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Tonya Lagrasta is the head of ESG for Colliers Real Estate Management Services in Canada.

I grew up in nature. My grandparents, who immigrated to Canada from Italy, had bought a piece of land north of Toronto where I spent a lot of time foraging for snails in the forest and tending to the vegetables and flowers in their garden.

That experience connected me to the natural environment. From a young age I understood the social contract between people, animals and plants. I knew the true source of the water I drank was not the kitchen faucet.

These fundamental concepts shaped a worldview that, in turn, shaped my life’s big passion. So when I was trying to figure out, as a young adult, what I should pursue for my post-secondary degree – my parents hoped I would study law or medicine – I decided to let my passion lead the way. That’s how I came to environmental studies and geography at York University in Toronto.

I loved it. But I also wondered: how do I translate my passion into a successful career? Passion doesn’t pay the bills, and I had many. I ultimately decided that if I am going to give so much of my time to something for the next handful of decades, it should be something worth doing.

Shortly after graduating, I landed a six-month contract with a company whose parent organization was in Europe. At a time when most businesses were still trying to build a business case for sustainability, this company had already integrated environmentally and socially conscious practices into its decision-making.

I had found my elusive unicorn – a profitable enterprise where sustainability and business concepts were connected and aligned. My a-ha moment was when I realized that, unlike most of my peers who were pursuing sustainability careers in the non-profit sector, I could push for change inside the companies whose business activities leave large environmental footprints and missed opportunities to make a positive social impact.

Fast forward to today and I can look back over a 20-plus-year career that has seen me occupy increasingly progressive roles, advancing all aspects of sustainability in about half a dozen high-profile companies, including KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, Loblaw Companies Ltd. and now Colliers.

I’m still as passionate about environmental and social issues as I was when I first enrolled at York. The connection with nature I’ve felt since childhood remains strong and vital.

Has my passion made me a wealthy person? Well, that depends how you define it. I’ve never equated success solely with money. I recognize my privilege, but through the work I do and my personal experiences, I know how quickly a safe home or good health can be lost. For me, doing what I love brings purpose and joy to my life. That’s something I can spend freely, with my family and the other people around me.

For me it’s easy to care – and worry too much sometimes – because I am fully aware that what happens to our environment, to the fabric of our society and to the institutions that underpin our daily lives directly affects us and the people we care about. It can be overwhelming to acknowledge and sometimes easier to ignore. But a long time ago, I made a choice and I’ve been all in ever since and have invited many to join me along the way.

These last several years I have doubled down on my passion. I share what I know about sustainability with anyone who will listen. I love watching people have their own a-ha moment, when they realize how they can make an impact.

Sometimes this leads to conversations about how they, too, can find their life’s big passion. I encourage them to put away their devices and go out and experience the world to figure out what resonates with them and what doesn’t.

I also urge them to volunteer, preferably in a role where they can learn new skills and meet people from diverse backgrounds. I often preface these discussions by saying that not everyone can tie their passion with work, and that’s okay. Passion is purpose, and I believe a purposeful life is that much more meaningful. If it also happens to help me change a small corner of world while doing a job I enjoy – well, I’m good with that.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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