ESG's Samantha Podgorny Explains How Failing Forward Leads to Success

As the senior manager of Digital Solutions at Environmental Solutions Group, or ESG, Sam Podgorny never expected to be where she is now. Podgorny’s experiences navigating this field as a woman and mother of three only further emphasize the importance connectivity has had on her success and impact.

Jonathan Pierron, Associate Editor & Content Producer

August 10, 2022

11 Min Read

As the senior manager of Digital Solutions at Environmental Solutions Group, or ESG, Sam Podgorny never expected to be where she is now.

While studying theater in school, Podgorny did not anticipate finding so much passion for her work in the waste and recycling industry.

She shares with Waste360 exactly what makes connectivity in this field of work so important, citing problem-solving and an opportunity to work with very respectable people for this deep and unforeseen passion.

Podgorny’s experiences navigating this field as a woman and mother of three only further emphasize the importance connectivity has had on her success and impact. Involved with “The Women of ESG,” Podgorny’s work expands beyond the technical work she does in the office.

In this Q&A, the Waste360 40 Under 40 recipient explains her journey to this point in her career and lets us in on the importance of networking and building others up.

Waste360: Can you tell us what you do with ESG and what your work looks like?

Podgorny: So my current title is senior manager of Digital Solutions which is a bit of a mix between a product management role and a customer success role. For example, the project I'm currently working on is our ESG Connected Collections user interface. Right now we have a 3rd Eye portal, where if you're a 3rd Eye customer and we're collecting a lot of information on your trucks, it all goes to a digital platform and interface. So I'm giving that interface an update as well as creating more of a connected collections platform. If you are a 3rd Eye customer, Heil customer, Marathon customer, or Soft-Pak customer, all of your information is gonna go to one platform in the future instead of different places, so you can better leverage that data to make decisions for your business.

When it comes to the day-to-day work, I start my mornings by hosting a blocker call that has folks from our installation, development, sales, customer service, and customer success teams. At these meetings, we go through any issues that might have come up, whether it be something in development, or there was an issue in an install or a customer response. We've got a whole bunch of people on the line every morning to make sure that we're addressing those issues. That's how I always start my day. And then throughout the rest of the day, I might be running down some of the things that come up on that call.

In addition to that, I work really closely with our development team as we're redesigning that interface so I might be writing tickets in JIRA or working on some wireframes for our next phase of development. I might also be talking to customers about some of the things that are in our test environment like “do we have the look and feel right?” you know? Getting that voice of the customer back is another thing that I'm often working on.

It definitely varies, but all of my projects are very long. It's not ever “ohh I start something one week and I'm done in a few days.” It's sort of like I have to plan out; this is what I need to get accomplished over the next year or 18 months and then how can I make sure that every day I'm moving the needle on that?

Waste360: What was the process of getting to this point in your career like?

Podgorny: When I was younger, this was not what I thought I was gonna be doing. I was actually a theater major in college, which if you've ever met me, is not shocking, but it got to a point really early in my career where I needed something that had, you know, benefits and a normal schedule. I actually started at Waste Pro in Atlanta as a customer service rep, and in my first few years in the industry, I worked for them and another hauling company learning a lot about the industry from an operations perspective; customer service, AR, billing, dispatching, routing, things like that.

Then I worked at another company that is more like a management company where I got to learn how to manage the waste and recycling portfolios for customers and that's where I started to get into the technology side. I spent a few years doing ride-alongs where I got to talk to drivers about what kind of technology would be useful for them and from there I used my own insight gained by wearing all those different hats at the hauling companies. It just sort of fell into a passion. I was inspired by these people who work so hard, and technology has come so far, so how can we really make sure that we're leveraging technology that doesn't just sound great to investors, but the people in our industry actually love it and use it and rely on it? I love being a piece of that puzzle.

Waste360: How did those newfound passions lead you to setting the goals and missions you’re currently working towards?

Podgorny: Creating solutions that drive our industry forward is definitely one of my missions. Internally using technology to improve processes that help our team to in turn help our customers. I strive to create solutions that help our customers be safer and more efficient, as well as helping them to understand all the valuable data they have access to. It's not just one thing to collect data and give it back to somebody, but it’s another to give it back to them in a way where they know what they’re looking at and how to take action on it.

The third thing I'm really passionate about, as far as personal missions go, is helping to highlight the amazing women in our industry so that we can attract even more talent. This is an amazing industry with a lot of opportunities. And I wanna make sure that I can help get the word out on that. That is why I'm a board member for the NWRA Women's Council. I run our diversity and inclusion group, The Women of ESG, and those are some of the platforms I use to get that message out.

Waste360 Staff: When you started at ESG did you immediately get involved with The Women of ESG, or was that something you sort of fell into?

Podgorny: Yes, absolutely. Before I joined ESG, I worked for a company that was not a member of NWRA, but I knew a bunch of people that were involved in The Women's Council. So as soon as I joined ESG, I went straight to my boss and said “I really want to be part of this group; it's one of the main reasons I joined this company” and they were one thousand percent supportive on that. Within the last year at the time they had just started The Women of ESG, so I kind of quickly fell into the the leadership group of that organization, and was at the same time joining the NWRA Women's Council. About a year after I joined, they asked me to take over and lead the group. It's one of those things where every year we're pushing ourselves to do more and more.

We host a monthly meeting where we highlight an important woman in history. We do an employee spotlight so we can better understand the females around our different businesses. ESG has a number of different business units and you may only work with people within your own, so I like to use the employee spotlight as a way to build our internal network. For example, you may not know somebody at Soft-Pak but you know that you need to ask a question, so that internal network allows you to go “Oh well I remember they interviewed Dawn a couple of months ago. Let me reach out to her and she can maybe point me in the right direction.” I want to empower people to have those contacts and that network.

We also have a featured presenter, who is usually somebody from around our industry; maybe it’s an inspiring leader or maybe it's a session on personal or professional development learning about personal branding or how important it is to have a mentor. We have different topics and I love organizing those. I think our next step is to take it a step further and start organizing events like community service, things that we can do to continue sort of building that network and those experiences with each other.

Waste360: Are there any other organizations you’re involved with that are important to your current path?

Podgorny: Absolutely. I’ve been a member of SWANA for years. Brenda Henne who is just now giving up the reigns as president of SWANA, has been an amazing mentor for me over the years. I remember when I was working at my previous company, I was at a SWANA event giving demos of the technology I was working on, and Brenda was standing to the side waiting to say hello as I was finishing up with a potential customer. The customer said “oh, this is great. I'd like to speak to the person who's in charge of creating this.” And I sort of just gave him a confused look, because I was the one in charge of it. And Brenda, from behind him was like “well you're shaking her hand,” or something like that. I really appreciated her for noticing what had just happened. I’m also very grateful for David Bierman, who's over on the board at SWANA. You know, I love that organization and their focus around safety for our industry. I think it really aligns nicely with a lot of my personal missions.

Waste360: Are there any obstacles you’ve faced in your climb upward in this industry?

Podgorny: Yes, I have three that come to mind. Really understanding the complexities of the business was my first obstacle. I've had a wide range of roles at a wide range of companies that I think have given me some great perspective on those, you know, with ESG, I've gotten more of a snapshot of the manufacturing side like I mentioned operations and the service side as well as the management side.

Second would be making sure that – and this is a big one for me – making sure that my passion didn't come across as being emotional or difficult. I really had to learn how to communicate in a way that inspired people to see things the way that I do, and that took some time.

Then I think third obstacle would be really learning how to fail forward. I think it's better to speak up and be wrong than to not speak at all. And you know, even a broken clock is right a couple times a day, but you’ve gotta keep trying. If you fail, you go back, you learn more, you try again. Be a good listener, make friends with people who know more than you so they can help you, but I think that's definitely an obstacle that I've overcome with time. You sort of get more and more confident to not be confident in things. I always look around for the adult in the room and then I'm like, oh, wait, I guess I'm supposed to be an adult too. So, you know, it's having fun and being passionate about what you're doing. If something doesn't go right, learn from that and try again. Don't just give up and fade into the background.

Waste360: Despite those obstacles, what do you enjoy about your work that drives you to keep pushing forward?

Podgorny: One hundred percent it's the people in our industry. Years and years ago somebody told me “big industry, small fraternity”, and it has stuck with me. I wanna make sure, because I love the people in our industry, that my own personal brand is someone who does what they say they're going to do. I want people to think of me as someone who's always sort of tinkering on some innovative idea. I love to “live over my skis” and imagine what things can be like, five, ten, fifteen years down the road, so I think that's what continues to push me forward. This is such a great community and I want to be a valued member of it.

Waste360: Is there anything else in your journey that you feel is important to share?

Podgorny: I think the only other thing I want to share is I'm a proud parent of three. This may go along with the obstacles or missions but it's always difficult, when you're passionate about what you do, to find that good balance of home life versus professional life and ambition versus responsibilities. It's ok to not always have an answer for that, but to continue to just strive for it.

I never wanna give off the impression that I have my stuff together. I have a great husband who's perhaps overly helpful on some stuff to help me compensate, but I think it's important for for people to know that it's a balance and you might win one minute and not the other. Just like with everything else, fail forward, and try again the next day.

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Pierron

Associate Editor & Content Producer

John Pierron is the associate editor of Waste360. He graduated from Ohio University.

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