FORTUNE — Kathrin Winkler grew up with an interest in social and environmental issues. She regularly explored the woods and mountains close to her New Jersey home and was an avid reader who had an early interest in the works of conservationist Rachel Carson. As an adult, she explored the world of computing and technology, but retained a love of environmentalism in her personal life. In the mid-1990s, she started scuba diving, where she was able to watch natural systems in action. She was committed to learning more.
When she arrived at EMC (EMC), it was to manage products, not sustainability. But when the opportunity came to integrate “green” concerns into the way the company planned and developed products, Winkler jumped at the chance to do some good. Her mission was to figure out what where she could make an impact. During her time as chief sustainability officer, Winkler has focused on e-waste reduction, maximizing the recovery of recycle-able materials, better reporting on EMC’s carbon and water footprints, and engaging with employees and the community.
Winkler, 58, is a former attendee of the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference. She spoke with us.
1. Which alternative energy projects are you most excited about?
Solar. It sounds very obvious, and yet the sun is everywhere around us and is there for the taking. Frankly, the solar industry has been on a very sharp learning curve, so I have expectations that that learning curve will continue and that it will, over time, be able to contribute a much higher percentage of energy.
2. Which green business or person do you admire most? Why?
I have huge admiration for people who really started the conversation — people like Paul Hawken and Ray Anderson. As far as companies go, at the moment I happen to be particularly impressed with Patagonia. Everywhere I go, I see people in their cool, super-lightweight, super-warm jackets in bright colors. [Patagonia] made [sustainability] cool, and not because it’s “green.” And yet they’ve made the clothes out of recycled materials, and they’re really building a brand around their product and a business around sustainability.
3. Which other companies do you admire? Why?
Tesla (TSLA), because it’s disruptive. And I have a lot of admiration for IBM (IBM). As a large company, it has shown it’s possible for a big company to transform. It has remade itself a couple of times, and I believe that for a sustainable economy, most companies are going to have to remake themselves. I’ll also add Virgin Galactic and Virgin Oceanic because I love that there’s a company out there that’s both reaching for the stars and reaching for the bottom of the ocean.
4. What is the best advice you ever received?
My dad told me many times, starting when I was very young, that if someone wants to borrow money, you should only lend it to them if, in your head, you’re actually willing to give it to them. He practiced that, and so did I, so money has never gotten in the way of any relationships.
5. What would you do if you weren’t working at your current job?
I think I really would have loved to be a marine biologist. I did some research for the Sierra Club on lobster [catching] gear that could help reduce the likelihood of ensnaring North Atlantic right whales. I’m really interested in the deep ocean. I think one of the most amazing things that happened in the second half of the 20th century was the discovery of ecosystems at the hydrothermal vents in the mid-Atlantic ridge and the discovery that there are whole ecosystems not based on photosynthesis. When I was a kid in school, I learned that all life on Earth started with photosynthesis, and that’s not true. It’s a big deal to see such a fundamental belief disrupted from new knowledge, and there’s so much more to learn there.
6. What has been your biggest failure?
Early on in my career, I took a job that seemed like a good opportunity. There had been no women in the job before, and it moved me up organizationally. But I hated it. I passionately hated it, and I ended up going back to an old job. I don’t like to think of it as a failure in the sense that I learned a lot about myself, but it was a traditional failure. I was there less than a year.
7. What is one characteristic that every leader should possess?
The willingness to listen to new, unexpected, or contrary ideas. No matter where they come from.
8. What is one goal that you would like to accomplish during your lifetime?
I want to swim with a whale shark in the wild, out in the Atlantic. They’re amazing. They’re huge and called a “gentle giant.” They’re ecosystems in and of themselves. They appeal to me because they are so contrary to the stereotype of what a shark is.
9. What daily steps do you take to promote sustainability?
In my daily life, we’re very adamant about reusing, composting, and repurposing. I drive a hybrid, and I try to live the ethos of sustainability. More importantly though is speaking up. It can be hard sometimes to stand up to power. You have to find gentle ways to let people know that they can do things differently, and I’ve promised myself that I would do that. But sometimes it’s hard.
10. What was your biggest missed opportunity?
I was offered a job in management very early in my career. I turned it down because I thought I didn’t want to be a manager. I felt that it was something I would not like, and I didn’t see it as part of my career. And it was a mistake because once I finally did let myself get pushed into it, I learned so much more about myself. I learned even more about working with people and about letting certain things go. And of course it helped my career, so it was a big missed opportunity way back when.
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