Elena Koukouna is an industrial engineer and ecologist that has been working as a sustainability consultant at Blonk Consultants for more than six years. In a conversation with UniPartners Wageningen she talks about her experience as a sustainability consultant and shares her tips for students who are interested in becoming consultants.
“For me my work at Blonk Consultants helps me understand the world better. The knowledge I built up in these six years of working experience, the interaction I have with my colleagues and the values we have as a company are all very important to me. I feel that the work I deliver for my clients is my way to serve society.”
Her start as a consultant
Elena moved to the Netherlands to do her Masters in Industrial Ecology. She has always been interested in environmental issues and sustainability. During her studies the need to understand the impact of the industry to the environment became very evident for her. After her thesis on Life Cycle Assessment of biofuels she was sure that she wanted to work for a company that connects sustainability analysis with agriculture. After her Masters she heard about the mission of Blonk Consultants which she explained as: “to provide actionable environmental sustainability insights and by providing tailor made tools. Next to this, our overall purpose is to create a more sustainable future”. This fitted perfectly with her interests and knowledge. Currently, she has been working at Blonk for six years already.
From farm to fork
Blonk Consultants is a consultancy agency specialised in the agri-food chain and was founded in 1999. In the last few years Blonk Consultants has considerably grown. “We are growing quite fast and we also have this outlook of growing even more and welcoming new colleagues to our company. Currently we have a lot of diversity in knowledge, characters and backgrounds, which is really beautiful”, Elena explained. According to Elena, last year’s growth was, among other factors, a result of adding more services, such as offering new software solutions and offering training courses for industry experts, universities and onboarding new employees.
However, the core business of Blonk Consultants is still consulting companies in the agri-food sector with topics that focus on sustainability. There are more consultancies focusing on the topic of sustainability however, Blonk Consultants sets itself apart from other consultancies with a particular focus on the agri-food chain. Elena talked about the clients that Blonk Consultants works for: “We are experts in the whole agri-food value chain, from farm to fork as we call it.” She added: “We work for people in the meat industry, for people in the potato processing industry, for people that make additives for animal feed, for governmental bodies, NGOs and so forth. So you can imagine that our customer portfolio is quite diverse. These companies are all interested in sustainability, but the questions that they have for us can be very different depending on their interest”
Blonk Consultant do not have to put a lot of effort in convincing companies to become more sustainable.
Elena explains that the companies that reach out to them most of the time already recognize the need to be more sustainable or do something with sustainability. “Currently in the agri-food sector there are a lot of developments happening on the EU level, such as the Green Deal and the Farm to Fork strategy. Besides this, our clients also receive a lot of questions from their suppliers and customers or they have to comply with laws and regulations.”
A common challenge that Elena encounters nowadays is that companies want to know how to reduce their impact while still remaining economically sustainable. They are interested in how their impact is changing depending on the different sourcing of their ingredients. So they are interested in specific environmental topics, like carbon footprint, but they might also be interested in water footprint or how energy intensive their processes are. Besides this, companies also want to be frontrunners and sustainability pioneers, they want to be the first that does something about sustainability.
Day to day activities of a sustainability consultant
At the moment the main activity of Elena is performing Life Cycle Assessments for different companies from A to Z, so all the way from data collection to reporting the results or developing tailor made tools. This entails the direct communication with the clients, understanding their needs and translating them into a project that can really help them and meet their expectations and wishes. “My daily work also includes a lot of interaction with my colleagues, such as internal consultants with colleagues, exchanging knowledge, brainstorming, thinking along how we can improve some of our products or services. So it is a very interesting workflow everyday”, Elena explains.
“What I believe is an important skill of a consultant is to be able to maintain
a helicopter view of the project and the situation that you are dealing with.
Keep a broad perspective and be able to observe things, so really take a holistic
approach. Next to this, having analytical skills and science oriented qualities is
important when you are a consultant. And a soft skill is to be able to listen and translate the wishes of the clients into a project or a research question.”
Elena developed most of these skills during her career. “The University helps you to get analytical skills. And most of these skills you will also improve a lot during your working experience. I think the working experience adds a lot of value and really evolves you as a professional. But of course I think working in a group with similar mind sets also boosts these qualities further. It motivates you, it inspires you and it gives you a purpose basically, it all makes sense.”
Tips to become the best consultant
According to Elena the most important tip to become the best consultant is to be courageous! “I think there is quite some insecurity when you enter the professional world, so I think the most important tip is to keep your enthusiasm and do not hesitate to ask questions and to get involved. I think this is where everything starts. Do not hesitate, just go for it!”
Elena explained that there is so much knowledge that you eventually need to acquire, but you won’t acquire this knowledge within a month or two. Therefore, you need to be patient and take the time to build up your knowledge. “I think when you keep your enthusiasm and when you keep asking questions and getting involved you will get there!