Lilian Liu
We met Lilian on a sunny day in November in Brooklyn
Photo: Martina Sjövind

Lilian puts sustainability on the agenda in New York

Lilian Liu grew up in Sweden, but she spent every summer in Shanghai and saw how the city grew and how society changed every year. Her interest in social issues led her to apply for the European Studies Programme at the University of Gothenburg. Her many international experiences finally brought her to New York and today she is determined to get the corporate world to think and do differently, when it comes to climate and sustainability.

Tell us a little about your background, what did you dream of when you were young?
– I grew up just outside of Gothenburg, but both my parents are from China. Every summer I spent in Shanghai. I remember dreaming of becoming a diplomat. I was maybe 14 and I didn’t really know what a diplomat was, but the interest in international relations was there from early on. Probably, because I traveled a lot when I was young and had this dual belonging to Sweden and China.

What did you study at the University of Gothenburg?
– I started the European Studies Programme, mainly because of the opportunities for exchange studies and internships. I probably pictured myself working at the European Commission in the future. I liked the programme! I got to meet a greater mix of people with different experiences and backgrounds. More than I was used to from previous school years in Sweden. I started straight after high school, something that I sometimes regret, but also not. I got to travel and experience things anyway.

Tell us about your exchange experiences.
– I did an exchange at Sciences Po Lille in northern France for a year. It was quite hardcore, 60-70 percent of our courses were entirely in French, but I just went with it. I also did an internship at the Consulate General in Shanghai. I had worked at the export council and spoke Chinese, which was obviously a good match for them.

Language is so important if you want to work internationally! That was one of the reasons why I got my first job after my studies.

You had an early interest for globalization and development. How come?
– The fact that I was part of the European Youth Parliament in high school was probably a contributing factor. But for as long as I can remember, I have had an interest in social issues. During the 90s and early 00s there was an extreme economic growth in China and especially in Shanghai. Every summer when I got there, there was a new skyscraper, more shops and more people. I found it fascinating, but I could also see the downsides. My Swedish background made me look at it in terms of gender equality and the welfare system.

Any special memories from your studies at the University of Gothenburg?
– My thesis was about exports between China and the EU. Claes Alvstam, professor of International Economic Geography (ed. note), was my thesis supervisor. He was very encouraging, and it really felt like he really wanted things to go well. He came to Shanghai when I was there to give a lecture at Fudan University, and he invited me.

About Lilian Liu

Lives in
Brooklyn, New York
European Studies Programme at the University of Gothenburg, MA Public Administration at New York University
Sustainability Expert at Braze, a global tech company

Shanghai and then New York

During her internship in Shanghai, Lilian started working with sustainable fashion at an NGO. Her interest in business perspectives and corporate responsibility grew. A seed had been planted. Through a scholarship from the Wallenberg Foundation, the opportunity to do her master’s degree at New York University opened up. During her studies, Lilian got an internship and then a job at UN Global Compact, which supports sustainable businesses.

You worked at the UN for a little more than 4 years, what happened after that?
– I started working as a sustainability strategist at the consulting company Futerra. There I got the chance to work with a lot of different companies, for instance in the tech and fashion industry, to help them with their goals and plans in sustainability. My self-confidence in the field grew and I also gained a much deeper understanding of corporate responsibility and the key issues. 

As a consultant, you are the expert, so you need to act like one.

Why has sustainability become the common theme in your professional life?
– Because it’s fun! There is a constant flow of new research and new knowledge that can be applied. There is also the pressure of new legislation and new policies all the time. The need for expertise is huge. A few years ago, there were maybe just one or two roles: “sustainability consultant” or someone at a company working with sustainability. Now there is a huge amount of many different specialist roles and positions.

When do you feel the most happy at work?
– In general, I feel very lucky to be able to work with my passion: to have an impact. Now I work at the tech company Braze, which makes software for costumer engagement. When I was hired seven months ago, there was hardly any sustainability work at the company. My boss and I had to start from scratch. In the end, it’s about trying to influence people and change a culture. You need to understand who you are talking to and adapt your arguments. But when you see that change, an individual finding their reason to care– then it’s worth it. Because I can’t do my job on my own, in order for me to succeed I have to get others on board. 

November 2022. Written by Martina Sjövind.

Lilian is standing in the street, in the background a person with a stroller
Photo: Martina Sjövind

Lilian's tips for students

  • Your network is more important than your grades.
  • Don't be afraid to ask your teachers and professors for help and advice.
  • You don't have to be so picky with your first job, because you will have many in your life.