Elizabeth Freele

Elizabeth Freele

Job title (at time of interview)Co-Founder & Managing Partner, Sympact Advisory Inc.

LocationVancouver, Canada

“Being YOU is your greatest value proposition…Always seek to learn and be respectful of the industry’s accomplishments to date, but trusting in your unique kind of ‘different’ is likely to serve you, your personal mission, and your company far more than learning how to ‘pass’ in the prevailing culture.”

April 2022

Liz is a mining social sustainability and ESG strategist, with a passion for harnessing natural resources to catalyse global development and tackle humanity’s grand challenges. As Co-Founder & Managing Partner of thinktank and advisory firm Sympact, she supports the industry globally in future-fit ESG integration and social performance leadership.

Elizabeth is also the host of Prospecting Purpose (“Mining’s Brighter Future Podcast”), Future of Mining 365’s ESG Unearthed, and Chief Sustainability Officer of AI planetary-management start-up Hyphae Inc. Outside of her time in the mining industry, Elizabeth’s business track record has also included impact investing, renewable energy, the circular economy, and cleantech ventures.

Elizabeth holds an MBA (IE Business School, Spain), a BA in Political Science and Global Development (Western University, Canada), and Certificates in Sustainable Business Strategy (Harvard Business School, USA) and Designing the Future of Work (University of New South Wales, Australia)

By Kathy Sole

  • You studied political science, global development, architecture, and science during your undergraduate years. Please tell us how you made this transition to working in the mining industry?

    During my global development coursework, I was first introduced to the term “Corporate Social Responsibility”, presented as an ugly, shifty, greenwashing tool of the corporate world. From that day on, I could not get the thought out of my head that just because “CSR” wasn’t working well, didn’t mean that’s all it could ever be.

    Mining hadn’t been on my career radar, but while working at a law firm the summer after my undergraduate graduation, I came upon a “communications and social projects” field role with a manganese junior in West Africa. As I read the details, I realized this was an opportunity to apply my international development training to a young company’s CSR efforts. I recall saying yes before I even checked where Mali was on the map! With my academic background in development studies, it was certainly an unorthodox direction – the relationship between global development NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and mining has often been fraught with tension. But this turned out to be a very fitting academic foundation for the socio-political analysis required in a lot of early baseline studies and project development strategy.

    I rapidly became enamoured with community relations work and, as a kid who had grown up camping in the desert, I was very at home in dusty exploration camps. As I jumped between companies in the region over the following years, I found my environmental science studies, gender studies, and construction basics from architecture school all came in handy during permitting and project design processes.

  • You have had a highly successful career, most recently as co-founder of your own company, Sympact. Please describe your career progression and current roles.

    From that first community relations role, I grew into a passionate field practitioner, managing a range of mining corporate social responsibility topics in junior mining. Along the journey, I’ve also had stints in circular agrifood, cleantech, and impact investing, but I keep being drawn back to work that is underpinned by my interest in humanity’s relationship with natural resources. The work of so-called “social performance” in this industry makes me tick because of how it marries my love for strategic thinking and social impact. There is such a breadth and depth of sociological challenges we can help tackle through mining. To have really tangible impacts when it’s done right is extraordinarily rewarding, especially in remote communities in emerging economies.

    After a few years of field and FIFO [fly in fly out] gigs, I landed in a Bay Street corporate office [Canada], which eventually led me to pursue an MBA, as I wanted to build a bit more business acumen. My industry experience won me the position of Women’s Scholar at Instituto de Empresa’s business school in Madrid, a top European business school known for innovation and entrepreneurship. While there, I joined the Net Impact board and participated in a Human-centred Consulting fellowship in Johannesburg. After business school, I was recruited by Teck Resources, Canada, where I had the opportunity to support and work with ESG [Environment, Social, and Governance] practitioners and their teams across the mining lifecycle in eight different countries.

    It was in leaving Teck that I leapt into consulting, eventually founding Sympact with a kindred spirit I had met there, Rachel Dekker. With a name formed of “Systems” and “Impact”, we have set out with a vision to build a community that will desilo and modernize the “social” side of business management in our industry, to improve mining’s relationship with society and the planet, tackling industry ESG challenges with a more holistic, systems-oriented lens, and looking to bring in examples, learnings, and new innovations from other industries wherever we can.

  • One of your main interests is in ESG (environmental, social, and governance) in the mining sector. Please explain how you see the importance of this today and in the future. What are the greatest challenges in this area that remain to be addressed?

    ESG originated as a way for capital markets to integrate environmental, social, and governance risk themes into the investment process. In many respects, the rise of ESG we are seeing today is a dream come true for industry sustainability or corporate social responsibility practitioners. Having the broader business and investment community finally starting to understand how material this field of work is, it’s very exciting.

    The rise of ESG is key because it stems from the challenges that business has with social acceptability over broader sustainability performance. Sustainability means meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – and that simply isn’t something humanity has been doing very well in modern history. In practice, we don’t operate in silos; we all breathe the same air and drink the same water, and if we aren’t protecting ecological systems during the course of our business activities, then we are compromising far more than our bottom line. In short, ESG is crucial if we want to leave behind a liveable world for our children and their children to thrive in.

    For a mining business, ESG action means managing your sustainability risks – front of mind lately is climate change, for example, so we’re talking about things like how an operation is affected by heavy precipitation, severe drought, and extreme heat. On the social side, it’s figuring out how to secure and maintain a social license to operate from the local communities and host governments, by protecting the environment and contributing to community development. It also includes how to attract and retain top talent, because—as we so often say in mining—‘people are our most important asset’, but mining has been struggling with a talent crisis for some years now. All of this becomes even more important in the future because mining is critical to the green transition, to our low-carbon future. So really, ESG is just about better enterprise risk management.

    In terms of challenges, one major problem right now is that ESG rating and ranking performance seems to be taking precedence over actual sustainability performance. ESG is still maturing as a field. As an industry, we need to focus more on minimising and mitigating adverse impacts on people and the environment: too many companies right now feel pressured to focus their efforts on disclosure or acting on whatever sub-theme of ESG is trendy with capital markets this quarter, just to secure a good ESG score. Another important challenge is that the skilled talent pool is not growing at the same rate at which companies need ESG support. And this is true from the junior officers and coordinators to the executive level. We still have a huge lack of Board members with ESG experience in the industry; we need to get environmental and social practitioners into more company Board seats if we are to effectively manage ESG risks. Mining, as with many industries right now, is in great need of more capability building on this topic, including beyond HSEC [Health, Safety, Environment, and Compliance] or Sustainability departments.

  • You are also involved in bringing AI (artificial intelligence) to solving Earth-based issues and establishing an Internet of Nature system. Please elaborate on what this initiative involves and where you see the benefits in terms of our understanding of the fragility and sustainability of our planet.

    The seven-generation dream of HYPHAE* is “making worlds life can call home” – to be able to not just extract resources from other planets (which several companies are already working on), but to terraform them into liveable spaces for species expansion. Right now, that means understanding how to heal the planet we have today, with nature-based solutions. So-called biomimicry, or mimicking nature, allows us to repair nature. In practice, applying artificial intelligence to massive volumes of earth data holds immense promise on this. We can create tailored AI-informed microbial and mycelial fertilizer approaches, accompanied by app-based real-time advisory, for all sorts of land contexts. We have partnered with NASA and are currently participating in two XPRIZE competitions**.

    How does this link to mining, you may wonder? The interest for me personally came from my frustration about the thousands of abandoned mine sites all over the world, many of which are leaching toxic and hazardous chemicals, as well as the rampant and reckless artisanal mining that is destroying huge swathes of the Amazon rainforest and soil and waterways the world over. I dream of a post-mining landscape where we can grow food and drink water without fear, and I think this could be a way to get there.

    *HYPHAE is a planetary management company, leveraging AI-interpreted earth data to heal, maintain, and improve land and ecosystems.

    ** XPRIZE is a non-profit organization that designs and hosts public competitions intended to encourage breakthrough technological innovations to benefit humanity (https://www.xprize.org).

  • Please describe your personal and professional attributes that you consider have been most influential in your success.

    Firstly, curiosity, a positive mindset, open-mindedness, and a love for understanding people and cultures different from me whenever I venture to a new corner of the world. Critical thinking and systems thinking have always served me very well too. A hunger for lifelong learning has been a major factor in my journey, which often translates into a desire to be involved in many (my friends and family would say too many!) different things – because I believe it’s in the in-between of transitioning between different worlds, different fields, knowing just a little about a lot of things – that’s where we identify opportunities for cross-pollination and innovation on wicked problems. Above all, working on things I’m passionate about, because we all get down and tired sometimes, but really caring about what you’re doing makes all the difference in pulling yourself up again in those moments.

  • What has been the most rewarding professional experience or project of your career?

    Although it’s been some years now, being part of the core team that built the Yaramoko Gold Project in Burkina Faso still tops the list. Going from late-stage explorer to operating the country’s first underground gold mine with an average grade of 15 g/t, in under four years, all in the face of geopolitical challenges, a low gold price, competitive financing landscape, and a local community that wasn’t sure they could trust us. Ultimately, with the Yaramoko community, we really got the chance to do it right in many respects. I treasure to this day the relationships I built on site, with my team, and with the local communities, and the community impact successes we were able to build together. Because of doing proper early-stage social baseline studies, we were able to develop appropriate pre-employment training and community-level business development programs on timelines that aligned perfectly with our project development. This meant that the sons and daughters of the landowners, on whose land we were building, got to have a literal hand in the construction of the project and in meeting project procurement needs. That kind of involvement is huge—not just from a financial-inclusion perspective, but for the sense of personal pride in shared ownership and the spirit of workplace collegiality that grew.

    One of my favourite projects was a co-funded UNDP [United Nations Development Project] initiative with the local women’s co-op; they learned how to make soap alongside business management skills, and were soon supplying the mine camp, which was far more profitable and empowering than a salaried position.

  • What has been most challenging in your career?

    I would have to say the exact same answer as the last question – after all, it is in our most challenging feats that we grow the most.

  • You have been involved in the development and ramp-up of several large projects and initiatives. Do you believe that the presence of women in significant project roles influences the ultimate success of a project? Does a more diverse team lead to better or different decisions?

    It is already well documented that diversity can lead to increased productivity, and higher revenues. But it is critical to always remember that diversity does not automatically translate into better results, especially when it occurs in the absence of inclusion. Placing non-traditional profiles in significant leadership roles in any organization shouldn’t be done haphazardly or just to fill some quota: it must be accompanied by an approach that fosters a culture of respect and belonging, and that tackles the inherent bias and discrimination that exists in non-diverse companies and industries (such as mining).

    As for the presence of women in significant project roles, this can definitely have a positive impact if the inclusion aspect isn’t an issue. And that is simply because diversity of thought leads to greater innovation and creativity; for example, in problem solving. Another interesting thing to consider is that one of the most common reasons that project management journeys go poorly is underestimating the probability of roadblocks. So it is key in large-scale project management to assess and mitigate risk effectively. Several studies in recent years have indicated that women are better at realistically assessing such risk, as well as devising mitigating actions. Women also tend to have better communication and presentation skills, which are key to the people-management side of any project.

  • It is important to bring new talent into this industry. Do you have any suggestions on how to recommendations for attracting young girls and boys to enter a technical career in mining?

    Firstly, it is crucial that the industry understand that the next generation is driven very differently when it comes to their careers, compared with previous generations: being an industry that pays well isn’t enough anymore. If we want to attract the next generation, we need to learn to compete in our employment offering with other industries that have already been focused for years on mastering themes such as flexible and remote work, genuinely inclusive environments, authenticity, work–life balance, climate action, and—above all—a purpose beyond profit. This is even more important because the tech-driven ‘Mine of the Future’ is already having to source from the same talent pool as the likes of cool Big Tech: our need to compete will only grow in the coming years.

    Secondly, let’s leverage the opportunities that come with that so-called ‘Mine of the Future’ – being ‘a miner’ already looks really different than it did even just 20 or 30 years ago. These days, and increasingly, there’s no reason you can’t work a 9–5 or 10–6 or 6–2 desk job in your leggings at a remote operating centre in a mid-sized family-friendly town full of amenities and spend every evening at home with your kids. This kind of thing is a huge sell to a whole new talent pool that would never previously have considered remote camps and FIFO life. The fact that there is growing interest in value chains is also part of the opportunity. The key message to underpin talent attraction now is that raw materials are powering the low-carbon future that millennials and Gen-Zs care about. So long as we can do that responsibly, there is a real ‘purpose’ pitch there.

    Finally, we need to learn how to communicate to the next generation, on the channels where they spend time online and in the manner they like to consume content: take my audiovisual podcast project, for example, Prospecting Purpose. This is precisely the direction we have been trying to move with this passion project because the world needs young people to get interested in tackling mining’s grand challenges. How do we make mining both cool and purpose-driven? How do we show up authentically and be honest about the exciting, juicy, difficult challenges this industry needs help on? These are key questions.

  • Do you have any advice to young women starting out in their mining careers? What do you wish you’d known when you were 25?

    Although mining has come a long way, in this industry’s culture you won’t always feel welcome and you won’t always be safe. But seek out trustworthy mentors, both inside and outside the industry. I wish I had known that sharing my own opinions matters more than fitting into the incumbent culture – you don’t have to mimic the ‘old boys’ club’ to be worthy or successful. Being YOU is your greatest value proposition, especially in an industry that is still early on in its diversity and inclusion journey. Mining needs an injection of new ideas, new ways of thinking, new opinions. Always seek to learn, be respectful of the industry’s accomplishments to date (including those of its veterans), but trusting in your unique kind of ‘different’ is likely to serve you, your personal mission, and your company far more than learning how to ‘pass’ in the prevailing culture.

  • Have you any hobbies, pastimes, or secret talents that you would like to tell us about?

    When not scheming about how to solve humanity’s grand challenges, you can find me sailing, biking, singing, camping, hiking, paddleboarding, painting, or listening to my newest audiobook with a cold beer on the beach!