Kate Horspool, Ph.D.
Program Director, Chemistry Sustainable Business & Innovation Nike
Education: BS, Chemistry, George Mason Ph.D., Physical Chemistry, Northeastern University
What do you believe is one of our society’s greatest challenges in sustainability today?
I think there are opportunities to make sustainable advances, but we need to be better at incentivizing businesses to take risks to try something new and to share between industries. And consumers need to be educated that if a company is taking a risk to do something new and different to impact sustainability, then to give them credit by choosing the greener option.
Tell us about your work in green chemistry and/or sustainability.
I am the Program Director for Chemistry in the Sustainable Business Innovation Group at Nike. It is an amazing group of people who are committed to making a difference in the Nike product. Whether it’s in recycled materials or in the chemistry we use or in manufacturing processes, the team is committed to decreasing our footprint and making the best product we can. Specifically, what I do is look at at all chemistries, including how we use chemistry in our supply chain for footwear and apparel and equipment. I help to provide direction to the business on what chemistries we could innovate to get out of and which chemistries are better chemistry options for our manufacturing processes season product lines.
How does your work contribute to sustainability?
I think when people think of chemistry they think of the drum of chemistry and the immediate hazard to the environment and the factory worker. One of the things that we consider when we look at chemistry is recyclability—or the life cycle of the product from a high level view of the chemistry. We look at how the chemistry affects the product and ask if we being intentional. So, the chemistry is not just the drum of chemistry but how it affects the product from the day the product is made to the day it’s put into the landfill.
What is the most exciting or satisfying part of your job?
Seeing our products on store shelves or being out in our supply chain or factory phase and knowing I contributed to making them better is really exciting. It is amazing to encounter an athlete on Nike’s campus endorsing a product that I influenced through chemistry. He probably has no idea that we changed chemistry 1 for chemistry 2, but does recognize the product feels and looks great and is meeting expectations. That is super cool. From the satisfying standpoint—I am coach 9 and 10 year old girls with the nonprofit Girls on the Run. I love watching their faces when they learn that I’m a Ph.D. in chemistry, because apparently I don’t look like what they think a Ph.D. in chemistry looks like. And, then it kind of blows their mind when I tell them I’m a chemist at Nike.
Have you had a mentor, or educator that was particularly inspirational whom helped to influence your career choices?
When I started to working for NAVAIR our department Stephen Spadora was amazing. He was really good at the balance of pushing the envelope and changing the manufacturing environment while understanding all the different groups affected by a change. He demonstrated how to listen and address legitimate concerns. It was not about forcing change rather to obtain buy-in and to get buy-in requires listening and addressing concerns.
Knowing what you know now, are there skills that you would recommend to a student pursuing training in that you wish you had upon entering an industrial career?
I think it is important for students to have some real-world experiences and problems to solve where there isn’t a right answer—or maybe there isn’t an answer at all. And to learn to come up with recommendations based on the information available and to relay those solutions to people who may even be senior leaders. Additionally, I cannot think of one example during my education where we had to find someone in the business department and the industrial engineering department and the chemistry department in order to work together on a problem statement and demonstrate a complete picture of a solution. That happens in industry all the time—rarely will one be successful working in a bubble. I don’t know if we do a good job of stressing this in school.
Have you noticed challenges within your own work/life balance that might be unique to women in professional careers? How have you addressed these challenges?
I believe in creating work-life balance. I think women may be more prone to becoming unbalanced. I think it is really easy for working moms to get the job done, to make sure the children have everything they need, and then forget the things that they need. My girlfriends and I train for triathlons together. We laugh and think it’s insane that 15 hours of training is what we consider “me” time, but it is. I think it’s important to dedicate time to do whatever it is that interests you. I think it makes for a better employee and mom.
What advice would you give to a young woman today navigating a career in green chemistry and sustainability?
To anyone I would say be passionate about what you do. Listen and learn from the people around you. And at the same time do not be afraid to speak up and the people around you. And at the same time do not be afraid to speak up and contribute to the conversation. Be sure to find a mentor or someone you respect and make sure you are making time to connect with them. Finally, check in with yourself. It’s okay to re-evaluate and change paths. I had several different career path before I found the one where I said, this is it!.