“To transition an organisation to a more responsible business model, it all starts with a change in mindset”

Susan Zhang

Country Development Manager, Amazon Australia


After leaving China for Australia at 19 and carving out a successful career at Google, TikTok and Amazon, Susan Zhang shares how through our Sustainability Leadership and Corporate Responsibility programme, she is striving to make a positive social impact in the tech world.

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I had a passion for technology since I was a child, which started when my parents bought me an Apple MacBook with 14 months of my mum’s salary. This was in 2008 – Apple products weren’t particularly common in China at the time, but I remember walking around the shopping centre and being drawn to the design, which was so different to any computer I’d seen before. It was so expensive that I assumed that they’d never get it for me, but my mum put it on a credit card and paid it off over time. That moment triggered something in me, it showed me how invested my parents were in my future, and how they wanted me to succeed.

My interest in tech led me to study Computer Science at Zhengzhou University, which is where I learned about the Connecting Education programme with the University of Wollongong (UOW) in Australia. The programme gave me the opportunity to transfer to UOW to complete my degree. When I was 19, I left my family, China and stepped out of my comfort zone for the first time. I quickly discovered what independence meant. It was a steep learning curve and a big adjustment. I was now in an environment where I had to make decisions for myself. 

I got involved in the start-up world while still at university, which happened purely through demand. At UOW, several of my classmates who weren’t native English speakers would ask me to tutor them for their IELTS English tests. I also had an Italian friend who was interested in Mandarin business customs as he was looking to set up two factories in China to manufacture leather goods as part of his venture, and so he asked for my help. After more people kept coming to me for similar things, I set up Dragon Translating and Interpreting Services in 2013. The business focussed on providing marketing and branding strategies through cultural story-telling, helping business to set up both online and offline identities that appealed to a global audience.

In 2014, I began working at Google, which came through a networking event I attended. It was called Geek Girls Dinner, which was a social event in Sydney for women working in different areas of the tech industry. One of them was a recruiter for Google who after hearing about my experience, encouraged me to apply. I’d always loved the idea of working for a tech giant like Google but without a contact there, I probably wouldn’t have even been considered. I started the interview process, and over three months went through eight different rounds, before being offered the role of Inside Sales Manager, Demand Management APAC for Google Workspace (formally ’G Suite’).

I worked at Google for four years, which was an incredible way to experience and learn about how Google works and its ecosystem. I started out in the Sydney office working on projects including G Suite, a collection of cloud computing, productivity and collaboration tools for APAC, before moving into a business development role for Google Arts and Culture. I then took an opportunity to move to Google UK as a creative technologist focussed on advertising – using creative solutions to deliver campaigns using highly advanced AI technology and custom made solutions for programmatic advertising.

In 2018 I returned to China and joined Bytedance – now better known as TikTok – as Director of Global Monetization. At the time they were still a startup, not the huge brand that everyone knows today. They were looking for someone to help them go global, which was a huge responsibility that I was looking forward to taking on. Having worked in the western world at Google was a huge asset to me in my role, leveraging my skills in different areas of tech and knowledge of the market to help what was a very Chinese company go international.

Today, I am the Country Development Manager for Amazon in Sydney. My role focuses on working with seller recruitment teams across the globe to grow our team of international sellers in Australia. With sustainability being such a huge part of the company vision, we are set to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2025 through investing in large on-site solar installations and off-site wind and solar projects to power local utility grids, so I was keen to expand my knowledge in this area. 

“Sustainability matters to me because it aligns with my values. If I can do one thing that’s selfless it’s to leave a better world for the next generation”

“Through the case studies, I’ve witnessed how an environmental approach can drive long term profit and brand loyalty, which I can use to influence my stakeholders and unlock growth opportunities”

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I’ve always been interested in topics outside of my areas of expertise, which is why I joined the SLCR programme. Sustainability has been one of the most pressing topics on the agenda of organisations around the world for many years now. I don’t think CSR is a ‘nice to have’ for businesses any more, it’s a necessity.

In the last few years, I’ve noticed consumers gravitating towards brands and companies that share their values. When I’ve interviewed candidates, the younger generation especially are more interested in whether an organisation’s view of the world resonates with their own. This is true in terms of sustainability, covering not just the environment but also social impact, progressive ways of thinking and doing business. People are very sensitive and proactive about these topics, and are actively choosing employers that reflect their values. So in the long term, organisations need to get on board with sustainability or risk losing out on future talent.

Sustainability shouldn’t just be on the agenda for people at the top of organisations, it can also be addressed at all business levels. When I was working at Google in London, I went to the Google Data Centre in Dublin to see how they used wind power to reduce the building’s energy consumption. It was eye opening, not just the reduction in cost, but also the environmental impact they were making. If every employee in a business thinks about sustainability, everyone will be aligned in their goals and have less conflict on the economic side.

My biggest takeaways from the programme completely contrasted my pre-programme business knowledge. Starting now and starting small was something that has stuck with me – it’s not about making huge changes straight away, but making incremental improvements. Another stand out insight was building and cultivating a team who have a CSR mindset and understand how important environmental thinking is. Finally, to really make a difference, it’s essential to aim for long-term development and environmental responsibility, even if it requires a short detour from your growth target. The programme provided sound evidence on re-prioritising against short term profitability and aggressive growth plans.

The ‘cradle to cradle’ case study provided me with a new concept that I think will be an excellent practice for businesses to implement from now on. It is a regenerative approach, mirroring the human industrial activities on nature's processes, where materials and wastes are viewed as recyclable back into the earth. This will help the teams within my organisation discover the best environmental approach to tackle economic questions the business is facing, and challenge them to be more creative and innovative in their approach.

The online networking opportunities really helped to enhance my experience especially during COVIDBeing encouraged to interact with each other allowed us to share comments, questions and our own personal experiences in the online discussion forum. It added a whole new dimension to the course content, giving you access to the perspectives of people from all around the world and a range of industries. By actively engaging with others, I was able to find like-minded people and bring our online conversation offline, which has been a great way to grow my network.

Along with new knowledge I can use in my role I now have proof that sustainability is profitable. Through the case studies, I’ve witnessed how an environmental approach can drive long term profit and brand loyalty, which I can use to influence my stakeholders and unlock growth opportunities – strengthening my relationships with them in a way that’s both strategic and authentic.

The programme helped me discover that it’s not just me that’s responsible for enacting sustainable change. It’s everyone – not only just me and my organisation, but also our clients and partners. Knowing this helps me to strive towards making decisions and forming partnerships that I may have never explored or thought of before. I believe that in the long-run, it’s this attitude that will allow my organisation to make a sustained positive social impact.

To transition an organisation to a more responsible business model, it all starts with a change in mindset. Today, my strategy is to embed environmental sustainability into the mission of my organisation, reminding my team to consider the interests of both our stakeholders and social responsibility when making decisions that could have a long term impact. For me, this means becoming an evangelist who proactively engages in conversations that may affect social environment and sustainability decisions, while identifying underlying business contexts that may have causation with CSR.

There’s a saying that ‘the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now’. I couldn’t agree more and I think when you hit a certain milestone or level of work experience, you realise how important it is to focus on making a positive environmental impact as soon as you can. Sustainability matters to me because it aligns with my values. If I can do one thing that’s selfless it's to leave a better world for the next generation.

“Sustainability has been one of the most pressing topics on the agenda of organisations around the world for many years now. I don’t think CSR is a ‘nice to have’ for businesses any more, it’s a necessity”


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