Sustainable Leadership: What Drove Tracy Liu Toward WAYB

Behind the scenes at Williams-Sonoma, Inc. (WSI), WAYB (a new baby-gear startup) and the Environmental Defense Fund, there’s a remarkable team of women using sustainability as a force to unlock deeper value. In our Sustainable Leadership mini-series, they’ll talk to Ms. about fostering sustainability across sectors, and how they bring the values of ecofeminism into the workplace.

Tracy Liu is the Chief Operating Officer of WAYB, a company started by the former CEO of Patagonia that is focused on creating safe, durable and sustainable products for families with young children. Their claim to fame is the Pico car seat, made from aerospace-aluminum—a strong, light and easy on the planet material—and a unique toxin-free technical mesh.

Liu, a soon-to-be second-time mom, left her former job on the sustainability strategy team at the Walt Disney Company to help build the mission-driven, family-focused company from the ground up. As the Chief Operating Officer at WAYB, she leads all aspects of business operations along with accounting, human resources, legal/compliance, strategic planning and social impact. Liu was a 2010 Climate Corps Fellow with the Environmental Defense Fund and received her MBA from Pepperdine University, where she served as the President of Net Impact and Creator of the Social, Ethical, Environmental Responsibility (SEER) Certificate program.

( Tracy Liu / Linkedin)

How did you first wind up at WAYB and what about the idea or the company attracted you to this role?

Michael Crooke, who is a former CEO of Patagonia and the co-founder of WAYB, he’s been a mentor of mine since my business-school days. And he reached out to me about this position when I was working as a sustainability strategist at the Walt Disney Company.

I was about five years in. I loved my job. I loved my Disney team, but as a new mom who was missing the execution part of the strategy work, the thought of building a mission-driven, family-focused company from the ground up was really incredibly exciting to me. Plus, I love to travel, and I don’t believe that parenthood and travel and adventure have to be mutually exclusive. So that was the big draw for me.

Let’s talk about your experience as a woman in the C-suite. Are there any factors that you can point to that have contributed to your success?

I think that one of the perks of being employee number one is the ability to build a strong team around you. So I am very, very fortunate to be surrounded by strong female leaders here at WAYB and to be working with a CEO who supports and values women in the workplace. A great company culture also reinforces this, and that’s one of the things that I’m most proud of here at WAYB. 

I also have really amazing mentors that I’ve had longstanding relationships with. I think it’s also important to seek out female mentors because they have a much different perspective and it makes you that much stronger as a leader. Lastly, I ensure I’m mentoring women who are coming up as well, because you can learn so from them and being on the other side of the mentorship table. That’s incredibly important in general and to me.

A lot of companies struggle with retaining and recruiting top talent, and on top of that, people, Millennials especially, want jobs that have purpose, where they can make meaningful change when they spend their day at the office. As a Millennial and a business leader, what’s your opinion on how the next generation of business leaders value sustainability?

I think it’s really encouraging to see the Millennial cohort be so passionate about using their skills in the business environment to effect positive change. I think to sustain a business, companies have to be willing to adapt to the world around them to stay relevant, and Millennials are shifting the landscape for multiple industries and changing workplace culture along the way. I think the next generation of business leaders will only benefit from that and continue to push companies in that direction.

Do you have any advice for other women looking to enter into the sustainability field and, in general, any tips for being successful in this field?

I get this question a lot, and for me, I think it’s most important to figure out what you’re great at, what you can uniquely do and bring to the table for any company. I’d say figure that out first, and then go out and find a company that aligns with your values and has a workplace culture that’s conducive to the way that you work and fully engages you. 

A lot of Millennials are looking for that job with CSR or sustainability in the title because they think that it inherently means that their job will be meaningful. And as somebody who has had that sustainability word in her title at Disney, I can attest to that, certainly, but those jobs are few and far in between. And now that I have experienced the other side of the coin, doing what I think I do best at a mission-driven company, I can say that it’s just as, if not more, rewarding in my opinion.


Yesh Pavlik Slenk is the Project Manager at EDF Climate Corps, an innovative fellowship program which places top tier graduate students in leading companies, cities and universities to build the business case for energy efficiency and sustainability.