Born In Gabon, Advising Energy Giants Around The World: Lessons From A Serious Code Switcher
Four years ago, the energy sector was in a downturn and Mireille Toulekima felt stuck in a 20-year career as a petroleum engineer. So she put her global network to use and became an entrepreneur, founding her own company, MT Energy Resources — a global energy technical consultancy and advisory firm.
Born in Gabon, Toulekima is a dual citizen of Australia and speaks five languages. Over the past 20 years, she led and advised on billion-dollar energy projects around the world for global giants such as South Africa’s Sasol, Australia’s Woodside Energy, and Anglo-Dutch Shell, the third-largest company in the world.
Now she’s doing technical studies and training management in the oil and gas industry. Her company builds 3D models for reservoirs and feasibility studies for solar energy projects. She’s helping to lead and integrate a new way of running some of the projects. She also works on business development for investors, local communities and companies wanting to do business in the energy industry.
By starting MT Energy Resources, I was better positioned as a woman, especially as a woman of color. It positioned me to play at the level I wanted to. I didn’t have to work through any corporation and be limited.Mireille Toulekima, founder of MT Energy Resources, a global energy technical consultancy and advisory firm, and an expert in local content
In addition to her work in energy, Toulekima has become an author, mentor, public speaker and coach. Before becoming an entrepreneur, she worked for different corporations with assignments in Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia. She helped with oil and gas projects in developing and emerging markets, gaining experience in local content.
Local content requirements are policies imposed by governments on foreign firms to use locally-manufactured goods or locally-supplied services if they want to do business there. There has been a substantial increase in local content requirements in recent years, according to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).
Toulekima’s work in science, technology, engineering and math is helping to pave the way for girls, women, and communities in Africa and Australia. She is the founder of a mentorship program STEM Queens Uganda, and the author of two books — “Local Content Key Enabler For Oil & Gas Projects in Emerging Markets: Investing, Developing and Providing Oversight In Countries of Operation” and “Stepping Into Your Greatness: Twelve Rules For Building An Outstanding Life.”
“I’ve tried to gather the girls and teenagers to try to champion them to really embrace tech and make a career in STEM because it is where things are going,” Toulekima said. “The future of jobs is in the tech area and it will be important for the economic empowerment of minorities.”
Sharing the lessons she learned trying to rise in a male-dominated industry, Toulekima speaks to women through her other company, Mireille Toulekima Global Leadership, as well as organizations such as Female Wave of Change and Women’s Economic Imperative.
Mireille spoke with Moguldom about being a serious code switcher, the growth of the energy sector in Africa and why she gives back by encouraging girls and women to enter STEM careers.
Moguldom: Why did you start MT Energy Resources four years ago?
Mireille Toulekima: By vocation, I’m an engineer. I’ve worked for different energy corporations globally for more than 20 years. Some were in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia and were large billion-dollar projects. Four years ago, I felt as though I was not progressing any longer, and the energy sector was in a downturn. I decided to leave the corporate world and start my own consultancy. I had the network and knowledge. I felt I was ready to go on my own and run projects with my own team. By starting MT Energy Resources, I was better positioned as a woman, especially as a woman of color. It positioned me to play at the level I wanted to. I didn’t have to work through any corporation and be limited.
The oil and gas industry has been very conservative. They would run things a certain way. With innovation changing things quickly, our company has been able to focus on the human factor, not just on technology.Mireille Toulekima, founder of MT Energy Resources, a global energy technical consultancy and advisory firm, and an expert in local content
Moguldom: What are some of the types of projects you work on now and some of the projects you’ve worked on in the past?
Mireille Toulekima: I’ve worked for international and major companies with production operations and exploration. I worked a project in Southern Africa where it was my job to manage the entire gas field. These days, the projects are smaller since I’m not managing fields. Now, my company is doing technical studies and training management in the oil and gas industry. We build 3D models for reservoirs and feasibility studies for renewable energy like solar and biomass. One of the other things I’ve been able to do with MT Energy has been to work with leadership to integrate a new way of running some of the projects. The oil and gas industry has been a very conservative industry, where they would run things a certain way. With innovation changing things quickly, our company has been able to focus on the human factor as well, and not just on technology. Additionally, we focus on business development for investors, local communities and companies wanting to do or doing business in the energy industry.
Moguldom: What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned working on billion-dollar projects globally and in very different cultures?
Mireille Toulekima: It’s a great asset to me. You bring an added value to the table because you’ve seen things elsewhere in other countries. You bring a diversity of problem-solving skills which has been a very important aspect of me progressing in my career. Another thing is you understand the importance of culture and how it plays a role in how people function, even in a technical environment.
Communication within cultures vary and knowing how to engage and talk to different people is important. For example, my last assignment in South Africa was quite a challenging one. The racial aspect actually challenged me from the beginning because of the history of the country. I had Black people thinking that as a manager they were going to have favor from me and they could relax on doing their job. On the other hand, I had some of the white people not wanting to follow my authority. To fix this, I had to get to know them on a personal level, which you don’t always do, but in this case, I had to do it. It helped us to be able to communicate effectively and understand the culture, and their fears which were causing them to act the way they were in their roles and towards me.
Moguldom: You were born in Gabon and at 14 you moved to France for school. You have worked in Malaysia, The Netherlands, Africa and Australia to name a few places. Being an international expert working with people in the predominately male energy field as a woman of color who speaks five different languages, you must do some serious work as a code switcher.
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Mireille Toulekima: You definitely need to adjust your language. There are certain expressions you need to know and use to be able to attract positive attention. It makes you make sure you know your stuff as well. Integrating with the local culture was always important to me. I didn’t want to stay with the expats. When you do so, you really do not mix with anybody from the local area. I felt like it was not going to help me being in a different country if I wasn’t going to mingle with people from those countries. It also meant I had to learn the language and how to express myself so that they could understand and connect with me on the projects. It meant having to do a lot of different things and figuring out the right expressions to connect and build a rapport.
Moguldom: Australia is home for you now. What is it like being a person of color working in the tech space there?
Mireille Toulekima: When my family and I arrived 12 years ago, I must say it was not cosmopolitan at all. There were Asian people but there were not a lot of people of color. Most of the people of color were refugees from Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. When we arrived, people thought we were also refugees. We had to explain to them that we came as professionals and not because we were fleeing something. It was our choice to be here.
There was some unconscious bias towards us. We basically had to educate them and tell them there are only a few places in Africa where there is a war going on, but it isn’t the whole continent and not everyone is fleeing a war. As everywhere, there’s always racism and ignorance. People think we’re here to try and take someone’s job. We came for our kids and the opportunity to help make them more global like us. We came because there was a skills shortage and they needed engineers. An Australian company actually helped us to make connections to come and work here. On that front, it was a positive experience coming here because you’re needed. We spent a lot of time educating people though. Eventually, they were like, “We don’t have this type of people with this skillset here, so we might as well start to respect them.”
Moguldom: Is there a Black tech community there?
Mireille Toulekima: In the tech area, not much. There is a community of Blacks in tech but it’s not really big. Most of the time when I go to tech events there’s really only a few Black people. That’s why I try to push minorities, Black and indigenous people into STEM. I’ve tried to gather the girls and teenagers to try to champion them to really embrace tech and make a career in it because it is where things are going. The future of jobs is in the tech area and it will be important for the economic empowerment of minorities.
Moguldom: Is this why you founded STEM Queens Uganda?
Mireille Toulekima: I started this initiative last year with a young lady who started a social enterprise in Uganda. We created a STEM program where we basically promote women in STEM. We speak at schools on how they can be involved in STEM and follow careers in STEM. We speak to girls at the university and secondary school and sponsor underprivileged girls.
Moguldom: Over the last 10 years there has been a large interest by companies from around the world to do business in Africa. Many companies have taken the resources and the profits but don’t re-invest in the local community. How important is it to educate local people in STEM to help them to prosper along with these external companies?
Mireille Toulekima: There’s been a recent trend in the last 10 years with countries in the eastern part of Africa like Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Mozambique, where there have been some major gas and oil discoveries which still need to be developed. There was recently a major discovery in South Africa too. So, that’s the interest that people have in the energy sector, but there’s also the renewable sector, building up there as well. Even Australian companies are getting in on it. Every mining company here has projects in Africa, every single one. They’re making a lot of money from Africa. Most of their money is coming from Africa. Most of the companies going into Africa only pay the taxes to the government, but nothing is actually happening on the ground to build the area they go into. They just make money and not develop the countries on the continent.
So, it’s important that the people in Africa realize they need to make sure that a value is created in the country so they can develop and build their infrastructure and their human capital. This current model is not in their favor. On top of that, in many countries, you have corruption. So even what is obtained from the companies, it’s not actually used for the development and growth of the country. It’s very important for those who have our roots in Africa that have been able to work globally and gain knowledge and experience to give back and build the human capital. We need to help them to negotiate better contracts so the local people can do the work and become entrepreneurs themselves to create companies like what I’ve done. Then they don’t need people from the outside to come and take everything.
Moguldom: Your company has a unique offering and you work on projects in various areas. How do you find the people to grow your team?
Mireille Toulekima: We work on a project basis so outside of our internal team of four, I hire consultants to help with the projects. If it’s a bigger project, I may have a team of 10 people helping us manage the project. Since I speak at, go to and organize a lot of conferences, I meet a lot of people. Plus, I have the network that I’ve built through my 22 years in the industry and I use LinkedIn.
Moguldom: Do you see yourself building out any proprietary technology over the next few years?
Mireille Toulekima: Yes. We’re looking at building out a tool using blockchain. I’ve been reading a lot about it over the last year and I’m an advocate of it. There is something definitely in the pipeline, you will see within the next three to four years.