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What did you want to be growing up?
I didn’t have my heart set on any one profession for any significant period of time. During the MTV heydays of the 1980s, I wanted to be a veejay, in the mold of Martha Quinn! But I’m dating myself…
Define yourself as a corporate idealist. What does that mean and how is it different from simply being an idealist?
To me, an idealist is someone who wants to have a positive impact on the world; a Corporate Idealist is someone who sees business as a great way to do that – someone who sees the potential scope, reach, scale, and drive of business and thinks, “I can put that to good use.”
But corporate idealists also realize the risks and the constraints of the work they’ve chosen to do. Multinational companies have tremendous potential to do great things for the world, but they can also cause tremendous harm.
During my nine years at BP, I worked on major projects in Indonesia, China, and elsewhere, where it was so obvious that human rights and community concerns were critical to the success of the business that I had full license to bring in experts to advise us, hire staff, and set up partnerships with non-governmental organizations.
I worked with a BP that went above and beyond what was required by law anywhere to protect people and protect the environment. But of course the Deepwater Horizon disaster threw all of that into question for me.
So I started interviewing other Corporate Idealists — which led to my book, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil — and in doing so got re-inspired by their commitment to their work and their deeply-held idealism, but also by their pragmatism. That combination is the hallmark of the Corporate Idealist.
What drives you?
I am, of course, optimistic! So what drives me is seeing the change that my fellow Corporate Idealists are making happen: they’re innovating inside their companies, winning buy-in from all corners, and changing the way their companies do business — even though their progress might seem so incremental as to be invisible to outsiders. But I know they’re making a difference, and it inspires me to keep doing whatever I can to support them.
How did you find your way into the oil and gas industry?
During my first year of business school, in 1998, John Browne, then CEO of BP, came to campus to deliver a speech about his ambitious plans to reduce the company’s greenhouse gas emissions. He had recently become the first head of a major energy company to publicly acknowledge the realities of climate change and urge action, breaking ranks with his oil executive peers.
I hadn’t thought about working in energy at all, but Browne’s thoughtfulness about the company’s role in society led me to join his company.
As a male-dominated industry, how was BP’s overall working environment toward yourself and other women?
My first full-time postings with the company were in Indonesia and China. Frankly, there were so many reasons that I was an oddball there — young, American, single, woman, MBA, not an engineer, focusing on human rights and community issues — that I never felt, or at least knew, whether any difficulties I faced were due to gender alone. Plus I love golf and beer, so I definitely enjoyed more than my fair share of social outings!
I once heard that a senior woman who left BP said that part of why she left was that she looked up at the few levels in the company remaining above her and saw all men — who were never anything but supportive, but the optics were really powerful for her.
I can empathize, but I felt more that way about the content of my job: It seemed like in order to progress in a traditional way in the company, I would have to abandon the social issues that I had become passionate about and expert in and get a commercial job like most people above me, and I wasn’t ready to do that.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to women who are thinking about pursuing jobs within the energy industry?
The only advice I give to people is not to take anyone else’s advice! No one else knows what you need to thrive.
Now when I seek counsel, I don’t ask “What should I do?” but rather “What did you do?” Stories are much more powerful than recommendations — which is why I decided to write a book that tackles corporate responsibility through my story and the stories of others.
So the one piece of advice I will allow myself to give is to ask for stories, not advice; and to keep in mind that no one will hand you your perfect job, because no one besides you knows what that is! I’ve created my best roles, and the people I interviewed for my book did as well.