If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would be flying in helicopters out to sea as part of my everyday job, I would’ve laughed and call you crazy. Today, I must apologize for my would-have-been impolite attitude. It took only one phone call for me to leave my astronaut childhood dream (and space career) to join the supposedly ‘anti-polar bear’ oil industry.
The way I remember Shell is with appreciation and slight nostalgia. Not only I signed up for a company but an expat lifestyle, in which people befriended, dated, married, and worked in the same circle. On one hand, I formed some of my strongest lifelong bonds then. On the other, this may also have been the reason why I left. I lived in a sort of snow globe, watching the outside world through a concave glass.
Never before did I experience what it was professional satisfaction. I was a 20-something, Colombian girl, in a foreign country (The Netherlands), telling senior colleagues, mostly men, how to run our operations. I felt powerful, entitled, and strong. No wonder why I loved my job. This would all prepare me for what it was yet to come: working 12 months, with 40 tough-looking, cowboy-like men, mostly non-English speaking, in a drilling rig, for 14 days and 14 nights. I lived, ate, and slept in a pre-fabricated, cargo-like container. Nevertheless, after working 12 hours (really 15-hours), the premises of my living conditions became of such low importance, that at the end of that very long shift, I was glad to have a place where to lay my head (I would finish with ‘at night’ but sometimes it was ‘in the afternoon’ or even ‘in the morning’).
I also abandoned the concept of a sleeping cycle. It was more like “ok now that it is 11pm at night, I’ll sleep until 1am, wake up and make my way up to the drilling floor to join the night crew.” There I was, no heels, no make-up, hair up in a bun, in greasy orange overalls, half awake, half sleep, watching this huge rotating steel machine make its way 6,000 m (18,000 ft) below the ground. We were standing over the biggest hydrocarbon reserve in Europe. At any time the high pressure could trigger a major gas leak, and worst yet, an explosion. Something movie-like but as real as many tragedies in the oil industry.
It was a Dutch winter in February, without snow but wind chills that painstakingly pierced through your skin like tiny sharp icicles. Indeed, it was an exciting time, out of the office setting. But there were those nights under the moon on the drilling floor that I questioned my existence.
If you are reading this, it means I survived my year of isolation. Aside from the hard work, my time-off was bliss. Even Jules Verne would have been envious. For an equivalent period of 180 days I went around the world: chilling by the beach in Lebanon, partying in Mykonos, wine tasting in Andalucía, and cuddling up by the fireplace with family in NYC. Oh! And there was that monsoon season volunteering in Nepal where the b-school idea originated.
At work, I met some of the brightest, most ambitious and adventurous people. They were from countries that I didn’t know existed such as Azerbaijan, Brunei and Gabon (can you name the continent and language of these nations?). Thursdays nights I met up with my 3 co-workers/partners in crime: an Iraqi, a Nigerian, and a French. I truly felt like a citizen of the world.
I am not going to lie, being in the oil & gas business was a lot of fun. Many did wonder if I felt guilty for working in a place that was controversial w.r.t. the environment. Initially, it didn’t feel this way. I was in awe at the gained self-confidence, cultural awareness, and professional acumen. Eventually though, my inner voice advocating for a sustainable future would speak louder and louder. But I will save the rest of the story for the second part of this blog.