Nurture faith. To raise lovers of nature reveals that science and math are merely man’s way to explain the works of our Creator.
7. Raise problem solvers and creators, not shoppers or consumers.
8. Give and take. For every action is an equal and opposite reaction.
Everyday Superheroes: Women in STEM Careers is available at bookstores nationwide and on Amazon.com.