Melissa Jacobs

Senior Director, ESG at First Capital REIT

Melissa has 15 years of experience in implementing a range of sustainability programs in both non-profit and for-profit organizations. In her current role as Senior Director, ESG at First Capital REIT (FCR), she provides leadership and support to the Company in the national development and implementation of FCR’s ESG strategies and initiatives. 

Her past roles include Manager, Sustainability at Bentall Kennedy and Sears Canada and Manager, Projects and Research at the World Green Building Council. 

Melissa is active in a number of industry associations including the Canada Green Building Council (CAGBC), Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) and REALpac. Melissa received her Bachelor of Environmental Studies from York University.

Work and impact

Sustainability is my work. I’m the Senior Director of ESG for a company called First Capital REIT. They’re a real estate investment trust so my role is specifically focused on leading the ESG or sustainability strategy and programs for the company. In previous jobs and roles as well, I’ve always been focused specifically in that. First Capital is one of Canada’s largest owners, developers, and operators of grocery-anchored centers and mixed use real estate. We’re in the commercial real estate space, largely focused on retail and in our new development projects are shifting more towards mixed use real estate, and we understand that we have a direct impact on the current and the future prosperity of the neighborhoods that we operate. That’s not only in economic terms, but we recognize there are social and environmental impacts that we have in those neighborhoods. So as a company, First Capital recognizes this responsibility and we have a purpose statement, which is to ‘create thriving urban neighborhoods’. The word thriving that we have in that purpose statement, the social and the environmental sustainability aspects really play into that. If we don’t have strong social networks and we don’t have a healthy thriving environment, it’s hard to have a thriving neighborhood. That is how ESG is integrated it into our overall strategy.

My career has been focused on buildings and the impact that buildings have on the environment and on people. In a few words, current areas of focus for buildings are carbon, climate and people.

I studied environmental studies in university and I graduated upwards of 15 years ago or so and honestly, at the time, I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do with it. It was an interest of mine, but it was before ESG and sustainability became such important topics in the business world. I thought I’d probably be looking at government positions. But when I was nearing the end of my undergrad, I landed a summer job with the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, and it was in their, what they called the Sustainable Development Group. It was just a small department, it was actually just myself and one other person, but we got to work on some really cool projects that exposed me to the concept of green building. And the concept of how the built environment can have both a negative or a positive impact on the environment as a whole. So I started off on the nonprofit side and when I graduated, I was hired full time by the Conservation Authority and was actually seconded to another nonprofit called the World Green Building Council. Through my work there I continued to learn about buildings and their impacts and some of the solutions to those impacts and my appreciation for the area just kind of grew. When I started thinking about my next career moves, I knew I wanted to move into more of the corporate side into the business space and work for a company to try to make a difference from that side of things. The commercial real estate industry just kind of seemed like a good fit for me because it combined my interests and the knowledge that I’d started building in the green building space with that corporate sustainability mission as well.

Honestly, in a way I just fell into it. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I went into university and I think that’s the case with a lot of students. It’s like, ‘okay, well, I’m going into a program that I think is interesting.’ I definitely knew that I was always a little more drawn towards environmental and social type issues. I feel like I’ve always been a compassionate person and have cared about those types of issues. I don’t think I fully understood or realized that besides thinking of working for a charity, that I could work for a company in the impact space. It wasn’t really front and center in my mind at the time. So in a way, I kind of just fell into  the space. But now that I’m in it, I honestly can’t imagine having been anywhere else, or having focused my career anywhere else. Definitely, always an interest of mine but I didn’t fully realize what the opportunities were.

Talking about ESG or sustainability overall, in general, the thing that is most exciting is how much value is being placed on it now. Like I said, I’ve been working in this space for 15 years, and I joke with my colleagues sometimes that I was always that random person sitting in the corner. It’s like ‘we don’t really know what she does. We need to have her here, but what’s sustainability? What are we doing here?’ And then fast forward to the last couple of years and it’s such an important role, and every company wants to have an ESG or sustainability expert on their team. I think business leaders and investors are really, truly seeing the value in what a strong ESG strategy can bring to the table. It’s no longer just an add on or that we’re just doing this because it might be the right thing to do, but it’s more like we need to be doing this and we need to be making progress here. So that is definitely by far the most exciting thing. Specifically in the real estate space, sustainability started out as more of an energy efficiency play, like we’re going to change out all of our lighting to LED, and we’re going to reduce our energy use, and there’s a good business case for that and also an environmental benefit. I think we’re transitioning now into focusing more on carbon and the ultimate goal of getting to net zero, and companies are seriously starting to think through how to accomplish this. So there’s more leadership, and it’s an exciting time to to be in the space.

I can’t really think of any misconceptions. I think probably the biggest misconception that is starting to be turned around and people aren’t necessarily viewing it this way anymore is that historically sustainability was seen more of like a cost center. People would do things because they wanted to be a leader or they thought it’s the right thing to do, but it’s going to cost us a lot of money to do these things. Now, that misconception is starting to turn around and people are doing things that actually bringing value to the table without seeing it as something that’s going to cost their company a lot of money to do.

Life and aspirations

My typical work day, obviously, has changed a lot in the last couple of years. It’s no longer going into the office from 9 to 5, and then coming home. Largely, it’s been a work from home situation over the last couple years. Speaking about work life balance, I find there’s definitely been a lot more juggling between work related and personal tasks. I have two kids who are in school and when schools have been locked down, there’s just been a lot of juggling between focussing on work, needing to take care of them, needing to do this and that and that. But to keep work life balance, I do pretty consistently always try to wrap up my day at a reasonable time. I avoid working late, checking emails on evenings and weekends unless there’s something really pressing that I’m working on. I think that’s the biggest way that I try to keep that work life balance, because work is very busy. There’s always something to do, it never stops, so you can just keep going and going, which is not healthy. I would say there is no typical workday in my role because the things that I’m working on are really varied. So I could have, on any given day, 5 or 6 different things on the go and jumping from one project to another, given what’s the priority at the time. I might be running a committee meeting, and then digging into like some data in a spreadsheet, or writing a report. I try to take time out every day to do a little bit of reading, whether it’s reading the headlines, or a newsletter that’s come through to my inbox, or doing a little bit of researching into the sustainability and ESG space. There’s so much that’s up and coming that you need to stay on top of the trends. Meeting with potential technology providers, having team meetings, it’s always a dynamic day, which I really enjoy, because you’re not just sitting there focusing on one thing for the entire day.

It can be a challenge sometimes to focus with all the varying priorities and different things that you’re working on, but I would say that I am a good multitasker. But sometimes even that can get a little bit overwhelming. Another challenge specifically for my role would be that not everybody really understands sustainability. I don’t want to use the words ‘believes in’ but there are still those conversations around climate change that are like ‘Oh, is it actually human caused?’ And well, we need to do this, because human existence depends on it pretty much. But not everybody is at that same spot in terms of understanding how big some of these environmental issues are. So you just have to take a step back sometimes and spend a little bit more time whether it’s on on education or communicating in a way that is going to relate to that individual, and take the time to make a case for what you’re trying to do, rather than just assuming you can go ahead and run with it. I’d say that’s a challenging part versus other more traditional areas of the business where you’re just going ahead, because it’s been proven. And this is the way we do things in sustainability; everything you want to do is new, and you have to get everybody on board and moving in the same direction. So it’s a challenge, but a good challenge at the same time.

I do see myself continuing to work in the sustainability space in a leadership role. I like the commercial real estate space and I don’t have any immediate plans to go into another industry having been in this space for quite a number of years. We’re just at that tipping point now where things are accelerating, business leaders really see the need and the value for strong ESG programs. So it’s an exciting time and I see myself continuing to work in it, because things are just starting to accelerate so quickly and I want to be part of that low carbon transition and part of seeing First Capital make some real progress towards some of those goals.

Advice for the next generations

I would say that good project management is really key. You need to be able to balance a number of different projects and priorities that are all going on at the same time, and no one project is like the other, they all tend to be quite different. Good communication skills is another, both verbal and written skills. There’s a lot of report writing. On the verbal side of things, I talked about having to get business leaders on board with your ideas and your strategy, so that’s very important. You also tend to be called on a lot to do presentations, both internally and externally. So again, verbal communication being very important. And then I think, third, would be being a people person. I think it’s very important in this role. You have to collaborate a lot with different groups, whether it’s different internal groups like committees or teams, or externally.

I do think it is important. I do think the benefit now though for the younger people who are entering university or college or starting to think about what they’re going to do, is that there are so many programs where they incorporate a sustainability lens. There are a lot more options to get that sustainability background and knowledge, but it’s not your sole focus. You’re also learning the business side of things, or whatever it might be, as well. So I do think it’s important if you want to get a role in sustainability, to have some of that education, because it is quite specific. The one thing is that it’s, it’s quite transferable among industries, though. So if you do a business and sustainability degree, for example, I think the opportunities then open up for whatever industry you might be interested in. You don’t necessarily need to specifically have education in real estate.

Like the last skill that I mentioned, getting a sense that somebody is a people person and somebody who can collaborate. A sense of humour is always good. We don’t want to take everything seriously all the time, especially working in the space that we work in, thinking about these environmental issues, and climate change, it can be a lot of doom and gloom, so we need to have some fun as well. In terms of other characteristics, accountability and integrity are important. I want to ensure that somebody who’s going to work with me will have that confidence to be doing what they need to do and taking accountability for their role as well. And also seeing a passion for what they do. The sustainability space, it has to be something that you are passionate about, that you believe in, and you really want to make a difference in. Otherwise, why are you in it?

I can’t think of anything I really would have done differently. To be honest, I know it doesn’t work out as seamlessly for everybody. I feel like I was lucky enough to have a pretty seamless career path, and I think it was just to do with timing since there weren’t a lot of people who were really focused on this yet. But looking back, I just did an undergrad, and something that I’d been interested in doing and I still haven’t done is doing an MBA. I think I gained the knowledge just from actual practical experience, because I was lucky enough to get hired and get those roles and have that on the ground learning within these companies. That’s the only thing that comes to mind. To get some additional education, like a master’s or an MBA. I think if you have a career opportunity present itself, and you’re thinking if you should continue going to school, you’ve just got to do what feels right. 

As for the second part of that question about advice, continuously learning in whatever way you can. Be curious about what’s going on, what other companies are doing. Just have a curiosity about things. If you’re passionate about making an impact, go for it, pursue that passion. I don’t think you necessarily have to have a role like mine; you don’t need to be ESG Director to make an impact. There are a lot of people who work at First Capital whose job is not sustainability, but they work with me on projects, or they have their own ideas about how to make an impact in their area of the business. So I think whatever role you land in whatever industry it’s in, if you’re passionate about having that positive impact, you can do that from within your role. You don’t need to be in a sustainability focused role to do that.