Part II: A Girl’s Guide to Drilling Rigs, Helicopters & Offshore Ops


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My first time in a helicopter, I was in a state of shock. I was scheduled to take the 1-hr ride from the Den Helder airport, off the Dutch coast, along with eight, 200lb, tattooed, bearded men (aka traveling buddies). As I donned my bright yellow survival suit (supposed to keep me alive for a whole 10mins once we hit the 32°F North Sea water), I had flashbacks of the crash simulator. Strapped inside a chopper-like structure, our would-be crew is immersed in a pool of cold water, and flipped over repeatedly. I push the side window out to egress but nothing happens.  Divers swim around us as a safety caution. The water gets into my eyes and I lose one of my contact lenses. Ironically, I’m not worried about drowning or my blurry vision, but about being the girl who messes up the exercise and needs rescue!

I can think of so many times when I tried to dodge the ‘girl’ stereotype. It became my karma, mission, and duty. When taking my technical exams, the biggest fear was not failing but measuring up to my male colleagues. I felt as if I had to prove that I was equally smart and competent as them. Today, regardless of my degrees and accomplishments, I always go into ‘prove-myself-auto-mode’ at the start of a new challenge, either by pure habit or plain paranoia.

Back at the ‘heli-airport’, I put on my emergency oxygen supply. I am about to board, when I notice people staring at me. They don’t even try to pretend not to. Yes, I was not the average, 200lb, bearded, tattooed, female (those didn’t really exist). Actually, it was because I was a woman doing what it has been traditionally a man’s job. Still today, I don’t get used to the staring. Seriously, it’s like they’ve never seen a girl before. 😉

We take off, in a high-knot wind, through the dense, cloudy skies, and I’m wondering ‘how on earth does this guy see where we are going?’ We were in the middle of the deserted North Sea, held in the air by nothing but a spinning helix, a pilot, and a dashboard full of gauges. Again, I thought WHAT THE HECK AM I DOING HERE?? After 20 minutes expecting a nauseous, bumpy ride, my anxiety quiets down. The entire experience turns out to be smoother than a 6-hr flight from Heathrow to JFK (if you have ever queued up for UK security you would understand me). Another 35 minutes go by, and out of nowhere, there it was, a hard-to-miss giant metal skeleton, shining right at us. “Lady and gentlemen we have arrived to our destination, the K80 platform”.

Offshore, the captain was a white-bearded man with long-hair, an earring, jeans and a t-shirt. He was the epitome of a seadog, a pirate. Yet, he was in charge of running the show. I was not sure if this comforted me or worried me.  Boy, was I far away from the executive Den Haag headquarters. At sea, time goes by somewhat differently. It is like being in a cruise ship except I am the only female on-board. The all-Russian staff spoiled us as they cleaned our quarters everyday and did our laundry. The chef fed us potatoes, gravy and French fries at night, and home-baked cakes during the day. Once again, disconnected from civilization, the only get-away was to go outside and stare at the endless sea.

With more helicopter flights under my belt, the offshore routine became normal. Being part of the Southern North Sea Operations team made my all-time list of top things (up there with husky sledding in the North Pole). Een gezellige ervaring, zeker wel! I wish that this enthusiasm would have carried through after I changed roles. However, with time, the bottom line of ‘returning value to our shareholders’ was no longer mantra enough. Mission-less and passion-less, I was saturated with corporate standards & procedures (a slashed oil barrel price from $120 to $40 did not help the situation either). This all led me to close the fossil-fuel chapter of my life. Most importantly, my gut kept telling me that there were amazing things awaiting for me elsewhere. And you should always listen to your gut over anything else.


Part I: A Girl’s Guide to Drilling Rigs, Helicopters & Offshore Ops


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.

The 1st year of my MBA: 10 months & $50K later

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As I fly to San Francisco for the summer I reflect back to this past year. On one hand, it feels as if only a month has gone by since I first sat on my desk next to 300 of my-newly-made friends. On the other hand, after all the emotional, intellectual, and physical ‘trauma’ (I mean this in the nicest of ways), it feels as if half a decade has gone by. It has been a true roller coaster ride; full of ups and downs, where my classmates and I held tight to the handrail, closing our eyes, and praying that if we survived we promise to never curse again (and that I would call my mom more often).  And yet, somehow, one does have the perception of coming out smarter.

Ten months ago, what started as a harmless idea, turned into my everyday reality. The thought of abandoning the 9 to 5 routine to immerse myself in textbooks was no longer platonic. There were those precious moments worth freezing in time. For instance, when I boxed another girl in the ring for charity surrounded by 100+ ‘bloodthirsty’ classmates (low-light or highlight?…hmmm). There were also moments better off tucked away in the past. Like when I dishearteningly stared at my finance midterm as ink bled red down the page. Even then, I discovered things that I didn’t know, I didn’t know and for that, I justified my Return On the-five-digit-soon-to-be-debt Investment. 

Who would have thought that in business school they actually made you study? Many seek fortuitously that A++++. Many see it as a mere means to an end and do the bare minimum for a diploma. I sit in a mid-category: a medium/mean/mode of As & Bs (statistics dejavú). To my defense, picture a younger me arduously investing hours in calculus and physics to become an aerospace engineer. To my eyes, I already paid my ‘studying dues’. And thus, I leave the 100s out 100s and summa cum lades to those who partied through their former education years and seek redemption (you may hate me for a whole 45 sec if this applies to you). In any case, regardless of advanced degrees/job titles accomplished, at times I still felt measured, compared, praised, diminished, by a number on a piece of paper.

In terms of networking, grad school feels like the social olympics: exhilarating and yet exhausting. There are the consultants, the entrepreneurs, the non-profiteers, those that are desperately dying to enter investment banking and those that are desperately trying to leave investment banking. I juggled friendships, classes, club activities, while scouting jobs in between (all in that specific order). Turns out I suffered from FOMO = Fear Of Missing Out. As quoted in the Cambridge English Dictionary this is “the worried feeling that you may miss exciting events that other people are going to.” So it is indeed legit, stressful, and only acknowledged by a few.

Finally, why pursue a business degree? After 2 careers checked, 3 decades lived, 3 languages learned, and 3 continents crossed, I thought it was to become an entrepreneur. I intentionally moved from Amsterdam to Washington DC for an education, but somehow and with a splash of luck, I ended up on a plane direction Silicon Valley. I guess this is the real reason why I came back to school: to be unexpectedly presented with an unimaginable myriad of possibilities. Who knows what’ll happen next…

My Tech Internship: The-1001-expectations

image001So why in the world would I decide to start a blog? I always thought blogs were for those individuals who have managed to change history through their actions, discovered the cure to a rare disease or have won an olympic gold medal. I have done none of these three things (at least not yet!), but I figured it would be interesting to record the next chapter in my life, most importantly professionally, but also personally. 

The purpose of my words, arranged in a particular context, is to inspire women and men, who like me, have latent passions awaiting to come true. This could be living in another country, working in a high-tech ‘cool’ industry, or making a complete life switch to make a higher impact. The latter, as I discovered when reading Elon Musk’s biography, is the one that applies to me best. 

In a couple of days, I will start my summer internship at Tesla. I still think fate has played a trick on me and occasionally, I let a small giggle escape. Who would have thought that many months earlier, I would be telling the universe that I refuse to return to the corporate world unless it was to work for Tesla. This was at the time when I was just starting my MBA and was reflecting upon what I wanted out of life. After all, this was the whole point of quitting my job, moving across continents and becoming a student again. I was desperately looking for inspiration, creativity and a mission-driven career path (I must warn you, the idealist in me will start to show up). And then, that actual call from Tesla came about. So first moral of the story, if you really really really want something: ask the universe what it is that you want and the universe might just grant you your wish. I know it sounds like something from The Secret…but in my case the stars did align. 

Now, in all honesty, I have no idea what to expect about this amazing opportunity. Actually, I have yet to accept the fact that I have been chosen to join Elon’s vision. As Tesla overtakes GM as top car manufacturer w.r.t. valuation, it is positioned on the likes of Google and Facebook for pushing the envelope in terms of innovation and also for being the most enthralling places to work. The one mental picture I have in my head of the physical plant consists of red shiny robots putting together a chassis and a sleek auto body, all working in unison, out of a Terminator movie. My first day, as I walk into the Fremont plant someone will pass me a wrench and ask me to go fix the arm of one of the shiny robots. I’ll just convey obediently. 

And so, as I make my way though the lines of Harvard, MIT and Stanford recruits, I try to define what my role will be. As an engineer at heart, I cannot wait to see how these robots mechanically manage to operate smoothly, and how can a car function without a combustion engine. As a first year MBA, I want to understand how the named-after-Nikola-Tesla company does business differently on the daily basis with suppliers, customers, and managers. Is it more like “we are Tesla, we are cool and this is what we expected done…yesterday” or perhaps more like “Elon said we needed those 500,000 pre-ordered cars produced and delivered by the end of the summer, and that’s what we’ll do at all costs” or even “we have this magic machine that secretly makes whatever we thought out, and you have now become part of our tribe and are sworn to secrecy”. 

Will I love Tesla and Elon’s mission to change the world? Or instead, like an odd Lego piece, struggle to fit in? What if I am indeed sworn to secrecy and cannot share my excitement through my writing. Guess, I will have three full months to find this out.