What do you do?
I own Estelle Levin Ltd (ELL), a small specialist consultancy dedicated to responsible mining and sourcing. We advise stakeholders along and around the supply chain of minerals, particularly those from artisanal and small-scale mining sectors, and from high-risk and conflict-affected areas. We work with businesses all along the value chain from mine to retail, as well as the regulators, donors, Civil Society, industry associations, and certification initiatives who are creating incentives for businesses to behave more responsibly in how they mine and how they trade.
Why did you decide to set up your own company?
After working for the World Bank, I worked on gorilla conservation in Congo and ran the Durban Process, which was attempting to stop illegal mining in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, a World Heritage Site. I set up my own business when my now husband got a permanent job at the University of Cambridge. As I had a short-term contract with a very low salary, I couldn’t afford to live in Cambridge and commute down to London, and nor did my employer permit me to telecommute. I felt I needed to do something that made sense financially at this stage in my career, and I had other opportunities. So with much regret, I terminated my contract.
I got a consulting contract from somebody I knew from my time at the World Bank, and then they just kept coming. It wasn’t a concerted choice of, “Oh, I don’t want to work for someone else,” it was more “I’ll see what I can do to fill the gap” and I found my time filling up with really interesting opportunities.
Five years later, I co-founded the ASM-PACE project with another inspirational woman in the foreign policy arena, Kirsten Hund, who was at WWF at the time. Once again I got to work on mining and conservation, and have made this a core piece of ELL’s work ever since.
What’s most difficult about running your own business?
Although I have a lot of experience running projects, I had never had formal business training until recently. Some of my most useful experience came during and around university, running societies (I was social secretary and president of Edinburgh Footlights, and social secretary of the Geography Society) and raising money for charity bike rides for Macmillan Cancer Relief, which I did in my early twenties. I also acted as personal assistant to executives during my holidays and straight after university, and I had one really inspiring boss, Chris Blin, who was thinking about achieving social values through his languages business in Guernsey back in 2000. He taught me that you could put your heart into business, as well as your head.
I studied sustainability and development so the technical content of the advice I give is familiar and comfortable, but sitting on a business that’s growing and knowing how to do that well has taken a lot of instinct, intuition and also amazing mentorship.
Two recent things really helped. One was a gentleman called Neil Shearer, who came in at a critical moment and helped me think about how to be a better leader and business director, to really understand what that means and how to do this well.
The other were two UK government schemes, one called Growth Accelerator and the other called Passport to Export. These gave me really useful training (and inspiration) and a subsidy toward certain parts of my business. This really helped me learn how to lead and grow a business well.
That said, I’m going to start some business courses at the University of Cambridge later this year.
You used to work in gorilla conservation and now you’re in mining. How do you move from one to the next?
They’re completely related. I did a Master’s degree at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Geography, as I wanted to understand the theory and praxis of sustainability. In 2003, I took a course called Environmental Sustainability and wrote a term paper called, “The Business of War: Constructive Corporate Engagement in the Coltan Trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo” which precisely looked at the impact of illegal mining of conflict minerals on conservation, including gorillas. This relationship between market regulation, social insecurity and environmental protection is what got me interested in mining as an entry point for creating sustainable production and consumption systems.
For me, it’s always about that human-environment interface and the context in which minerals are taken from the earth and transformed into something that we use.
If we want to build resilient societies for our children and for humanity at large, then we have to take those things into account. We can’t just go around it with a commercial head or a political head. You’ve got to embed these things in broader systems, and consider the political relations between them. You’ve got to think about inequality, you’ve got to think about justice, you’ve got to think about impact.
What were you doing at the World Bank?
I was their programme assistant for their Communities and Small Scale Mining Secretariat.
This was in 2005. I was straight out of my Master’s in UBC and I came into a department where people were massively busy and didn’t have a lot of time, so they gave me free rein in everyday activities and decisions. I basically ran the Secretariat, checking in with my bosses on the big stuff.
We pulled together anyone who did anything on artisanal mining globally. We organised conferences to explore particular development issues and challenges, we produced publications, lead research, had grants. It was a knowledge initiative amongst other things. We brought people together: somebody has this issue in that country, you should talk to that person there and they can then help you fix it… I loved that coordination aspect.
It was a brilliant start for my career because it got me to understand the big picture around the issue of artisanal and small-scale mining and to know the who’s who. It gave me a landscape view on the sector, and I found the energy and commitment of my colleagues in the artisanal and small-scale mining policy and implementation space utterly motivating.
How was having a Master’s degree helpful?
My undergraduate degree at the University of Edinburgh was quite generalist. It gave me quantitative and qualitative research methods and the beginnings of critical theory. But doing an MA made me interrogate the fundamentals of why I was interested in what I was interested in. It taught me how to take certain critical lenses onto a situation: feminism, post-structuralism, etc. These now help me interpret, understand and reconcile the positions of different interest groups, which is fundamental to what we do at ELL. ELL is quite unique, because we sit at the centre of multiple interest groups. We help mining companies, refineries, gem manufacturers, brands, and other businesses engage with issues of importance to media or NGOs, and in reverse help social watchdogs build practical understanding of what’s realistic to ask of government or industry. We help them interpret each other’s positions and break down barriers so that the whole thing can move forward. I don’t think I would have had skill that quite as neatly as I do now without doing an MA.
What has been your biggest challenge, and how do you deal with it?
My biggest challenge is exhaustion and balancing family and this position I have in this sector.
I have a very understanding husband who, in spite of being a professional himself, is willing to be flexible. We have an au pair so that, when I am travelling, my husband has support and when he is travelling, I have support (big shout out to both!).
I try to have a lie-in one day a week. Exhaustion is always there. I think anyone that has two kids under five and aspires to be a present, loving parent is pretty exhausted anyway, but you combine that with a job that involves international travel, navigating sensitive politics, and owning a business that is growing – it is pretty brutal. At least I own my own business and I can choose if I am travelling or if someone else is.
Work/life balance is quite a hot topic at the moment. How do you manage it?
We as women, or girls, were brought up to believe that we could have all the choices we wanted and that that would be okay. But nobody told us about the trade-offs that come with women taking professions.
One trade-off is in the friendships that you can’t maintain because you are too busy or you are travelling.
I have friends that want to come and visit me, but I can’t book them because I know that it is likely I’m going to be in Brazil or Mongolia or Switzerland that month. I cannot turn down a job because I have a friend that might be coming. Maybe I could, but I’d also be inconveniencing a client and potentially other stakeholders. When booking ahead for family things, you lose out on things at work. And in the evening, I’m either working, spending valuable time with my family, or collapsed in a heap trying to get rest!
I’m really lucky that my husband is a really involved dad. I have other friends whose husbands weren’t brought up to be emancipated as men. They are not as comfortable stepping into the domestic space as perhaps they are accommodating of their wife stepping into the work space. In my generation, as girls we were taught, “You can step into the professional space, you can be an astronaut if you want!” But the men weren’t really taught to cherish the opportunity of stepping into the domestic space to the same extent. I don’t know if that has changed with later generations than my own, and certainly other countries do it better (for example, Scandinavia), but that is what needs to happen, if women are to be more able to do these types of high-pressure international jobs. They need either to have no relationship, or to be in an exceptional relationship to do it, and make it work. I see many friends – not just in my field – held back by ‘supportive’ husbands, who say, ‘do go work’ but then don’t get up with the baby if s/he’s crying at night.
What is the most useful thing you’ve learned?
To believe in myself but to always listen and always be open to other people’s experience, expertise and advice. As you become more successful, it is very important to remain humble, to be grateful and to not become arrogant. Sometimes, when you are really stressed and busy and things are going well, you can become a bit of an asshole. It is really important to still be kind to people and to yourself. You could never do this without everybody else around you. Whilst you are an important piece of it, you are just a piece of it. You’ve got to always remember that.
The world of foreign policy can be quite cut-throat. I’ve seen people be absolute bastards. They are hungry for power and they lose their ethics, they lose their principles, they are not driven by values. It is a real pity. Fortunately, however, they are fairly few and far between.
What about the Lean In argument of needing to put yourself forward?
For people who have had to be promoted through their careers, I can understand why that’s the case. I’ve never had to be promoted, because I’ve gone and gotten it myself, done a good job, got recommended. I had a moment in my career where I was very doubtful as to whether I should stay in this job because I was planning a family, I’d had a bad business experience, and I thought maybe I should just get out of this altogether. But the thought of getting out of it felt like losing a huge part of myself. It is such a big part of my identity, I just love what I do. I guess at that moment I leaned in because I pulled some amazing women around me and we went for it, and that’s when I set up ELL.
What advice would you give to a young woman or a girl who would like to go into a similar field?
Get a focus, a specialism. My MA brought me to my specialist subject – artisanal and small-scale mining and the various levers (market, regulatory, cultural) for transforming this difficult sector into something more positive for society. I’ve had people interview with me out of university who are interested in ‘development’ but don’t know what role they want. It’s all very theoretical. I tell them to find an issue and make it theirs – migration, mining in protected areas, mining and food security, climate change mitigation, child protection – then bring that specialism to the world of development and foreign policy.
And get experience. Get into the field – go on holiday to somewhere with artisanal and small mining and go see it for yourself. Talk to people. There’s nothing like experience to give you greater credibility. One of my junior staff members told me she wanted to go to France to improve her French. I told her to go to Senegal, experience Africa, to see some artisanal mines and do a French course while she was at it. She’s going in a week.
And, lastly, you are likely to face situations of sexual harassment, objectification, or attempts to degrade you as a person. I guess that’s the case for any woman, or anyone with an alternative identity to mainstream white, straight, able-bodied male, in any workplace these days. Unfortunately, people can feel threatened by a woman with potential or holding a position of power. Sometimes this is gender-based, sometimes it’s race-based, sometimes it’s age-based. I’ve seen it so much – people speak over you, people tell you to ‘be objective’ because you dare to be passionate about a point (even if the reasons are sound), people ignore what you say but then a man says the same thing and everyone nods, you get hit on or groped by an interviewee (breast grabbed recently by a drunk miner surrounded by his chums holding pick-axes– not nice), you get hit on by a client (“well maybe if we’d slept together, you would have written the report more in line with my interests”), you get demeaned by a line manager at the Christmas party who says you got the job because of your ‘big potential’ whilst acting out caressing your breasts, you get love letters or poems from professional colleagues in Africa completely out of the blue. Yes – all that has happened to me. Be cool, be informed, be careful, be alert, be reasonable, and speak up. Pick your battles, and pick your way of coping with this crap, because it happens, and it is upsetting and infuriating and is a sign of those other people’s sorry state of minds; it is not a sign that your value only comes from your body and that you shouldn’t dare to use your mind…
How do you deal with working in such a male-dominated field?
I have allied myself with incredible women who are leaders in this sector and we support each other. When someone is having a hard time, we pick up the phone and talk to each other. We celebrate each other’s successes. We’ve got each other’s backs. I’ve also surrounded myself with amazing men. Men who are more emancipated or who just get it. They want to be in or back my company and they are supportive because they are excited by what we do. I take confidence from having a diverse network of men and women who are doing this with me and who can help me laugh about these things.
In some situations, I will call on more powerful men to help me. You can’t always do it yourself, and there are certain situations where the context is simply too macho and I have to play it the patriarchal way to get the job done.
What do you look for in people you hire?
Our first policy as a firm is no assholes. We won’t work with assholes or for assholes. Besides that (!), I look for people who are passionate, who have a spark about them. They are not just doing this because they feel they should, they are doing it because they can’t help it. I look for compassion and an ability to think in others’ shoes. Everybody in my firm has compassion and charisma. You know that you are going to have to want to work with them, that you enjoy working with them.
Passion, charisma, values, spark, excellence and initiative. I only take on people that I know I can just say, “Here, take it. Do it.” One of the things I try and do as a manager is make sure that everybody is just stretched just a little bit beyond their comfort zone, because each of us must always be growing. They need to have the self-confidence to say, “I’ll try it. I’ll give it a go” but also the self-awareness to say, “I need help” before they get lost down a rabbit hole and screw something up.
How do you think sustainable mining is going to evolve?
We are moving towards a system of shared value and integrated mining systems where the mineral business is the means to stimulating other more sustainable forms of production and consumption. There are pioneers that we are either working with or who we exchange with that get this idea. There is an incredible company in Cambridge called Cambridge Energy Partners, who basically provide sustainable power systems to off-grid mines – not just to save the mines money, but also to build more sustainable communities around the mines. The mines get cheap renewable and sustainable power, and so do the communities, and this power can remain after the mine is gone. Whereas, if you are just working with diesel generators, when the mine goes, the power goes (and was probably never shared either). These are the type of visionaries we work with at ELL, so we can continue to push the boundaries of what is conventional and normal through innovation and inspiration.
I also anticipate a time when we stop calling the extractive sector just that – why should it be about ‘extraction’? Perhaps we can rename it, make it something that compels those who work in it to be the stewards of social and ecological values that they need to be to make mining and mineral economies more sustainable. Perhaps this won’t happen in my lifetime, but if I can help it happen a bit sooner in a few places, I’ll be a happy lady. And maybe others will too.
CV in brief:
Career so far: Project Director at The GIFF Project | Technical Director at ASM-PACE | Founder and Director at Resource Consulting Services, Limited | Minerals and Sustainability Consultant | Durban Process Coordinator at The Gorilla Organization | Programme Assistant at CASM at The World Bank | Research Assistant, Georgia Basin Futures Project at The University of British Columbia | Analyst at Clarkson Research Services
Languages spoken: English, Spanish, French
Find Estelle online: LinkedIn | Twitter | Estelle Levin Ltd. profile
Inspired by Estelle’s career? Here are related opportunities: Working at Estelle Levin Ltd. | Get involved with The Gorilla Organization | Jobs at The World Bank | Careers at the University of British Columbia | Careers at Clarksons
Exclusive Skype interview by Lucie Goulet, 30 April 2016
www.womeninforeignpolicy.org | @womeninfp