Sabrina Kolbeck
Sustainability 03.03.2022 4 Min.
“It’s worth keeping at it.”

In the “WEffect” sustainability series, the BMW Group highlights the sustainable contribution made by a wide range of people in the company – and the motivation that inspires them. Today: Sabrina Kolbeck.

Sustainability has many facets at the BMW Group because we are using this term to harmonise business, the environment and society. If we are to successfully put these high standards into practice, we need our employees’ commitment. Everyone can play their part in making the BMW Group sustainable.

So, who are all these colleagues who make sustainability part of their everyday work? What drives them to roll up their sleeves throughout the company? In the new “WEffect” sustainability series, the BMW Group introduces employees who play their daily part in the broad and responsible further development of our company.

In this part of our series, Sabrina Kolbeck (31), business economist in Controlling at the BMW Group, explains why privilege also comes with responsibility and why she founded the “PowerUp – Empowering Social Mobility” project with her colleague Jacob Hamar. Read the interview with Jacob Hamar here.

Sabrina Kolbeck

Sabrina Kolbeck, your “PowerUp – Empowering Social Mobility” project is scheduled to start in 2022 with a pilot in a school in South Africa. Can you briefly explain what this is about?

Sabrina Kolbeck: We want to use the batteries from our development vehicles to supply social institutions around the world with electricity from renewable energy sources. The idea came about a good two years ago when my colleague Jacob Hamar and I took part in the BMW Group's internal Accelerator Programme called “Innovation for Impact”. During the project research, we came to the conclusion that there are a lot of almost unused electric vehicle batteries that are almost as good as new, but which are simply sent straight to recycling after the test phase. Reliable access to energy, especially renewable energy, is a real problem in many developing countries. We therefore wanted to see if we could use these batteries to support social projects and save CO2 at the same time. Our first step is to supply schools with electricity. Education is essential and electricity has a definite role to play: it makes the schools independent of the often monopolistic energy providers. They have fewer disruption due to power cuts, can use regenerative energy and manage without diesel generators. The first of these is a BMW school in South Africa, near Rosslyn. This is going to be our pilot project.

How did you end up being involved in this way? What drives you?

Kolbeck: I am passionate about travelling. Central and South America, Africa, Asia. It’s great to get to know new cultures and new parts of the world. At the same time, these trips have really opened my eyes to how incredibly well off I am and the privileges I enjoy. That’s why I’ve been doing my best for a few years now to incorporate some level of social commitment into my travels – particularly when they are long journeys. In my opinion, privilege comes with responsibility. And I personally get a lot out of being able to give something back. I am also passionate about using existing resources as effectively as possible. REUSE, REPAIR, RECYCLE – every time when possible. The goal of our “PowerUp – Empowering Social Mobility” project is that all the usable batteries from development vehicles get deployed to social projects at the end of the test phase. In the long term, it would be great if batteries from customer vehicles could also be given a second life in a similar way. However, this is not so easy, because vehicle batteries and their technology are complex, and safety is an extremely important factor.

Sabrina Kolbeck

Does that mean that the complex battery technology is the biggest challenge on the way to achieving this goal?

Kolbeck: At the very least, there are technical challenges to overcome when converting them from in-vehicle use to stationary power storage, and safety issues that need to be resolved. The past few years have taught me a lot about battery technology. In the course of the project, we have always realised the potential and expertise that we have in the company and have worked together with great colleagues. Unfortunately, it is not yet a matter of course to rely on this ability outside of regular processes. I would like to see people being more courageous in this area. Because it is so worthwhile to keep at it. That’s what I’ve learned over the last few years. I’ve also learned that not everything always has to be perfect from the outset. Of course, the first step is always the hardest, but in the end, you don’t get anywhere at all until you have taken that first step. So we take that first step. We give presentations, we talk to people – and sometimes we take a bit of a beating, because not everything works right first time. Not everyone we ask for support or for approval to do something is convinced right away. And we do all of this in addition to our day job too, so after work and at weekends.

You must have to invest a lot of energy in that. What helps you to keep going?

Kolbeck: Jacob and I have a lot of fun working on the project, we are a great team. My friends and family make it clear that they are proud of me. Supervisors and colleagues are very supportive. And every step we take spurs me on. The pilot has been delayed by the pandemic – but finally we can launch it! We have approval, we start in 2022. That’s really great. And it’s really starting to take off. MINI, for example, plans to expand the PowerUp idea and transfer it to other regions in Africa on a large scale. For me, that’s the greatest success so far, apart from the technical progress we’ve made: I see just how much our commitment inspires other people. I’m so proud of that.

Sabrina Kolbeck

This is not your first social engagement project either. If you take a look back – was there a trigger, an experience, which made you become active?

Kolbeck: Apart from climate change, I was enormously touched by the refugee crisis in 2015. People who leave their homes because they can no longer live there, or cannot survive there. And this despite the fact that they love their homeland and it breaks their heart to leave. There is this imbalance that we have everything here, but feel we give so little back. That we don't use our resources enough for basic things. There should in fact be enough for everyone!

What other support would you like to see from the company?

Kolbeck: That we see more confidence in our abilities and the company remains courageous! We have to be plucky enough to initiate something to really get things moving. Even if it is not perfect at first. I would like us to believe that this can really make a difference. Something will only happen if we are daring. 

And when is it good enough for you? When will you be satisfied?

Kolbeck: It would be ideal if all the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals were achieved. But basically, I am convinced that change is the only true constant in life, so there is no final goal for me personally. It’s important that every evening we reflect back and can say: today was good. What I gave today, what I have given, is good. And I’ll do it again tomorrow.

In the upcoming portraits from our “WEffect” sustainability series, committed colleagues will also describe their motivation and explain the contribution they are making to sustainability within the BMW Group.

„WEffect – we make the BMW Group sustainable.“
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