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An icy plunge to understand importance of sustainable living

Alan Alex '98 will participate in the “Leadership on the Edge” program held in the Antarctic and led by the Polar explorer Robert Swan.

A 5:30 a.m. phone call aroused Alan Alex ’98 from his sleep. When he answered, an excited voice asked, “Do you want to go to Antarctica?”

It was 11:30 a.m. in the Netherlands, where Alex’s fellow employee at Akzo Nobel was located, and he was eager to share with Alex the good news.

On March 13, Alex and 11 other Akzo Nobel employees will participate in the “Leadership on the Edge” program held in the Antarctic and led by the Polar explorer Robert Swan. During their 14-day expedition of southern-most continent, the team will hike, sail, attend lectures and complete projects all geared towards preparing the team to face the challenges of adopting a sustainable lifestyle, both personally and professionally.

Through this trip, Akzo Nobel hopes to develop future leaders, demonstrate the company’s commitment to sustainability, inspire other employees and foster personal growth.

“We are encouraging the company’s future leaders to act as real ambassadors within the organization and use their new-found knowledge and inspiration to incorporate sustainable leadership into their jobs and everyday life,” says the Web site Akzo Nobel created to the chronicle Antarctic voyage.

To read journal entries and view photos from the trip click here.

Alex anticipates spending time in personal reflection and professional growth.

“I think this trip will inspire me and give me perspective on the issues and on myself,” he says. “The expedition, for sure, will change me, and I believe it will make me a more focused individual and employee.”

Alex’s team includes employees from Akzo Nobel’s three main industries: decorative paints, performance coatings and specialty chemicals. Alex, a regional controller, works with functional chemicals in Chicago, Ill.

The team was selected from a pool of 68,000 employees living in more than 80 countries. Each team member has worked with the Fortune Global 500 company for several years and is considered a rising leader within the organization.

This year is the first of a three-year partnership between Akzo Nobel and Swan’s 2041 organization.

As the first person to walk to both the North and South Pole, Robert Swan has witnessed environmental degradation first hand. While after walking under the ozone hole in the Antarctica, his eye color changed and his face was severely burned, says Akzo Nobel’s Web site. When crossing the Arctic, global warming caused ice to melt unseasonably early and nearly drowned his team.

Swan launched 2041 to inspire others to preserve the arctic regions.

“The world is not lacking in information (about climate change). It is lacking inspiration,” Alex says Swan told his team.

Swan named his organization after the year that the Environmental Protocol of the Antarctic Treaty will be reviewed. He hopes 2041 will help ensure that this legislation is renewed, and the continent remains a natural preserve.

A career built on “practical skills”

Alex has never packed for a trip like this. Because he is required to carry everything he packs, he is taking only the bare essentials: good waterproof boots, a thick jacket, quick-drying long underwear, camping headlights and his mp3 player, containing every genre of music except hard metal.

Although this is his first arctic expedition, Alex is no stranger to traveling.

Alex was born in India and raised in America, but he considers his European tour one of his first overseas experiences. A chemical engineer, Alex skipped class for two months of the spring semester in his senior year to travel throughout Europe.

“It was risky, but I was convinced that I needed that exposure,” he says.

Once he returned, Alex sought a company that would allow him to work overseas. Lehigh University’s Career Services placed him in contact with Akzo Nobel, the one company willing to send him abroad.

“I don’t think it was easy for the company to do. It was risky for them to send a fresh graduate who they barely know. Akzo was willing to take that chance,” says Alex.

Since joining Akzo Nobel in 1998, Alex has lived in Indonesia and five European countries. Three years ago, he returned to the United States but travels frequently.

“I may have to attend meetings in three different countries within the matter of a week. It’s considered part of my normal job,” he says.

Alex believe that he received his job offer, in part, because he participated in Lehigh’s cooperative education program, which combines academic study with nearly eight months of professional experience.

“It gave me a leg up on my competition,” he says. “I had practical skills that I could use at my job from day one.”

These days, Alex looks for work experience when he recruits new hirers at colleges and universities, including Lehigh University.

“The difference I see (between Lehigh seniors and seniors at other colleges) is that Lehigh students come out with more work experience, and they work with reputable companies, like Exxon-Mobil, Merck and Air Products. It adds a lot of value to the student,” he says.

Alex’s two brothers, Milan ’03 and Alwyn Alex ’05, ‘06G, also studied chemical engineering while at Lehigh University.

Read about Alex’s adventure on his blog.

--Becky Straw

Posted on Monday, March 03, 2008

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