Community//

Susan Koehler of Footprint: “The future is visible through the eyes of youth”

The community can get involved by buying sustainable products and asking your favorite stores and restaurants to carry sustainable packages. Society at large can help make sustainability inclusive and mainstream for everyone. We must address environmental injustice from regional inequities from chemicals in their communities to food insecurities. Politicians can create legislation for materials change […]

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.

The community can get involved by buying sustainable products and asking your favorite stores and restaurants to carry sustainable packages. Society at large can help make sustainability inclusive and mainstream for everyone. We must address environmental injustice from regional inequities from chemicals in their communities to food insecurities. Politicians can create legislation for materials change to eliminate single use plastics causing harm to the planet and human health.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Koehler.

Susan Koehler is the Chief Marketing Officer at Footprint featured on X4Impact, the hub for social impact innovation. Footprint, a material science engineering company, exists to create a healthier planet with it’s plant-based solutions that replace single use plastics. X4Impact showcases their plant-based technology as a solution addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals #12 and #14, Responsible Consumption and Production and Life Below Water.

Susan is inspired to change the world through innovative thinking and technology. Her past executive positions include global corporations such as Microsoft, where she spent a decade, and successful startups like Rover.com. She loves creating environments that foster learning opportunities for herself and others and has an award-winning track record of building trusted relationships with industry leaders in business, government and community.

Now based in Arizona, Susan serves as a Microsoft Alumni Ambassador. In the past, she has taken on roles with the Women’s Leadership Board of Harvard University, Taking IT Global and iSAFE.

Susan holds an MBA from Rutgers and a BA & BS from Syracuse University.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I grew up in Lockport, NY, right outside of Buffalo. It was a small town of about 30,000 people. Public education was top-notch. The teachers had master’s degrees and it felt like a private school education. I loved everything about it. My parents both had their Master’s in Education and were teachers in nearby towns. We traveled on school breaks which definitely influenced my curiosity and gave me a global perspective. I was exposed early on to the magic of museums and art and was bit by the travel bug. After high school graduation, I attended Syracuse University because of their top ranked SI Newhouse School. Growing up the youngest of four kids was exciting, as they were wonderful role models. My oldest brother was an astronaut who piloted STS-67 on a mission that spent 18 days in space. My other brother was an Associate Vice Chancellor at UCSD, coordinating the light rail extension from downtown San Diego to campus, and my sister is a nutrition & fitness expert and active mom of 6.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

We exist to create a healthy planet. We have engineers creating plant-based solutions to eliminate single use plastic. Footprint was founded by two Intel engineers, best friends over the last 25 years, who saw the opportunity to address a problem. They noticed dust caused by plastic off-gassing during shipping of the chips. They got curious about the harmful chemicals and realized the same thing was happening in our food supply. I joined Footprint two years ago after being introduced to one the co-founders. I was hired on the spot and never looked back. I brought in several investors from my time at Microsoft and even personally invested in Footprint. Our innovative and disruptive technology is becoming an iconic master brand in sustainability because Millennials and Gen Z’s reward social purpose companies. We are scaling Footprint to meet our global customers orders, create lower carbon emissions, and thus create a healthier planet and people. I even moved a mile away from the corporate headquarters, because these next few years are a critical inflection point in sustainability.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I think we all knew plastic wasn’t not good for the environment, and had heard we shouldn’t microwave our food in plastic. But the first week I was working with Footprint, a groundbreaking report came out from the Center for International Environmental Law titled Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet That’s when I realized that the plastics story wasn’t just about the environment, it’s also about human health. Up until that point, only scientists really knew about this phenomena. Once I was exposed to the detailed science and research, I dove in head first. I ensured that Footprint was invited to a first of its kind conference called UNWRAPPED, and then The Kloster’s Forum. Both included international scientific and health experts to increase global recognition of the known health risks of plastic and other single-use food packaging, while promoting a culture shift to safer reusable alternatives. The conference also highlighted NGOs doing important education, advocacy and legislative work. I wanted to come to the table and show that we had a real solution. From there, I built trusted relationships while creating an ecosystem to scale through partners. This grew to include scientists, celebrities, and anyone in between who could help create awareness of the problem and the fact that solutions do exist. After speaking at the 2019 Health Summit in Amsterdam, our company credibility grew and I created an advisory board for Footprint where we brought together renowned authors, PhDs and experts in the field. I also established the Footprint Foundation in January 2020, and we are building out our advisory board. We joined an industry standards coalition and will be launching and advocating for a scorecard to help purchasing decision makers at companies to compare solutions. Globally, only 10% of all plastic created has been recycled; in the US, it’s only 4.5%! Part of our responsibility was to educate leaders in consumer-packaged goods to recognize the tradeoffs between plastic and our innovative plant-based compostable solutions.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I have had many “Aha” moments. I grew up watching Jacque Cousteau and enjoying the ocean. Now, watching National Geographic’s Planet of Plastic, with photos of plastic killing turtles, whales, and birds, I’m encouraged by Millennials and Gen Z demanding change for a healthy planet. Recently, I read a scientific article about babies being born with 200 chemicals, because of their mothers’ exposure during pregnancy. One of our advisors, Dr. Leo Trasande, wrote a book, called Fatter, Sicker, Poorer which shows the endocrine system disorders which can be correlated. A recent “Aha” moment is in environmental justice. Just like racial injustice, power plants and oil fields have historically been placed near poor communities. These same disadvantaged families are also the ones that lack the finances to shop or eat organic foods with environmentally-friendly materials. We are working hard to mitigate these issues with our customers that span fast food, salad to go’s as well as top food companies. Our pricing is very close to parity with plastics, but so much better for the planet and people — including being biodegradable, compostable and recyclable.

Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

We started as a B2B company, so that’s been the primary focus; supporting our customers success in a move to plant-based materials is most important. But, I knew we would evolve to B2C, so I wanted to ensure we were building an iconic master brand along the way. I didn’t just want our packaging to become part of someone else’s product marketing. I wanted people to know that Footprint is the sustainability leader, innovative for this plant-based packaging and what our logo stood for. We invest in engineering to create revolutionary new ways to develop, design, formulate, manufacture and now print directly onto plant-based products. We provide our customers with the data showing their reductions in carbon emissions and energy by moving from plastic to Footprint. So, I focused on what we could control. We had a breakthrough when Footprint was named a sustainable partner in last year’s Super Bowl. After that, we won awards including Fast Company’s Most Innovative Company and Fortune’s Change the World. Our CEO and Jim Cramer had a great sustainability conversation on Mad Money. In each opportunity, we highlighted partners such as ConAgra’s Healthy Choice Power Bowls, McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Beyond Meat, and Sweetgreen, so that we could continue to build trust and show the value of partnering with Footprint. I operated with 3 core strategies pillars. 1) Customer success — Help our customers be successful with our plant-based solutions 2) Become a Trusted Brand — Provide expert knowledge, claims substantiation and positive PR for our customers. 3) Social Purpose — create a foundation, work with influencers (both scientific and celebrity) to join in advocacy campaigns.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Like most people and organizations, none of us could have predicted a global pandemic on our roadmap. But COVID has really brought people together for a common purpose. We all started to understand that airborne particles can make you sick. It’s the same with plastic. This pandemic actually brought attention to our issue area and the discussions are so powerful that people want to help. The world has changed. You won’t be successful if you only think of profit. The most successful companies care about ESG (environmental, social and governance) — that’s what being a responsible business leader is today.Stay tuned for ways to be involved and take positive actions.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

We wanted to take our brand to the next level and ensure we were living our mission, so we commissioned a 100% compostable display booth for last year’s Super Bowl Sustainability Village. What we didn’t anticipate was the torrential Miami rain that would come on the final day! The booth was virtually flush to the ground, so the bottom of our booth was soaked and started breaking down. The lesson I learned is to stick with showcasing your mission (this was an environmentally-sustainable booth) but have a backup plan. We had hired a local, diverse company to build it, so they were ready to go with replacement parts if needed. If the rain had collapsed the booth, it would have made the news and that could have been contrary to the goal. Lesson learned: Be prepared for everything!

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

Working at Microsoft 1995–2005 helped me build my strategic thinking and leadership skills. I was a sponge observing and soaking in all the knowledge from iconic thought leaders of this century. Living in Europe as EMEA Chief of Staff, reporting to Jean-Philippe Courtois (now EVP of Executive Vice President and President, Global Sales, Marketing and Operations, Microsoft Corp.), allowed me to understand global issues both from a company perspective and also through the lens of the World Economic Forum. Three of my favorite learnings were: complex problem solving, addressing inequities through engineering and corporate social responsibility.

Also, I was fortunate growing up with loving parents, both educators, who loved learning. I learned anything was possible and to always pursue your passions and dreams. Helping others was a part of my influential youth whether it was volunteering with Meals on Wheels, March of Dimes or American Cancer Society drives.

Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

The community can get involved by buying sustainable products and asking your favorite stores and restaurants to carry sustainable packages. Society at large can help make sustainability inclusive and mainstream for everyone. We must address environmental injustice from regional inequities from chemicals in their communities to food insecurities. Politicians can create legislation for materials change to eliminate single use plastics causing harm to the planet and human health.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

The proof is everywhere that being a more sustainable and environmentally conscious company will drive profits. In 2018, Bank of America Merrill Lynch found that firms with a better ESG record than their peers, produced higher three-year returns, were more likely to become high-quality stocks, were less likely to have large price declines, and were less likely to go bankrupt. Our customers, like Conagra, who switched to plant-based Footprint packaging on Health Choice Power Bowls, have seen significant increase in sales and customer expansion with millennials. According to Kanton, Brands with higher purpose have grown 2x those with no higher purpose. In the workforce, we know that employees are 3x more motivated to work for companies with a higher purpose. Our future workforce of Gen Z consumers overwhelmingly believe that brands should care about something bigger than profits and should make lives better according to WundermanThompson’s 2020 Gen Z survey. The time is now to make your company sustainable and environmentally conscious.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Intellectual curiosity is the elixir of life.

2. To have the largest global impact, you have to tackle the largest problems.

3. Engineers are “superheroes” but they too need an ecosystem of other experts to beat Thanos

4. The future is visible through the eyes of youth.

5. Your loving family (and/or beloved dog/cat) gives you oxytocin when you need it!

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I would tell them that plastic is not only harming our planet, but that science has proven plastic is harming their bodies.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When I was young, I read the poem Don’t Quit by John Greenleaf Whittier and it continues to inspire me today. I live by this mantra and encourage others to do so as well.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to have a meal with Greta Thunberg and Klaus Schwab. We could discuss climate change and solutions to eliminate single use plastics. If you haven’t seen the documentary I am Greta, it is a good start to understand the power of one person to change hearts and minds.

How can our readers follow you online?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/susan-koehler/
https://www.linkedin.com/company/planetfootprint/
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