World Citizen Laurel Colless Tackles Climate Change, Career, Motherhood
She was born in Australia, grew up in New Zealand, but has spent much of her professional career in Europe and Japan. Now world citizen Laurel Colless, wife of Finnish Ambassador Pekka Lintu, is fighting climate change in the Washington area, one light bulb at a time.
“Did you see we got front page coverage in the Washington Post,” she exclaimed as she burst into the den of the couple’s newly designed Woodland Drive residence, returning home after battling traffic from her office in Virginia. Her newest project, the 0 million energy-saving makeover of 100 Washington-area properties, is already making headlines.
As the new head of research development in sustainable technologies for Virginia Tech, Colless helped to create the groundbreaking Energy Efficiency Partnership in Greater Washington. The large-scale building retrofit program is partnering with city governments, urban developers, energy service companies, financial institutions and civil groups in greater Washington to reduce energy use and greenhouse emissions by 20 percent to 50 percent in existing area buildings—using everything from more efficient light bulbs and cooling systems to lowering emissions from area power plants.
“There is a potential savings of .6 billion annually in the greater Washington area,” Colless emphasized. “And that’s a conservative estimate that doesn’t count military facilities, universities or embassies.”
According to Colless, the first thing everyone needs to do is simply use less energy, which is faster and cheaper than creating new energy sources. And second, this kind of energy partnership will demonstrate that there is a strong case for businesses to “go green.”
“All we need is more projects like this one combining the strength of big business, government and civic groups, and in this case a university, to address global problems. I think the Europeans already get this,” she said.
Virginia Tech’s core partners for the project are energy efficiency financier Hannon Armstrong, which is providing 0 million to finance the retrofits over the next five years, and Pepco Energy Services, which will conduct energy audits, supply materials, perform building retrofits, and guarantee the energy savings along with providing renewable energy options.
“There’s nothing new about this—retrofitting has been around for the past 25 years,” Colless said. “But that’s what makes this energy-saving project a big deal. The technology has been around all this time but few have been willing to pay for it upfront.”
With this partnership, the retrofits will pay for themselves over several years. Building owners will repay Hannon Armstrong out of the money they save on lower energy bills and then start reaping the benefits themselves.
According to Virginia Tech President Charles Steger, an architect himself: “The goal of this partnership is to turn the metropolitan D.C. area into one of the nation’s leading green cities.”
Local developer JBG Companies has put up two pilot buildings, L’Enfant Plaza and the Reston International Center, for the ambitious project. Colless said the partnership also hopes to include government, private and even historic properties.
For instance, Meridian International Center President Stuart Holliday has already called about retrofitting Meridian’s two mansions, which are both on the National Register of Historic Places. “But probably embassies will not be included because of complicated procurement policies,” Colless noted, “although most foreign embassies and residences could really benefit from an energy audit.”
She added: “We are so lucky to have the legacy of the Finnish Embassy, to have that real piece of Finland here that has such a small environmental footprint. Only three trees were felled during the construction. And it’s a dream to entertain there because the venue itself does most of the work.”
Colless was referring to Finland’s 13-year-old chancery on Massachusetts Avenue, across from the U.S. vice president’s home. The contemporary and energy-efficient embassy was quite controversial when it was first built, but now it is considered to be a spectacular showcase for Finnish architecture, engineering and art—a metaphor for the Finnish values of transparency and respect for nature. It has also become Washington’s prototype embassy building for today’s enhanced public diplomacy outreach.
Throughout the first five years of the Energy Efficiency Partnership, Colless and her team will oversee, study and advise the group. “We are creating a bed of knowledge, case studies, and providing a live laboratory for our students,” explained Colless, a proud new faculty member of Virginia Tech. “We also plan to create an energy awareness program for students K through 12 and the public at large.
“This project has a lot of legs in terms of expansion and replication possibilities in North America, and I see that this Washington-area project could be self-sustaining in five years.”
Green living is nothing new to Laurel Colless. In 2003, she produced Nokia’s first integrated sustainability report, examining such areas as the environment, employment practices, product health and safety, diversity, supply-chain management and community involvement.
She currently serves on the board of the Institute for Sustainable Communities, a nonprofit organization that works with emerging democracies on problem solving through training, technical assistance and grants. She is also a steering committee member of the Women’s Conservation Forum at Conservation International.
Colless’s worldly outlook is a natural extension of her upbringing. “When you grow up at the bottom of the world,” she said, “you want to travel and see it.”
In fact, the day she handed in her dissertation for a postgraduate degree from New Zealand’s Massey University, she left that afternoon for Italy. “I became an ESL [English as a Second Language] teacher. Once I learned Italian, I taught English literature in high schools and business English in Italian corporations,” Colless said. “I kept thinking that maybe I should get ‘a real job’ back home in New Zealand. But everyone was talking about Japan then and the business focus was on Asia, so I went to Tokyo. In the early 1990s, Tokyo was so exciting—the streets were paved with gold.”
This globetrotter became fluent in Japanese and began a career in business communications before joining the equity research team of a global investment bank. During that time, she also pursued what she calls a “sub-career” in journalism, filing regular newspaper and magazines columns, including her own monthly by-lined column in the Asahi newspaper.
She even met Walter and Joan Mondale while interviewing them for her column “Diplomatic Sauce.” “And Walter Mondale gave me his recipe for turkey stuffing,” she noted, explaining the title of her column. “I was a restaurant critic too.”
It was in Tokyo that she met her husband, Finnish Ambassador Pekka Lintu, a divorced father who is 16 years her senior.
“He had just arrived there and everyone was interested in him because he was a single ambassador,” she recalled. “So I went to interview him. I remember asking him what it was like to be the ambassador at the office and then run home and do the flowers and set the stage for evening meetings and receptions?” (She later mentioned, “He’s really quite good at that.”)
“We got to know each other and became friends,” she continued. “Three years later, we were married. When he left Tokyo, I went with him to Helsinki, farther north than I thought I’d ever go.”
Once in Finland, she joined the communications team at Nokia’s home office, where she worked as a director of financial communications. During her time at Nokia, Colless also played a role in implementing the company’s youth life skills program in 25 countries, all in partnership with the International Youth Foundation. In addition, she worked on a landmark partnership supported by the United Nations Development Programme, which delivered multimedia education materials to schools in the Philippines using Nokia’s mobile technology.
In January 2006, her husband was posted to Washington, though Colless continued to work for Nokia until one week before the birth of her second daughter, Julia, on July 26, 2006, at Sibley Memorial Hospital.
Growing up in New Zealand and living in Finland where women have equality, she always expected to succeed professionally. “In 1893, New Zealand was the first country to give women the right to vote. In 1906, Finland was the first country to grant women the right to run for public office, and this was not an empty gesture. The following year, 19 women were elected to Parliament and we are celebrating that centennial now,” Colless explained.
“Recently our female president was voted in for a second term, and we currently have 12 female Cabinet members, in comparison with only eight who are men,” she added. “Finland to me is a good example of bringing women into the decision-making process early and successfully combining a strong social welfare system with a thriving business sector.
“Not surprisingly, Finland has been named the most environmentally competitive economy in the world and that proves that you can sustain good business while taking good care of the environment,” she proudly declared.
But her career ambitions and desire to help the environment did not dampen her “maternal urges.” “Most of my life I have focused on my career, but I always wanted to have it all: a strong role in society as well as a husband and children,” Colless said.
“After we were married and I was about 35, I started baking cookies in the middle of the night,” she recalled, delighting herself with the memory. “I had incredible maternal urges and one Christmas Eve, my husband, thinking a puppy might answer my needs, arrived at our door with Doris. But having a puppy around only intensified my maternal urges,” she said, referring to Doris, their 4-year-old wire-haired dachshund. Their first daughter Olivia was born the following December and came home the very next Christmas Eve. “And Doris had to go back to being a dog again,” she joked.
Today, Olivia is almost 4 and Julia is 1. Colless usually gets home from her work in Alexandria, Va., around 5 p.m. and spends the evenings with her young daughters unless she has official diplomatic events. “I go online after we get them into bed,” she said. “There are risks and rewards. I try to be very targeted, organized.”
As we were wrapping up our interview, the girls ran in with their nanny, Heta. Colless stopped to cuddle with her daughters, pet Doris and introduce everyone. “I try to have ‘Mommie time’ with the girls every day,” Colless said. “We go to the library or park or go swimming together, just the three of us. But my husband is a very good parent too. He always tries to get home for their bath and bedtime.
“Now, I wear three hats: head of research for the energy project, wife of the Finnish ambassador and mother of two young girls,” Colless explained. “Before they hired me, I told Virginia Tech that I needed flexibility. I take phone calls wherever I am and I often have to work in the middle of the night, which means I have all three hats on at the same time.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.