EMC’s Kathrin Winkler oversees sustainability in technology
This leader has always worked to learn at the speed of technology. Her latest role brings her to the intersection of environment and society
'I need someone who knows what the elephant looks like.”
Kathrin Winkler was being considered for a position as a technical lead for a large project that crossed many product groups. “There were people who had amazing, deep expertise in all these products, and I didn’t understand why they wanted me. That was the answer I got,” she remembers.
“I have experts in ears, experts in tusks, and I have the world’s best people in elephant feet,” she was told, “but I need someone who can see what the whole elephant looks like.”
“I never forgot that answer,” she says. “It really applies to many of the jobs I’ve had, but especially to the one I have now.”
Winkler is a senior vice president of sustainability at cloud computing company EMC Corporation (Hopkinton, MA). “My role is chief sustainability officer,” she explains. “My responsibility is to our sustainability strategy, or how we maximize the value we’re creating for our shareholders and stakeholders, including our employees, customers, communities, suppliers and more.”
For the past six years, she has truly been responsible for looking at the whole picture: understanding the relationship between EMC and the world around it at “the intersection of business, environment and society. We take a strategic approach to prioritizing what we do, figuring out gaps and opportunities. I’m the chief cheerleader to really instill sustainability into that strategy,” she says.
An impressive to-do list
Some of her time is spent working at the industry level, engaging with organizations like the Green Grid Association and the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC). “We share best practices and figure out how we’re performing as an industry and where there are opportunities to make change.”
She also participates in work groups at EMC, “pushing the envelope to explore things that haven’t been done before. For example, we have a team exploring how companies use carbon pricing and how it could be of value to EMC to do the same thing.”
She does a lot of writing, including a couple of blogs. “I report to the corporate governance and nominating committee of EMC’s board of directors twice a year about sustainability within the company and outside. Issues range from reducing our emission of greenhouse gases, to how we drive sustainability into our products, to human rights in IT and how we help ensure the rights of users as well as the workers in our supply chain.”
Four people report directly to Wink-ler. One technologist drives the energy efficiency strategy in EMC’s product portfolio. The other three are program managers. One is responsible for data governance and consistency.
“That person focuses on the role of IT in society,” Winkler elaborates. “How do we capture, articulate and ultimately measure the impact that IT has from a societal and environmental perspective? If you look at any industry, one of the things underlying energy efficiency is IT, whether it’s electric cars, the next generation grid or transport efficiency. Another example is cloud computing, which not only offers energy efficiency in the IT infrastructure, but also creates a more resilient platform that governments can use to deliver services.”
Surrounded by smarts
Winkler was born in Manhattan but grew up in New Jersey. “When I was very young, it never crossed my mind that I would be anything other than a doctor,” remembers Winkler. “Nearly everybody else in my family is a doctor and I didn’t get exposed to much else. I was so proud that my mother was a doctor because it was very uncommon then.”
She says her family members were her role models, particularly her brother, who did not go into medicine. “He’s a mathematician, very left-brained like I am. The problem solving, analytic approach to the world was something I took to as a young person, and as the computer industry developed I realized I could actually do something with that.”
She recalls, “My older brother and sister competed to see how much they could cram into my brain. I love to learn, and everyone in the computer industry is learning together.”
A turning point
Winkler was already a pre-med student at Brown University (Providence, RI) when she decided that medicine wasn’t for her. She had a friend who told her how much she would love working with computers, but there were no computer science courses at the time. She joined Digital Equipment Corporation (Maynard, MA) in 1976 as a field service technician.
“I hate to say this,” she admits, “but Digital was relaxing its standards in order to bring technical women into the field. When I first came in, they didn’t expect much from me and just hoped that I wouldn’t blow anything up. That pissed me off. They put me through training and I did well, even against the demon of low expectations.”
Even so, she says, “I was there nineteen years. I grew personally and professionally and am nothing but thankful for the opportunities Digital gave me.”
In 1995, Winkler moved into consulting at Renaissance Worldwide (Waltham, MA). She did a mix of analytical and business consulting work and became interested in the business of technology. She left Renaissance in 1999 for a brief stint at a small startup consulting company.
In 2001, Winkler joined a digital security startup in Woburn, MA as technical marketing manager. “I love security,” she enthuses. “It’s so geeky and left-brained. The woman who was the CEO was fabulous, a real role model for how to manage a team. It was the first time I really felt like I was in a group that was defined by a culture of teamwork.”
The company was being funded by angel investors. “Our CEO had her first meeting with an institutional investor on Friday, and the following Tuesday I had interviews set up with analysts to launch our product; then two planes flew into the Twin Towers and everything stopped.”
The company did not survive the next six months and dissolved in May 2002. Meanwhile, someone with whom Winkler had worked at Digital was now at EMC. She joined EMC in 2003 as director of product management.
A new opportunity
A few years later, EMC reorganized and created a centralized hardware business to serve all its other business units. It needed to create a different set of systems that could handle requests from multiple sources. Winkler was offered the opportunity to lead the business. That’s where she began her sustainability work.
Within EMC, Winkler is a member of the women’s leadership forum and the LGBT advocates group. She also chairs a team called the sustainability leadership council. Outside, she is engaged with Women in Technology International and the Society of Women Engineers as well as several sustainability groups. In May, she was recognized for social impact at the Women of Vision awards event of the Anita Borg Institute.
“I’ve been in this exact job reporting to the same person for six years now. That’s never happened before,” she says with a smile, “but I’m happy, because my role is so diverse and so dynamic. I get to work with so many smart people and stick my nose in nearly every part of the company.”
Back to Top