Nerd Profile: 3M Sustainability Director Maureen Tholen
“I think I love engineering because it’s inherently problem solving.”
When 3M tells you – an upstart STEM blogger – that they “love what you are doing to help inspire a future generation of Nerds like us,” you are not only flattered, but you also feel compelled to find out… why, exactly?
Last fall, the innovative giant formerly known as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company reached out to Raising Nerd to raise awareness for its long-standing commitment to building a culture of sustainability, wonder, and purpose-driven business. As part of that commitment, 3M has adopted a motto (“Business on Purpose”), and an approach that emphasizes the importance of always asking “What if?”
This, of course, is a worldview we curious Nerds heartily embrace!
So, when Raising Nerd ventured once again to the Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York, we interviewed 3M Sustainability Director Maureen Tholen, who later headlined an FCNY panel titled Science for Good: How Big and Small Purpose-Driven Companies are Innovating with Social Impact.
Tholen, a chemical engineer, started out as a technical service engineer at 3M more than three decades ago working with adhesives and labeling materials. Today, Maureen’s Sustainability division has a worthy but ambitious goal of “improving our business, our planet, and every life.” To meet that goal, her team actively pursues collaboration with other 3M divisions as well as innovators outside the company.
We support the idea of constant learning and that failure doesn’t have to be the end. You’ve learned what doesn’t work. You keep going.
After our interview, we had the distinct honor of taking some fun photos with Maureen in front of 3M’s cool “Wonder Wall” installation. The floor-to-ceiling, digital light wall was meant to inspire creative movement while helping people imagine the power of wonder and “what if?” in their own lives (with its cascading light and Festival-related tweets, it also reminded us of the Matrix rain code).
Thanks again to 3M and Maureen for sharing their perspective on the importance of wonder and sustainability in everyday life as well as in business. Nerd on!
Raising Nerd: Raising Nerd believes curiosity is the cornerstone of being a Nerd. Can you give detail how curiosity serves as driving force at 3M?
Maureen Tholen: I started 32 years ago in tech service in Engineering. It’s a role that is customer facing, a role that helps our customers solve their problems. They may be looking for an adhesive or a film, a connector or a coating, whatever it might be. So it’s a problem-solving role. From day one, I knew our employees were empowered, were encouraged and were expected to actually be curious and wonder about things to help people solve problems. It is part of our culture because we are such a science-based company, you are inherently curious and wondering about things and looking for solutions.
RN: How is 3M working to inspire that next generation of engineers and scientists?
MT: Anywhere we can provide a hands-on experience, that’s where real inspiration happens. There are a number of ways we try to inspire young scientists, including developing annual events around the theme of science experiments, which are great for generating ideas for future solutions and technologies.
We bring kids with their projects onsite to 3M headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota. The kids take a tour of our innovation center and get an idea of how we pursue innovation. They showcase their own projects and experiments. The ones that win get an opportunity to shadow a scientist at the company to see what they do to keep that inspiration going (this usually happens in October).
We also send our “visiting wizards” to elementary schools. Our scientists/employees will go to local elementary and middle schools to conduct science experiments for the students. The program runs in any community where 3M employees are nationally. Whether it’s adhesives or film, [we showcase] anything having to do with science and 3M’s core competencies. It’s hands-on and a great outreach program. Our employees love it, especially when it’s their own kids’ schools.
For older students, we do on-campus college recruiting events and work with PHD programs to fund research.
We’re also focusing more and more on trade skills given that there’s a need for STEM programs at the high school and technical school levels. This allows us to reach someone that’s interested in going into fields like electrical, plumbing, construction, or welding. There’s a lot of science that goes into those kinds of roles. And there are big gaps in trade skills right now for a lot of industries and in many countries. It’s a win-win for 3M because we hire a lot of people in our manufacturing plants in those kinds of roles and we make a lot of products used by those industries.
RN: What does sustainability mean to you and 3M?
MT: For us, it’s really a broad definition. A lot of people immediately think of the environmental side of sustainability, and that’s definitely a piece of it. It might be saving energy, saving water, reducing waste, and reducing use of raw materials. It’s all those things.
But there’s also a lot of social impact too, and that’s, in fact, what we’re highlighting here at this Fast Company Innovation event. The social side of things – the purpose-driven aspects of our business – aim to help improve people’s health and safety, provide education and training, etc. There’s not a lot of “product” content directly involved, but it’s still an opportunity for 3M.
We have a lot of expertise within the company – many experts in different subject matter areas who share that expertise and are educating people. For example, there’s a project that I’m working on with cool roofing granules. They are special granules that have coating that can reflect solar heat. So on asphalt shingles, those can make a difference for a house by saving energy, but it can also impact urban heat island issues, which is a big public health concern. In fact, the number one cause of weather-related deaths in the US in recent years has been heat related. And it’s usually vulnerable populations affected, like the elderly, the very young, or somebody with existing medical issues.
So, sustainability isn’t just about recycling and reducing waste. More and more, it’s also about social impacts.
RN: What do you see as the biggest challenge when it comes to sustainability right now?
MT: You can pick any area, like waste or handling waste. If you’re going to be a zero-waste facility, it’s hard. You need to consider the whole ecosystem. In other words, it’s not just deciding you’ll handle it on your own, you have to ask “Where are all those waste streams from different kind of materials coming from?”
So, [waste management] takes a lot of collaboration from different organizations. There might be non-governmental groups getting involved and local governments or municipalities offering recycling options. These issues – any of them – are not easy to solve alone. They take a collective group.
RN: What do you see as the biggest sustainability challenge over the next 10 years?
MT: I think we’re seeing the beginning points of some of these challenges as our population grows. I think they are just going to [increase]. There’s going to be more demand for energy. More waste. More different kinds of waste. Access to clean water. I think we’re still going to be working to solve those things. Again, it’s going to take ecosystems of partners from different areas coming together to solve these issues.
RN: Does 3M have those kinds of partners now?
MT: Yes, cool roofing is an example of one such 3M partnership. The city of Los Angeles had put in an ordinance in place a little over a year ago to require cool roofs be installed in the city of LA. When the city established that ordinance, it was going to require collaboration among many organizations.
3M is now working with Climate Resolve, an NGO that’s very much focused on protecting vulnerable populations, helping to do science-based research on where those populations are and where we need to focus our efforts. We’re working with government officials in the governor’s office and other people in the area that make the different building codes. Because you don’t want to propose a solution that isn’t cost-effective, or isn’t viable, or that doesn’t have a supply chain to implement it. We’ve also been working with our industry partners, because we don’t actually make asphalt shingles or install them. We just produce the special roofing granules – the beginning piece.
“[A childlike mentality] means staying curious, having a never-ending pursuit of learning and asking “Why?” or “What if?” or thinking “Gee, I wonder about that.”
RN: What kinds of skills are needed for the next generation to solve these problems?
MT: I love engineering fields – really, any of them. I’m a chemical engineer from training. My son is going into mechanical engineering and my daughter is going into engineering mechanics. My husband is a chemical engineer.
I think I love engineering because it’s inherently problem solving. And I think the biggest thing people will need moving forward is adaptability to learning as well as constant learning, because the biggest challenges will be that their jobs are going to be reinvented at rates we’ve never seen before.
Even the sustainability role I’ve been in for the past several years will change. Five years ago, 3M didn’t have anybody that was designated in this role. We were certainly doing a lot of those kinds of initiatives, but it wasn’t gathered together that way or communicated that way. I think there’s going to be an increase in these kinds of jobs.
Right now, I do a lot of things internally and externally, like communicating with different expert resources to find solutions to challenges across many areas, like health care, automotive, etc. They are experts in their specific areas, but a lot of what they do can inspire solutions for other areas. Sometimes seeing an idea that someone else is working on might be useful in another area creating a cross-pollination of ideas.
I do the same [kinds of communication] externally too. A lot of what 3M does is trying to educate through science-based research that either we have done or somebody else has. Because sometimes – like in my cool roofing example – many people are not even aware of the problem. And once they know, [we have to ask] what are some of the things we can do about it? So, that education and communication piece is so critical.
RN: 3M talks about how we all can face our biggest challenges through persistence, creativity, and “childlike” curiosity. What does having a childlike curiosity mean to you and how does it drive 3M’s development process?
MT: [A childlike mentality] means staying curious, having a never-ending pursuit of learning and asking “Why?” or “What if?” or thinking “Gee, I wonder about that.” That’s why 3M is focused on wonder, like we are here at this Fast Company event. It also means having a purpose and just always being open. Not getting jaded or thinking “We’ve already tried that.”
We try to be supportive of an open mind because you really never know where you’re going to end up. We support the idea of constant learning and that failure doesn’t have to be the end. You’ve learned what doesn’t work. You keep going. You think, “That was the outcome, so now what I do?”
RN: What hands-on learning resources would you recommend for parents looking to inspire and challenge their kids?
MT: In our house, music was a huge piece. Our kids needed to at least try it. But music is such a link to doing awesome in math and science. The brain link between those things is definitely there. It’s also a good down time to rest the mind.