SIRE 2021: Zach Vlessing, C’23, W’23

This summer I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Lithuania as part of my SIRE grant. Traveling during COVID-19 was no easy task, but by having great advisors and being willing to adapt, my summer was unforgettable. I have always been super interested in research and travel. When I realized that my professional internship would conclude in June, I started looking for ways I could incorporate a research project into the latter part of my summer. I’ve been passionate about environmental and social responsibility for a while, so when I found the Social Impact Research Experience (SIRE), I knew that this opportunity was the perfect fit for me to gain research experience in a field that excites me.

During SIRE, Zach interviewed Ugnė Kumparskaitė, executive director of the National Non-Governmental Development Organization, the NGO responsible for organizing the Sustainable Development Expert Network in Lithuania.

My project plan was to seek global perspectives on ESG, analyzing countries based on their Environmental, Social, and Governance characteristics. I planned to travel to three different countries that showed leadership on one of the three, with a grand plan to travel during the summer to Germany for their environmental practices, Norway for their social practices, and in the winter complete my research in New Zealand studying their governance practices. As the Delta variant emerged, my summer plans became increasingly unlikely since both Norway and Germany had not opened their borders to anyone who did not have their national passport.

As hope for completing my grand research vision dwindled, I was finishing up my internship for an ESG analytics company Impact-Cubed. They were launching a new ESG product that assessed the ESG characteristics of sovereign debt, which basically ranked countries on their ESG characteristics using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as their criteria. Their world-class analytics found that Lithuania was improving and leading most consistently across the SDGs. So, instead of cancelling my research project and giving up, I changed my destination from Germany and Norway to Vilnius, Lithuania.

In Lithuania, I interviewed leaders in the policy, business, NGO, and academic realm on their progress across the different Sustainable Development Goals. There was so much to learn and explore from these interviews and from exploring the beautiful city. I got first-hand accounts of what was really going on, how the importance of the SDGs are gaining traction, and most importantly how the history and culture of Lithuania uniquely positions it for incredible opportunities over the next few years.

Zach with Chief Marketing Officer Gediminas Judzentas and Chief Financial Officer Mindaugas Ambrasas of Auga, a sustainability focused agriculture company and the largest vertically integrated organic food company in Europe.

I hope that others learn from my experience the importance of remaining flexible in the face of uncertainty. I was so lucky to find the silver lining and truly believe that because I had this amazing internship experience, leaders were more willing  to talk to me in Lithuania (we had just published the report and data that Lithuania was #1), I was able to speak with people who were  important and excited about what I was doing. I got an amazing travel experience as well, traveling to neighboring Riga, Latvia as well as the Lithuanian countryside. I will forever hold on to my travels in Lithuania as one of the highlights of my Penn experience.