Sarah Holcomb

Geraldine Barnuevo: Making impact inside the industry

GM’s Geraldine Barnuevo cared about environmental justice from an early age— now she’s bringing others on board.

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Collage featuring Geradine Barnuevo, General Motor's Environmental Sustainability Senior Manager

Growing up in Ecuador, Geraldine Barnuevo loved visiting the Amazon with her grandparents, where she was surrounded by monkeys, birds, and beautiful rivers — that is, before the rivers were polluted with oil.

In the 1970s and 80s, oil spills devastated the Amazon rainforest. Deforestation spread. Local tribes couldn’t access clean water. Heartbreaking images flashed on the news.

When Geraldine took part in the model United Nations as a teen, she decided to take a stand on the issue. She read interviews of people impacted by the oil spills, learned their stories, and discovered how representatives of the plaintiffs, who include villagers and Indian Tribes in the northeastern Ecuador, were bringing the multinationals to court in the U.S.

Facing her peers, 14-year-old Geraldine presented a powerful case that would inspire her future career: She insisted multinational corporations must use the same level of care in every country.

Working from the inside

Given how multinational companies caused the devastating oil spills in her home country, Geraldine’s corporate career might come as a plot twist. She’s now spent nearly two decades at a major auto manufacturer, General Motors (GM).

Within GM, Geraldine has worked to restore and protect sites in three countries and now at a global level as the Environmental Sustainability Senior Manager for GM North America.

Early on, when she took an environmental engineer post at a GM plant in Ecuador, Geraldine saw a chance to create change by starting small. She had an idea: what if every shift leader at the plant — somewhere between 50 and 80 individuals — was inspired to take their own action for the environment?

Together with a student intern, she created a small “school” inside the manufacturing plant to teach shift leaders about environmental education. They would pull five team leaders off the line at a time to brainstorm over coffee. “We came up with awesome ideas of how to reuse waste, how to change processes to eliminate water consumption,” Geraldine remembers. The plant eliminated all cafeteria waste, donating it to a farm. The energy performance in Ecuador ranked as one of the highest in the corporation.

The momentum didn’t stay contained inside the plant. Many chose to stick around after-hours to paint their own waste containers. Sometimes she’d hear stories: “Geraldine, I talked to my family about composting, and now we’re composting in the little lot behind our site,” team members told her.

After earning her environmental engineering Master’s in the US several years later, Geraldine again found herself doing environmental education — this time in a more traditional classroom.

Education everywhere

When Geraldine recounts her two years spent teaching evening classes at a university in Ecuador, it’s impossible to miss how her face lights up. “To teach young people, to mentor, to coach — It energizes me,” she says. She was in her late twenties at the time, while some of her students were in their early twenties. “I was always on my toes.”

As a professor, she sent students into the real world to help local factories. She was especially passionate about teaching remediation — restoring sites from environmental damage — which turned into the subject for her MSc.

When she returned to working full time at GM, Geraldine’s role as an educator didn’t disappear, but evolved. Working across different sites — Ecuador, Brazil, the US — she saw opportunities to translate learnings from one country and culture to another.

“Every time you go to a different place, you need to adjust, create relationships and…adapt your message to the place you’re doing business,” she says.

South America had fewer environmental regulations than the U.S. As a teenager, Geraldine was frustrated by corporations’ lack of care in her country — and now she was determined to do things differently. When she ran projects in Colombia or Brazil, Geraldine shared from GM’s experiences elsewhere, bringing these learnings both to local GM sites and to local regulators.

“In the U.S., this is how we [are addressing] this issue,” she would explain, sharing the science behind the approach. “I want to do the same here. Not less. I want to do the same.”

Shifting subjects

After eight years in remediation, Geraldine switched to a different side of the environmental field several years ago: sustainability. She started her leadership career at GM’s strategy group, headquartered in North America. “Before I was solving the issues that we created years ago,” she says. “Now I am working in an area that looks at the future.”

GM has also experienced a dramatic shift over the last several years. “When I joined GM, and until maybe five or four years ago… it was all about complying with the law. Compliance, compliance, compliance,” Geraldine remembers. “We didn’t want to have any [damage to] our reputation.”

Recently the company’s focus has shifted beyond compliance. “We need to go above and beyond that minimum standard, and do good,” she says. According to Geraldine, they no longer focus on simply minimizing the company’s environmental footprint — emissions, water consumption, energy — but also on maximizing its “handprint,” how they positively impact communities.

This change means employees must shift their own mindsets.

Sometimes leaders look at environmental sustainability as “something else I have to do…a burden,” Geraldine explains. They ask: “What is the value that it’s adding? I’m not getting more cars out of the line, or I’m not improving my quality.”

Embracing her role as an educator, Geraldine adapted her approach to a different audience. “I always go back to the basics: I show people that what we are doing is not only the right thing to do, but also that our investors and external stakeholders are demanding that,” she says. “Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) investments have gained tractions among asset managers in the last few years, now accounting for about one third of total US assets under professional management.

Meanwhile, she’s working to educate external partners, sharing about GM’s investments to transform transportation, moving from internal combustion engines — currently used in 98% of vehicles — to electric vehicles within the next 10–20 years.

After spending much of her career fixing the past, she is fully focused on the future.

Looking back, moving forward

Much has changed since Geraldine’s teenage years, when her life’s work started taking shape. The movement around climate change was just beginning, and it sounded like alarmist fiction to many.

Yet despite progress in environmental education in recent decades, our planet continues to be degraded. Some of Geraldine’s favorite childhood activities — like jumping into the river — are no longer safe for many children in countries where natural resources have been exploited. As images of last year’s fires in the Amazon flashed on the news, they reminded Geraldine of both the reality of climate change and the oil spills she witnessed as a teenager.

The photos “made me feel that feeling again — the same thing that I felt now 20+ years ago when I saw those ariel pictures for the first time,” she reflects. “Every time it’s so sad for me when we talk about deforestation and how many hundreds of species we lose a year in terms of biodiversity. A lot of the species my children and my grandchildren are never going to be able to enjoy.”

Young people, Geraldine believes, have the power to bring change. She’s committed to mentoring younger employees and encouraging students.

“If you have the call to work in the environmental area, it can give you a lot of satisfaction, personally and professionally,” she tells young people. “Every day that I come to work, I think about the small, incremental things that I’m working on, or my team is working on, that will impact the future — that can leave a legacy when I’m no longer here.”

Stories
Sarah Holcomb

Sarah Holcomb is Senior Writing Associate at Ashoka Changemakers. She believes that to change the world, we need stories— and is committed to supporting every changemaker to tell theirs.