Anglo American: Meet head of technology and innovation at our Platinum business, Jeannette McGill

Anglo American, 24 Aug 2015

Jeannette has always been a pioneer in mining. “While actual mining experience is essential, it’s important to remember, there is much more to mining than the mine and you need to look at the full mining cycle,” she says. This statement is testament to her career from her early days as a geologist, to her role as an advisor at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and her PhD in Economic Geology from the coveted Colorado School of Mines. Jeannette has seen mining from every angle because every angle is important to consider.

We asked Jeannette to tell us about her journey from being a young graduate to becoming the head of technology and innovation at our Platinum business.

It all began on a mine

In 1996, one year before women were legally allowed to work underground in South Africa, Jeannette took her first job at Anglo Vaal. While most women could not get underground for that real mining experience, as a geologist Jeannette was lucky enough to exploit a loophole.

“Women could only go underground for two reasons,” says Jeannette. “They either had to be medical staff tending to an accident, or they had to be someone who did not go down for a full shift. This is how some of the first women went underground in this country because it was our job as geologists to go down and mark off the rock face so the miners knew where to mine, and then spend the remainder of the shift plotting maps on surface.”

The mining industry has come a long way since then, it was this restriction that gave Jeannette the leg up she needed to get ahead. (Subsequently she was able to become only the second women in the Free State province to be issued an underground blasting ticket.) Not being able to complete a full shift exposed her to the other many facets of mining like exploration, drilling, and (considering she was working at one of the first mechanised gold mines in the country), technology.

“This gave me unique insight into the full spectrum of the mining value chain,” says Jeannette.

Finding the future of mining

“Very early on I could see the pressure mining companies were under to raise production and efficiencies and were considering modernisation.”

Jeannette’s first venture into mining technology came when she joined Anglo Gold where she helped pioneer the way forward for 3D Geological Modelling.

Where there used to be people plotting and planning everything on a map, it was Jeannette and her team that would put all of that on computer screens – a major breakthrough for exploration, production and safety.

Together with her colleague, Benford Mokoatle (now at DeBeers), Jeannette helped push 3D Modelling forward and the pair were awarded the year’s best contribution to Anglo Gold. “My work allowed me to take these applied technologies and push it into the survey and planning environment. Really seeing how technology could fit into the whole system.”

But technology was only one brick in the mining pyramid, something Jeannette would soon find out as she took the next leap in her career.

Discovering the real impact of mining

In 2002, Jeannette joined parastatal research agency, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), an organisation that undertakes directed research and development to promote socio-economic growth.

It was here Jeannette got exposed to countries like Tanzania, Ghana and Mali and was able to understand how governments work with small scale mining communities. Her experience solidified her role on the advisory board for the Minster of Mineral Resources, forming part of her retinue.

“I began to realise just how many stakeholders there are in the mining sector and how important it is from a multi-stakeholder perspective to understand peoples’ needs and to translate that through dialogue.”

Jeannette began to understand how countries, together with private mining companies, drive social and economic change, instilling in her an appreciation for the positive impact that mining can have on countries and communities.

From Master to Doctor

Through the CSIR, Jeannette was given the incredible opportunity to further her studies at the famous Colorado School of Mines, which is as Jeannette describes, “the Harvard of mining”. This is where she attained her second Master’s degree in mineral economics, delving into how mining makes money.

After this she got her three-way PhD in mineral economics, economic geology, and mining engineering.

“This fantastic experience gave me the opportunity to work in funding agreements, structuring finance agreements in quite a lot of deposits in North America,” says Jeannette.

Coming full circle – back to the future

In 2010, after 5 years in North America, Jeannette was ready to come home and add value to the South African industry.

“Since I’ve been back, I’ve been looking after various technology projects, seeing where we can implement things like mechanisation, electronics and geological developments.” Jeannette joined our Platinum business in February 2015.

“These are uncertain times for the mining industry right now,” says Jeannette. “But the exciting part for me is to come in at the bottom of this cycle and make the change.”

She believes the industry needs not to be afraid of change, “If we are bold and brave enough, technology can help drive this positive change,” says Jeannette.

She says one only needs to look at how mining has progressed, with more women being a part of the industry, to know that change is possible. Even though South Africa’s laws only changed in 1997, we are already at the same point as the rest of the world, that’s something to be proud of.

As an inspiring example to all those women who seek to follow in her footsteps, Jeannette says, “You have to be bold, brave and know that you can do it. Women need to go into mining with their eyes wide open.  It’s a sector full of opportunities if you’re prepared to do the job.”