10 Questions: Trisa Thompson, Vice President of Corporate Responsibility, Dell

August 15, 2014, 4:41 PM UTC
Dell's Trisa Thompson
Dell's Trisa Thompson
Courtesy: Dell

The daughter of an engineer airman, Trisa Thompson moved around a lot as a child. When she started college at Boston University, she thought that she was going to study to become a doctor, but she decided instead to study mass communications so that she could go to law school. She ended up earning her J.D. from George Washington University and went to work for the law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP for the next 12 years.

At the time, Dell was one of the firm’s major clients. Two years after she made partner, Dell offered her a job. She decided to take the leap and move to Texas. She spent 12 years in the company’s legal department before making the leap to corporate responsibility. “My avocation and vocation were finally married,” she said.

Thompson, 53, spoke with Fortune.

Who in sustainability do you admire most? Why?

Rachel Carson. In 1962, she wrote the book Silent Spring. She was born in 1907, and she was a real pioneer in the environmental movement. She was more in the marine biology area, but after she published the book, which was all about the affects of carcinogens, it really launched the environmental movement in the U.S. I love that she was a role model for all women in sustainability.

Which companies do you admire? Why?

One would definitely be Whole Foods. They started off as a very different company. They were the first company out there who said, “We’re going to have sustainable seafood and sustainable gardening and agriculture.” They really pushed the movement. I admire everything that they do. They are a Dell customer, and we work together on a sustainability forum. They compost everything; they even have compostable silverware in their cafeteria. They walk the walk.

I also think Unilever has made strides and have put out a really ambitious plan of their long-term goals. They really live their brand about sustainability.

Which area of sustainability excites you most?

I would have to say the innovation that’s going on in sustainability. It really is pretty amazing what’s happening right now. To help Dell achieve our goal of using 100 percent sustainable packaging by 2020 we’re working with biotech startup, Newlight Technologies, to create plastic out of carbon pulled from the air. That means they’re not using oil-based plastics in our packaging. The technology is amazing.

Another new exciting area is that Dell is the first company in the IT industry to use UL-Environment certified closed-loop recycling. Dell already offers free consumer recycling in 78 countries, and by reusing plastics already in circulation, Dell is cutting down on e-waste, saving resources and reducing carbon emissions by 11 percent compared with virgin plastics. As a country, we should be reusing everything we can.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to do what you do?

You have to think about sustainability not only as doing really good things, but you also have to think from a business perspective and look at it as an opportunity to find new, better ways to do good business and save costs. Newlight Technologies will cost us less than the other packaging, so we’re winning and our customers are winning. It’s a good story all the way around. The same is true with our bamboo packaging, which is biodegradable. So it’s definitely important to think about corporate sustainability from a business perspective.

What is the best advice you ever received?

When I was making the decision to move from my law firm to Dell, one of my mentors said to me, “Take the risk because you can always change things.” It gave me the motivation to change my location and my job and eventually my career. I felt empowered to take a risk, because you think, “That’s right, I can change it.”

What’s the next big project you want to tackle?

As a private company we have a new ability to make long-term goals to fuel new, innovative ways to solve problems and create positive change. The 2020 Legacy of Good Plan is our next big project. This is our roadmap for how we will have a positive impact on our planet and for our communities and people by 2020. It took three years to align and establish our 21 goals, and we are pleased with our progress to date. We’ve been putting together volunteer hours in different communities, and so far we have had 739,000 hours and 56% participation across the company.

What challenges are facing your business right now?

When talking about our 2020 Legacy of Good goals, the biggest challenge is measuring the sustainability impact of our technology for our largest customers. We’ve been working with the Carbon War Room, BSR, and our customers to figure out how our technology can have a net positive impact, and we’re trying to measure in a definable way. Our ultimate vision is that the good that comes from our technology is ten times what it takes to make and use it.

If you could have done anything differently in your career, what would it have been?

I feel very lucky in my career. I loved working in a law office because it was a great training ground. I loved working in legal in Dell; it was a great way to really learn the business. At one point I wanted to brew beer, but that was about 20 years ago.

What is one goal—either personal or professional—that you would like to accomplish during your lifetime?

Professionally and personally I’m focused on achieving the 21 goals outlined in our Legacy of Good plan to ensure the work we do has a resulting impact for Dell’s customers, team members, communities and the planet. a. But the real question is, what would I like people to say about me at the end of the day? I’d like to change people’s lives for the better.

What do you do to live a balanced life, and what do you do for fun?

I have not always had a balanced life, especially when starting out in law, but it’s become much more balanced now with my career decisions. When I was in litigation, there wasn’t a holiday I didn’t work. My job now gives me more choice and freedom. For fun, I’m very involved in music. I also love reading and food, and I love to volunteer in my community.

Previously in Fortune‘s 10 Questions series:

Joel Simkhai, founder and CEO, Grindr
Adi Tatarko, co-founder and CEO, Houzz
Mike Nefkens, EVP of Enterprise Services, Hewlett-Packard
Hoby Darling, CEO, Skullcandy
John Kobs, co-founder and CEO, Apartment List