Alice Cope is the Executive Director at the Global Compact Network Australia and was previously a Policy and Sustainability Advisor at the UN Global Compact in New York. In our interview, Alice discussed how to navigate through your career as a young professional and identified ways young Australians can help drive sustainable development and corporate sustainability.
1. You are currently the Executive Director of the UN Global Compact Network Australia. Could you tell us more about the Global Compact Network does and elaborate on what your role as Executive Director entails?
The United Nations Global Compact is the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative, seeking to mobilise a movement of companies to create a sustainable future. We ask companies to operate responsibly by aligning their strategies and operations with ten core sustainability principles in the areas of human rights, labour, the environment and anti-corruption, and to advance broader societal goals such as the Sustainable Development Goals. The Global Compact is both a practical framework for action and a platform for demonstrating corporate commitment and leadership.
The UN Global Compact localises its activities through business-led country networks – in Australia, that’s the Global Compact Network Australia, which I lead. The GCNA brings together signatories to the UN Global Compact in Australia – which includes companies, non-profits and universities – to build capacity and dialogue around corporate sustainability issues and support the private sector’s contribution to sustainable development. We do this through a platform for dialogue, learning and influence, and provide a meeting point for companies, stakeholders and experts to learn from each other, share challenges, build best practice, and collaborate. We also engage with government around relevant policy.
As Executive Director, I work closely with our Board of Directors, members and other stakeholders to develop and oversee the roll out of our program of work, support members on their sustainability journey, identify and share leading sustainability practices, build awareness and membership of the Global Compact, and identify opportunities for policy engagement. We’re a small team, so it’s busy and we all end up having a hand in lots of things!
2. What was your career path leading up to today and how did the decisions you made as a young professional impact where you are now?
I studied economics, finance and law at Adelaide University, and then after graduating, I moved to Melbourne and spent around 6½ years working as a corporate lawyer. I never planned on heading in the direction I did, but having realised a strong interest in strategic communications and stakeholder engagement through my legal work, I decided to enroll in a Masters of Communication. Wanting to bring my passion for social and environmental issues, my love of working with the private sector, and my interest in stakeholder engagement together then pulled me towards corporate sustainability – and having found myself in the Big Apple, I applied for a position at the UN Global Compact head office in New York. While I was there, I worked on a range of issues, including gender equality, supply chain sustainability and Indigenous rights – and I was sold. After a year in New York, I moved home, and did some business and human rights work for a mining company, before taking up the role leading the Global Compact Network Australia.
3. If we were to imagine that you are an undergraduate student nearing graduation, what advice would you give others looking to pursue a career in international relations?
It’s not always easy to juggle study and work, but if you can, seek out opportunities for internships or volunteering. If you get a chance to travel and gain work experience overseas, even better.
Be hungry to learn. Read a lot – and make sure you read different perspectives on issues. Go along to lectures and events. Develop strong writing skills (unfortunately this is missing in many job applicants we see, but really is a critical capability). Work out what you’re passionate about, but don’t worry if this changes over time. Having a career plan is good, but be open to opportunities that might not exactly fit the plan – they could take you in an even more interesting direction.
Recognise that you need to start somewhere and that’s most often in a really junior role. It’s great to be ambitious, but you just can’t start at the top. Find a role where there are great people who you can learn from, work hard, be a contributor and you’ll move forward.
4. What are your top tips on how to prepare for an interview?
First, know the organisation you are interviewing with – it’s always surprising how many people come to an interview and can’t give even a high-level overview of what we do.
It’s also important to understand how your past experiences can practically translate into success in the job you’re going for, especially for new graduates – for example, working in retail can indicate great communication skills and an ability to engage with difficult people.
Be honest! People who aren’t always come unstuck.
When asked the standard opening question of ‘tell me about yourself’, have a strong narrative that doesn’t just reel off your CV but which tells the story of how you’ve come to where you are, why you’d be a great fit for the role, and why the role is a great fit as a next step in that narrative.
And finally, ask questions – you’re interviewing the organisation just as much as they’re interviewing you.
5. What can young Australians do to help support and promote the Global Compact’s sustainable development agenda?
There are lots of ways young Australians can help drive sustainable development and corporate sustainability more specifically.
When you engage with businesses – as a customer, as an employee, as an investor (such as through your super fund) or otherwise – check out their sustainability credentials. Ask them about their ethical sourcing practices, how they minimise their environmental footprint, how they’re supporting communities, and whether they are working towards the Sustainable Development Goals (you can even ask them specifically if they’re a UN Global Compact signatory).
More generally, learn about the SDGs. It’s an exciting new global agenda, and we’re keen to build awareness in Australia and get everyone behind it. There are also specific channels for young people to engage in these agendas and discussions, including the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) Youth initiative (SDSN Youth) and UN Association of Australia (UNAA) and their Young Professionals program (UNAA Young Professionals).