WEI Champion Spotlight: Mireille Toulekima

What do you do?

I’m a petroleum engineer by background. I have worked in the Oil & Gas industry internationally for more than 20 years now in different technical and management positions. 3 years ago, I decided to become a full-time entrepreneur. I founded 2 companies: an oil, gas and energy consultancy called MT Energy Resources, and the second venture is a leadership organization called the Mireille Toulekima Leadership Organization founded in 2017. The latter is about empowering organisations and individuals – especially entrepreneurs – to be able to deliver to the best of their ability. It’s a more consciousness type of organization where we coach and mentor people for them to understand that they are limitless, rather than letting the limits they place on themselves define them. It’s important for them to understand that they have a great potential to achieve and step into their greatness wherever they can, in every capacity to make an impact on the world. So that’s the Mireille Toulekima Leadership Organization. Also I serve on the boards of several organisations, such as the UAE-Africa Mentoring Development Consortium, an organization that facilitates global connections for Africa and builds bridges between Africa and UAE and the rest of the world. I am also a Global Goodwill ambassador, the Asia Pacific Female Waves of Change organisation ambassador, an ambassador to the World Health Innovation Summit (WHIS), and to the Helen Clark Foundation named after the former New Zealand prime minister. Additionally, I am part of the board of directors of the East Africa Oil & Gas Australia Ltd. We run an annual conference in Perth Australia called the Africa Oil Gas and Energy Australia Conference. My role in the Women’s Economic Imperative (WEI) is  as a champion of women in non-traditional industries, I’m also a part of WEI as a champion of women in non-traditional industries and as a member of the WEI team of experts. . As a big champion and advocate of women in STEM, last year I created STEM QUEEN with Ashaba – who you have interviewed before. I’m the founder of STEM QUEEN and she’s managing STEM QUEEN in Uganda.

Can you tell me a bit about the Greatness Engineering Summit?

The Greatness Engineering Summit is an upcoming conference in Nairobi, Kenya from March 25th to March 27th 2020. It will be the integration of a 2-day entrepreneurship conference and 1-day ‘women in entrepreneurship’ symposium. It will be a mixture of presentations, panels, discussions, and there will be an opportunity for start-ups to pitch to venture capital investors. The platform will be used to connect some of the small companies to bigger players. The outcome we want is the ability to create something concrete, essentially a task force who can actually contribute to help Africa tackle some of the Sustainable Development Goals, such as Goal 5 (Gender Equality) and Goal 8 (Work & Economic Growth). Those are the main SDG’s we want to tackle at this summit. The idea is that after the summit the task force will be able to follow up on the conference’s discussions and continue the work we started.

What do you think is the role of renewable energy in the coming years?

When looking at the reserve numbers, the idea of getting rid of fossil fuels energy resources is still remote if we want to meet the world energy needs. I think the first step toward greater clean energy is to eliminate the use of coal, then reduce the use of oil while using more gas– which is less polluting than coal and oil– during the transition period before moving on to cleaner energy sources. Beside the more common sources of renewable energy to solar, wind, hydro, there is the emergence of other energy sources like organic wastes to generate gas or biofuel. These are energy sources also going to be key enablers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change. I anticipated that the transition to full renewable energy will still take time. We still use cars and work in factories that operate using conventional energy sources. However, it is worth noticing that major oil and gas companies are a very conscious of the threat posed by the current trend of greenhouse emissions. They are progressively putting processes in place to transition to renewable energy wherever possible. Their focus and priorities have shifted to clean energy. With the challenges ahead of them to reduce their greenhouse emissions and carbon footprint come the need to innovate and bring affordable technologies on the table.

As someone who works in the energy sector, what would say are some of the biggest issues economically?

In 2014, the oil price started to drop, which created a number of issues. Among them are that a big chunk of the work force has been laid off because of the resulting down turn. Since then there hasn’t really been much recovery. The industry itself is changing. We’ve been used to conventional sources of energy but we see alternative sources of energy emerging, as well as newly developed technologies that are able to develop unconventional reservoirs and produce oil and gas. There is less dependency on the Middle East, new markets have emerged (Africa), China energy needs have decreased the last few years and the US is energy independent and do not import but now even export oil and gas hence the imbalance in the market, which is very difficult to resolve. Looking at the industry from a gender point of view, I think there has been some progress. Before, we couldn’t attract enough women in the industry, whereas now we can attract but we have a lot of difficulties to retain them. We call this phenomenon a “leak in the pipeline”. One of the issues with retaining women is how we can ensure that they reach positions of decisions instead of being stuck in middle management and not progress up which push them to leave the industry. There is still really not that high a number of women at key positions, but things have improved the last few years. We must now ask ourselves how we can make sure these women progress up in the hierarchy or embrace the entrepreneurial aspect of the industry. We need to push and educate women to make sure they are empowered to become entrepreneurs and create jobs too, not just wait for the right job to be offer to them. Only women are able the unique to create jobs that are more adequate for other women, which is a way to solve part of the problem as a whole.

What kind of proposals would you make for better retaining women in the oil and gas industry?

I think it’s a mindset thing. If we want to work on the mindset, we must start very early. We really need to start working with the very younger generations, start to integrate the fact that working in these kinds of industries is not just for men and continue to do that along the way. What I’ve noticed throughout my career and I’ve lived it myself and that when women get married or have children, problems arise because their males’ supervisors and colleagues think that they can’t dedicate themselves 100% anymore. They project that they will be unable to deliver the results required. One possible solution is to advocate sharing positions – something that is done when you work offshore for operational roles – with a woman who is in the same situation, so they can support each other. Having these kinds of flexible solutions for women will help retain them in the industry. We also need to make sure that women are mentored and coached throughout their careers, not only by women but also by men. This will help them navigate the pipeline easily and have the confidence to keep going. Lastly, the women who made it must come out as role models to show other women that it is possible to make it in a male dominated environment. It will be a boost and motivation for many as they realise that if those women can make it, so can they. Those are the kind of solutions we can look at. It is also imperative to look at the adequacy of existing policies side, from quotas to training policies that ensure that women are adequately prepared.

Have you faced any struggles in your professional life so far?

Oh yeah. When I first started in the industry, it wasn’t because I had planned to do so. I’d just finished my Bachelor’s degree, my dad who was my main provider had just passed away. I needed to find a job to help support myself. Being desperate for work I was ready to challenge myself. I focus my attention to oil and gas because that was where the jobs were back then. Even though I studied physics, mathematics, and information technology rather than petroleum engineering, at the time the oil & gas sector was looking for people with a sciences background. When I started in the industry, I had two major problems; one: I didn’t actually know anything about oil & gas and two: I didn’t speak English in an industry that fully operates in English which resulted to some of my colleagues thinking I was useless and could not be part of key projects. I was basically excluded from projects and left to do non- significant tasks for my level of education. Even though I could understand the concepts, I couldn’t express myself in English and was not taken seriously. I was treated more like the secretary and not like an engineer. I had to fight the “boy’s clubs.” I basically had to navigate my own way. It was challenging but failure was not an option. One thing that worked for me was working harder than the men in my team until I reached a point where I could deliver better products or services than them. That was then when they started trusting and opening up to me. I was thereafter fortunate enough that few men mentored and coached me along the way, which enabled me to have a rewarding international career in oil & gas. So yes, you have to work against a lot of stereotypes and some other challenges, but at the end of the day I realized that it’s better not to think of yourself as a woman in a man’s game. Think of yourself as somebody who is there because you deserve to be, just like any man does. One thing that I realised is that men are very daring. Even when they don’t know something, when there are opportunities for promotions or opportunities to make an impact, they always raise their hands and go for it. Even if they know it is going to be challenging, they just try. That’s why I think the gender gap in non-traditional industries is very much a mindset problem. We women always want to be perfect and wait for the right moment to present our projects or ask for a raise. This mindset needs to change. We need to understand that we are not perfect – we are just as good as the men. Like them, there are 2 possibilities to everything we do. We either succeed or we fail, but when we fail it shouldn’t be the end. We should just continue to compete. We should think of the men as colleagues. We should think that we don’t belong to in this male dominated environment. When a woman adopts that type of mindset it gives her more confidence because then she just focuses on herself and her own capabilities rather than the gender issue. That’s something that worked well for me, just focusing on my own work and delivering the best results. This is how you position yourself as the person to be selected for the best projects and assignments. Besides focusing on themselves women also need to make sure they are vocal. In the beginning even though I knew I did a good job, I used to just sit there and wait for someone to recognize my work. After a while I realized that I just have to speak for myself. If I did a good job I just have to say “can I present this to the team” so people know what I’ve done, how I’ve done it, and that I am good at it. It’s really about taking charge and not waiting for the men to recognize your work, as well as make sure that you’re not impressed by them and realize you have exactly what it takes to make it in the industry.

Who are the women that have inspired you?

I actually got very lucky in my early years working in the oil and gas industry, because my boss was an American woman. She was just amazing! Right from the start she took me under her wing. Because I didn’t know anything about the industry initially, she personally took time to make sure that every week we would sit down and go through the theoretical side of oil & gas and make sure that we selected a project that was both right for me and also helped me learn. I was always grateful that she would take so much of her time to make sure that I did well. There have also been other women I worked with that inspired me, especially this one woman I was working with in Malaysia. She was so smart. She knew everything. It was funny because she was covered, and because of my unconscious bias, I thought “ok maybe she’s very timid” and will limit herself because of the culture in the country toward women– no. We shared a cubicle and I learnt so much from her. She was basically a mentor to me without knowing it. I was so impressed by her performance, so impressed by her communication, and so impressed by her way of telling her team and supervisors that she was here and she was delivering results above what was expected from her and not scared of saying it!