“Our job is to resource the world out of poverty,” says Vanessa Torres, Head of Investments and Value Management at BHP Billiton. A Brazilian with Australian citizenship, she believes that mining is in her blood. Her 22 years’ experience, have taken her across continents. She is passionate about mining bringing wealth to countries and resource companies developing communities. She wants to make a difference. Volunteering is vital to her and she’s been a director of the NGO, Projeto Colmeia, for the past 11 years. By Camila Reed
How did mining come to you? How did you choose mining as a career?
I think mining has been in my veins since I was born. I was born in a small town in Brazil close to mines and mills and my father was a metallurgist. And when I was about 5 years old — being a very curious kid and being fascinated with conversations I had with my grandfather — who was an engineering professor, I decided to be an engineer who would travel the world and work in different places…. Today I am an engineer, and I have worked in different places around the world.
Has it lived up to your expectations?
I couldn’t imagine a better career. Mining has taken me from Brazil to the world, as I’ve worked across South America, then Canada and across to Australia. Today, my work touches all the countries where BHP Billiton has its mining operations.
What’s it like working for a big mining company?
It’s an experience where you can see yourself as part of a bigger thing. It is about purpose.
Large mining and resource companies bring so much positive change in the countries and cities where they operate.
I think you couldn’t imagine Australia or Canada as the countries they are today if it wasn’t for mining. Sometimes people take such things for granted.
I do believe our job is to resource the world out of poverty and that resource companies bring wealth to society. They bring them not only to the country which has the mines but also to the countries that process and use the minerals.
Were there many female colleagues and classmates also interested in mining when you started out?
When I joined a mining company at 22, there were 2 engineers in a group of 60 and I was the third. Today there are many more women working in similar places around the globe.
Over the past 22 years there has been a massive increase in the amount of women coming into mining. In my case it was almost natural – the daughter of a metallurgist and granddaughter of a civil engineer, engineering was my passion and mining was so much a part of my life.
Have you had mentors and sponsors that helped you on the way?
My first mentor was my mother. Why? Because she gave us the conviction that we could be whatever we wanted, if we put sufficient effort into it. And that was critical for me to have the confidence that I could follow the career that I had chosen, and that I could break any paradigms and that I shouldn’t be afraid to put up my hand to be the first women in some of the roles I have had.
Would you say that younger women in mining today have more confidence?
Confidence has grown from women in my generation to the generation we have today and that is one thing that makes me believe that we will have increasingly higher numbers of women coming to mining and being successful — because people today are much less afraid today than they were 20 years ago.
What is your experience of being a woman working in the mining sector? Did you/do you encounter much discrimination?
When people ask me was I ever discriminated against, I can’t ever recall a moment.
Was I ever affected by bias? Maybe.
But maybe the confidence I have always had was the best antidote to any bias that I may have experienced.
I began to have a more critical view of the challenges that women face in the workforce when I became more senior and I started to see the challenges other women experience from a different perspective.
I think there has been progress because there is more understanding that you need more diverse organisations because men and women are different. And diverse views reduce risk and increase value.
Could you share one or two challenges you’ve experienced in your career and how you overcame them?
I see challenges a source of motivation. I am someone who likes a challenge.
One challenge before in my career was to develop projects that people did not think could be profitable. Another challenge was to build a global team and having to bring new technology to the future operations we were aiming to develop.
My curiosity has helped me to go to different places and find that, no matter where you are, there is always a solution somewhere for it.
What are you passionate about in your work?
The thing I am most passionate about is being part of something that makes a difference to a community and I think that is what mining does. Mining develops communities and countries. And that is why I work in a large company — because of the ability we have to make a difference and because I work for a company that has very strong values.
When you think about the linkage between our personal values and company values then that is very important.
I am passionate about getting more women into the mining industry and about the role of the mining industry on development and in particular large companies making a sizeable contribution to communities. I am passionate about volunteering and I’m passionate about making the world a little bit better than it was before we were there.
You have dual nationality Brazilian/Australian – What’s it been like crossing continents?
I wouldn’t say it’s more difficult to succeed in Brazil or Australia because both countries have big mining industries and they have lots of opportunities regardless of where you are.
I think that the major thing when I think about my career is that I have lived in different places and worked with different cultures. I think that makes me a better professional. I am culturally curious.
I probably couldn’t do the role I am currently doing if I didn’t have that global curiosity and I think my experience of living in different countries is worth much more than my PhD degree – and I did enjoy my graduate studies.
What is your opinion in the women on boards debate? Are you pro quotas or against them?
In terms of diversity on boards or business leadership teams, the business case for diversity has been unequivocally proven over the last few years. Every month there is a new study that shows that companies which have women on boards or executive teams perform better. It is a business imperative.
So more than having targets for the ethical reasons (which are the right reasons in my opinion) companies really have to aim to have a very diverse and broad team. Companies have to perform better, so diversity for me, as I’ve said is also a business imperative.
What more should companies be doing to get women into leadership roles?
The challenge starts in getting women into engineering and a lot of work needs to be done at school to attract women to engineering and mining. It starts with girls at school age but this by itself is not the answer. I think there should be actions at every level.
In BHP Billiton for instance, 40% of high potential training programmes are filled by women so our pipeline is growing. Senior women are incentivized to mentor and be sponsor other women.
At the end of the day, it is not only about building a pipeline but empowering women and men who have already progressed in their careers to help others to develop.
In BHP I’m on a diversity council so we connect with women throughout the whole company. The other thing that is quite important is that we make sure that we enable graduates to connect with more senior women. So it’s about connecting women across the organisations, connecting men and also showing to both that it is a good thing, for instance, to have a woman as a manager.
What skills have you found useful for your career?
The major thing relates to a piece of advice from the man who appointed me to my first formal management role when I was quite young and going to lead a team where all my direct reports were men who were older than me. I asked him if I should be worried.
And he said: “Vanessa don’t worry, just be a good leader. If you treat people with care and respect and develop them, after a month or two they are not going to care if you are a man or woman, black or white, young or old.”
And for me, that is the major thing that has allowed me to grow in my career. Caring about people and being a good leader to the teams I led has allowed those teams to perform. And performance and happiness in the workplace go together.
Any advice to young women starting out in their careers?
I would give them the three pieces of advice that have served me best in my life.
Be confident and be a good leader. And, to be a good leader, start doing some volunteering work.
If I hadn’t had these pieces of advice and I hadn’t followed it, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.
What is one thing you wish you’d been told when you were starting out that you know now?
Don’t worry, things will always work out well. Sometimes we get too worried about things and we just have to relax.
When you like what you do at work and you work a lot, you need to make time to stop and enjoy the view. I have done that at various times in my life, I just wish I could have done that more.
What would you love to do next?
When I think about my career, I still have 15 years when I want to be in executive roles and keep contributing to a global company and to help make BHP Billiton even better.
In my life I have transitioned between strategic, operational and commercial roles and when I think about the future I don’t think about specific roles. What I want to achieve is to develop something that is meaningful.
Any countries left on your hit list?
I want to go to Antarctica within the next five years and I wish we get those commercial flights to space available very soon at an affordable price. Those are the two places…. Also, I would put my hand up for mining the moon – I would go!