10 Questions: Gwen Migita, VP of sustainability, Caesars Entertainment
FORTUNE — Gwen Migita was born and raised in Hawaii, and she says the exposure to the diverse groups of people who visited her home state sparked her interest in travel.
Her first stop: The rainy Pacific Northwest, where she studied marketing at the University of Washington. She then began a varied career in consultation and research, spending time abroad working in countries including Guam and Tunisia. Her marketing experience eventually led her to Las Vegas — quite the opposite of rainy — where she worked for QMark Research and Polling, a company that specialized in market research across many industries.
In 2004, she joined Caesars Entertainment, the group known for the Las Vegas casinos Caesars Palace, Harrah’s, and Planet Hollywood. As she worked her way up through the ranks, Migita realized that she wanted to shift toward policy, where she could work on causes that she was more passionate about.
As vice president of sustainability, Migita is now one of the company’s leaders in environmental impact and community affairs. In Caesars hotels, that goes beyond typical sheet and towel water saving programs to include soap recycling partnerships and the design of more energy-efficient hotel rooms. She also manages an employee engagement program around sustainability and is an active advocate for the LGBT community.
Migita, 42, spoke with us.
1. Who in sustainability do you admire most? Why?
The WWF [World Wildlife Fund] is an incredible organization. The market transformation initiative that Jason Clay heads up will literally change how the world’s largest commodity markets, such as cotton, tuna, paper, and beef will operate. They have a dozen commodities they’re focusing on, and they’re working with largest companies in the world that hold 50 to 75% of the market globally, and with that, they’re changing the way an entire global commodity operates: how companies source, what governments regulate, how the fishing or agriculture industry — large and small fisheries and farmers alike — will operate.
At WRI [World Resources Institute] there are a lot of folks who are doing great work individually. There is Liz Cook, who oversees a lot of their multilateral relationships. They also have a corporate consultant group with a lot of experts in their fields who are pushing companies to address issues such as the supply chain management and policy engagement. They’re doing thought leadership work there but also have some practical applications for corporations.
I also think of folks like Andrew Winston, who’s a big thinker and has business applications for his work. He’s done some work with us like reviewing our reporting and early initiatives. He’s a big mover and influencer in the space.
2. Which companies do you admire? Why?
I think of companies like Unilever and Coca-Cola. Unilever because of how they’ve embedded sustainability into the DNA of the organization. They’re doing a lot of hard work behind the scenes. They have a Sustainable Living Plan, and they’ve built that into their innovation and R&D.
Then you’ve got companies like Coca-Cola addressing real issues like access to water globally. Some of their goals are huge, like replacing 100% of the water use. They’re bringing to light a lot of things that companies tend to shy away from, like the social ills of their products. Obesity is an issue they’re addressing straight on. Very few companies will do that, integrate the social skills or impact into their business and be transparent about it.
3. Which area of sustainability excites you most?
The impact on society and human beings. Sustainability can be an equalizer between socioeconomic classes and gender, along with other marginalized groups in our society. The complexity of the various areas of sustainability has an end result on human beings. It’s the impact on reducing marginalization that I find fascinating. You hear stories internationally about the water carbon nexus. Women make choices about harvesting wood to boil clean water for their children or to use it to cook food. It’s a very basic choice, and here in the U.S., there’s a correlation between lifetime earnings and where someone grows up. Access to nutritious food correlates with educational performance, and education is an equalizer for socioeconomic issues. I get excited about sustainability and the clear impact it has on social justice and overall on society.
4. What is the best advice you ever received?
My boss and mentor Jan Jones once told me: “Don’t apologize for who you are.” As an Asian, a woman, and a member of the LGBT community, I also refer to myself as a corporate advocate. If I’m the only Asian woman or “out” executive in the room, it could be out of the norm, but I’ve learned to embrace — rather than tone down — my differences and leverage it for a more successful outcome.
5. What challenges are facing your business right now?
In my area, there are always going to be competing priorities with our operators. We’ve got 50 resorts globally, most of which are in North America. There are competing priorities for marketing and initiatives, but you’ve also got expanded strategies at corporate.
Over the last six or seven years, our “CodeGreen” sustainability program became overwhelming because there were so many initiatives with such aggressive expectations. There’s a shift now back toward simplicity. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to change the pace or the trajectory of our programs or our strategy, but our 70,000 employees and hundreds of leaders for our strategy will see a re-focus on how to do a few things really well and how we can harness energy into an activist structure and get people to continue to improve themselves.
It’s very difficult to get the attention on things that are not the priority of the year but are extremely important for us to do.
6. If you could have done anything differently in your career, what would it have been?
I don’t have regrets — or I would say not yet — however, I would really like a career where I could travel for maybe months at a time to various countries. I’m just fascinated by cultures. Growing up in Hawaii, I was constantly exposed to a number of cultures there. I’ve been to about 30 different countries, and I’d love to able to spend months at a time in countries in Africa or the Middle East.
7. What was the most important thing you learned in school?
I’d say this would be in college, and it was really through student-led organizations like AIESEC [the French acronym for the International Association of Students in Business and Economics]. For me back then, the “microlearning” of running a group that was about 200 countries large came from observing tones and gestures and what people respond to. I learned what I was not doing right in some ways. I was, of course, a full-time student, but many of the lessons carried through to today about learning how to delegate, organize, and activate and to stand back and be okay with failure.
8. What is one goal — either personal or professional — that you would like to accomplish during your lifetime?
I think traveling extensively and maybe even backpacking. I used to have the idea that I wanted the number of countries I’ve visited to match the age I am. So, by the time I’m 80, I want to have visited 80 countries.
9. What do you do to live a balanced life? What do you do for fun?
I gave birth about six months ago, so my life is very different than it was a couple of years ago. I call myself an ex-athlete. I used to play sports like soccer. I wouldn’t call yoga fun, but it’s relaxing. What’s really fun with a young infant is family walks in the park in the sun with our eight-year-old puggle.
10. What is one unique or quirky habit that you have?
I don’t think I really have quirky habits, but my wife might disagree. I would say it’s probably leaving the last couple bites of food to put back in the fridge to save for later. Maybe it’s a small quirk, but it’s my intent to sample as many things as I can and not be full enough to not enjoy it.
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