February 23rd, 2021

Athena member Lynelle Cameron has a strong track record helping companies transform risk into business opportunity in the areas of sustainability, climate, and social impact. Currently serving as VP of Sustainability at Autodesk and CEO of the Autodesk Foundation, Lynelle is living proof that the transition from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism is happening today—and it’s building momentum.

“That’s exactly what I wanted to do with my career: work at the intersection of people and planet to prove that business is perhaps the most powerful lever for change to accelerate the transition to a sustainable, equitable, and resilient economy,” Lynelle said.

And that’s exactly what she did. After 10 years in the nonprofit sector working on international environmental policy issues, she pivoted to the corporate sector where she has been a sustainability pioneer and intrapreneur driving change from within for nearly two decades.

Lynelle joined Hewlett Packard in 2001, where she spent the better part of seven years evolving the company from a citizenship mindset to one focused on the business opportunity of sustainability. During her tenure at HP, Lynelle recognized the power of design in addressing environmental challenges up and down the value chain.

It was at HP where she learned about Autodesk and the breadth of the customer portfolio—spanning architecture, engineering, construction and manufacturing—and therefore potential impact.

What if we could embed sustainability and ecological intelligence into design software? she asked herself. Perhaps we could democratize sustainable design—making it easy and accessible for all companies, not just HP, to make better decisions about the products we design and make.

She soon wrote Autodesk a letter pitching her idea. “You are sitting on an incredible gold mine,” Lynelle recalls writing. “We are on the cusp of a design-led revolution. Collectively, we need to rethink everything that is designed and made on this planet. You hold the keys to bring a systems mindset into digital tools to transform what gets designed and built.” She soon joined Autodesk to execute this vision.

Activating sustainability at Autodesk

Since joining Autodesk in 2007, Lynelle has earned the company many accolades as a leader and early pioneer in sustainability. Despite an early willingness among the executive team to embrace a vision for creating a better world, Lynelle admits implementing her vision has taken more time than she ever imagined. The biggest lesson she’s learned is that change of this magnitude takes perseverance, steadfast conviction, and a lot of time.

“Having a clear vision of the future is super helpful,” she explained. “But it’s not enough. It would have been easy at various points to quit and tackle a smaller challenge than transforming entire industries. But I have a suite of mentors who remind me that change takes time. Keep at it.”

Another more surprising lesson she learned is how much language matters. While she had strong conviction that Autodesk could materially contribute to solving the existential climate challenge, she learned she needed to communicate her vision in differents way to get stakeholders on board with the opportunity. While she was all about “climate” as the north star, she recalls almost loosing her job at one point because she lost sight of bringing others along with the vision.

“Language matters,” she reinforced. “While my strategy and beliefs didn’t shift, my language and approach did. I shifted to discussing energy, materials, and resilience without explicitly mentioning climate, and it has been more effective.”

Under Lynelle’s leadership, Autodesk continues to earn recognition and accolades. Just last week, Autodesk was recognized by Barron’s as the fourth most sustainable company in the world, up from #10 last year. While Lynelle herself is not motivated by external awards, she’s learned the “importance of pausing to celebrate milestones along the way. This kind of recognition validates our work and earns us the credibility and trust to open doors with customer companies who have equally ambitious climate and impact goals.”

ESG expertise in the boardroom

Through her Athena membership, Lynelle has set her sights on helping corporate boards understand the ESG opportunity and deliver value for shareholders, proving the vision of stakeholder capitalism. She has served on a number of nonprofit boards as well as a private advisory board working at the intersection of sustainability and innovation.

“We are at a critical point in time. I want to help companies respond to the enormous opportunity that sustainability and ESG provides—not to only mitigate risk but also to deliver top line value and shareholder return,” Lynelle explained. “Much like what I’ve done at Autodesk, now is the moment to help companies reposition themselves to compete in a very different future where sustainability becomes the norm rather than the exception.”

“I believe that many boards no longer need convincing,” she continued. “They understand the value and the opportunity, but they don’t know how to execute and need to be shown the way. That was the case when I joined Autodesk, and we’ve come a long way.”

Looking forward to 2021

When asked about what she sees in the future and what gives her optimism, Lynelle is cautiously optimistic about the ESG momentum taking hold among mainstream investors, and therefore corporate boards.

“I have been having ESG conversations with investors for more than a decade, but they were fringe investors,” she said. Today, she says, ESG is a part of every investor conversation. “ESG conversations with investors are no longer just between myself, the sustainability leads, and investors; it’s now including the finance teams and the CFO.”

Lynelle believes the future is about companies whose very business model will create ripples of positive impact throughout the world.

“It’s not just about how a company is reducing harm in their supply chain, manufacturing, or employee base.  Instead, it will be about how companies are aligning their core business with making the world better,” she said. “There’s a broader awakening to the opportunity of tying impact to a company’s top line, not just the bottom line.”

And after a year like 2020, Lynelle is looking at the next decade differently.

“Health and resilience has been a pillar of Autodesk sustainability strategy since 2018, but today there’s a deeper understanding of what’s at stake,” she said. “The pandemic has been a wake-up call for the climate crisis, which I believe is truly the biggest global health challenge we’ve ever faced. This is the decade to design for resilience—resilient companies, resilience infrastructure, resilient mindsets.”

This is one of the reasons Lynelle recently stepped into an additional role as Global Lead for Crisis Management at Autodesk, seeing the opportunity to build resilience into the very fabric of the business. In many ways, Lynelle forecasts that her role may become more of a Chief Resilience Officer than a Chief Sustainability Officer as the decade unfolds.

“Most companies and investors are focused on navigating the pandemic, and will soon come to grips with the idea that such pandemics, climate disruption, rising inequality and migration will define the decade ahead and they are deeply interconnected,” Lynelle concluded. “Resilience is about being ready for the unexpected, whatever may come.”



Join Top Women Executives

Invest in your senior leadership career and join our global, virtual community of the most influential women in business.