“Take every experience that is offered to you in your work – try never to turn down an opportunity, no matter how daunting it may seem at first. You never know what exactly will help you in future.”
As one of the most senior women in the Kazak mining industry, Saken Ashirbekova has an impressive track record of successful project development, operations management, and business strategy. Her professional roles have included responsibilities as varied as technical, project, legal, contract, and human resource management, through to government/ministerial liaison, facilitation of transfer of company ownership, and as General Director of two major mining operations. Her ability to think and act decisively and strategically, while maintaining a pragmatic perspective and nurturing long-term partnerships has opened doors to many opportunities in her 25-year career.
By Kathy Sole
Although Kazakhstan is well known for its diverse mining and metallurgical industry, you obtained your PhD in metallurgical engineering at a time when there were few women entering this field. What attracted you to a career in this industry?
I was born in the small town of Agadyr in the Karaganda region, which is known for its well-developed mining industry. There were several operating mines around Agadyr and the State exploration company was based there doing exploration work in the whole region. My father worked on the railway, but many of my school classmates were born into families where the parents were geologists. The dynamic and romantic spirit of the mining industry was around me since childhood.
During my school years, I was interested in science-based subjects such as chemistry, physics, and mathematics. As I was growing up, I was realizing that I enjoyed studying those subjects and therefore I would like my future profession to be somehow linked and based on the topics that I had a passion for. Considering the high importance of the mining industry for Kazakhstan, I decided to study for a metallurgical qualification for base metals extraction.
You have had a highly successful career, most recently holding very senior positions in major Kazak mining companies. Please describe your career progression and current role.
After graduation from the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys, I started to work on the Zhezkasgan copper mine, which at that time was a leading copper producer in Kazakhstan, with over 200,000 t of cathode copper per annum and employing over 20,000 employees.
It was the Soviet period when the whole country’s economy was planned and managed by the State. Having worked for two years in a metallurgical laboratory of the copper smelting plant, I got invaluable experience in understanding how the mining industry works in general, and that there is nothing on either the mining or processing side that can be discounted. I was involved in different research programmes around pyrometallurgical processing flowsheets and particularly on recycling of return converter slags, which had a lot of issues that still needed to be explored and studied. Therefore, I decided to continue my education and chose “Pb and Zn recovery from metallurgical slags” as the subject for my PhD thesis.
After receiving my PhD, I was promoted to the Technical department in Head Office, working in the field of managing scientific research and development of processes for treating low-grade wastes on the mine.
In 1995, the Zhezkasgan complex was privatized, along with many other mines in Kazakhstan. Although in the initial period it was accompanied by social problems like wage reductions and unemployment, at the same time a liberalization of the mineral sector opened new opportunities for people from the mining industry, including myself.
I decided to expand my knowledge about mining from a business perspective and in 1996 I joined a UK-based company – European Minerals Corporation (EMC). This was a challenge in the extreme, as I knew no English language at that time and had to self-learn the language “on the job” so to speak. I worked with EMC for several years on different exploration projects in the Central and Northern parts of Kazakhstan and in 2001–2005 I was working as Head of the EMC representative office in Kazakhstan. After finalising the exploration work and a JORC-compliant resource estimation, in early 2005 EMC decided to start development of the greenfield Varvarinskoye open-pit copper–gold mine. After project funding was obtained, I was appointed as General Director with in-country responsibility for all aspects of the project development. The mine was finally commissioned in November 2007, costing $165 million to bring to production and created permanent jobs for over 700 people. Varvarinskoye is still operating today within the Polymetal Group, a fact of which I am very proud.
After my experience at Varvarinskoye, in early 2010 I joined another UK-based company, Central Asia Metals PLC (CAML), again as General Director to oversee all aspects of the construction and operation of the first copper SX−EW [solvent extraction−electrowinning] plant in Kazakhstan treating the low-grade Kounrad mine waste dumps. I am also proud to say that the Kounrad facility is generating around 13,000−14,000 t of copper per year at one of the lowest C1 cash costs in the industry, with a remaining life of at least 10 years.
After the successful commissioning of the plant in early 2012, I continued in the role of General Director, managing all operational aspects until 2015. At that stage, I was appointed to a new role as Business Development Manager of Kazakhstan, looking for new business opportunities within the country for CAML.
Please describe your personal and professional attributes that you consider have been most influential in your success.
- Willingness to accept responsibility
- Strong communication skills
- Broad-ranging and in-depth understanding of the mining industry
What has been the most rewarding professional experience or project of your career?
I am proud for being the leader of and being a part of multi-discipline teams that successfully built two modern, safe, and very profitable mines in Kazakhstan.
What has been most challenging in your career?
Both projects involving my participation were pioneer projects for the mining industry in Kazakhstan. While the Kounrad project was the first SX–EW project in the country, the Varvarinskoye project was the first new modern, large-scale base-metals project in the post-Soviet period, where copper (as concentrate) and gold (as doré bars) were produced on the same plant.
We were the first team that introduced international engineering standards to the Kazakhstan mining authorities and got their approval to use them. This enabled us to pave the way and open doors for other local mining companies thatwere also interested in developing new projects in Kazakhstan using world best practice.
As a leader in this industry, working with a variety of stakeholders ranging from government ministers, corporate executives, technical and operational staff, please share your leadership philosophy and how you manage diversity in the workplace.
My leadership philosophy is quite simple: “Don’t mislead people and don’t let people mislead you.”
The approach of “Whomever you talk with, treat them in a way as you would like to be treated yourself” helps me to manage, respect, and balance the diversity of views within a workplace. In both of our mining operations, I hired people solely on merit and disregarded any aspects of ethnicity, gender, or personal orientation.
What is your experience as a woman working in the mining sector in Kazakhstan, in an industry that is predominantly male? Do you feel you have had to adapt to ‘fit’ the industry? Have you had mentors or sponsors that helped you on the way?
I would say, that being a woman helped me in some way, as sometimes my “feminine” vision suggested alternative solutions in difficult situations, where some men probably would have directly faced problems in a fixed manner. I think that my personal character and flexibility also helped me to adapt to “fit” the industry to a certain extent.
All my bosses have been men and I have considered them as my mentors as well. Not only did I learn a lot from them, but I also always felt support from their side and that encouraged me in doing my job in the best way possible.
You have been involved in the development and ramp-up of several large projects. 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?
I wouldn’t like to disappoint anyone, but I don’t think that presence of women in significant roles influences the ultimate success of the project. I think that it is not genders doing the job, but experienced professionals with strong skills, personalities, and good characters.
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 a science or engineering field?
The modern mining industry is a fast-developing area, like many other industries nowadays. We cannot change the ore body, but we can try to change our approach to its mining and processing, making it safe, ecologically friendly, and more economic. And here we can see a lot of opportunities in the engineering and research field for those who are interested in a technical career.
Do you have any advice to young women starting out in their careers? What do you wish you’d known when you were 25?
The advice I would give is the very same that I give to my own daughter: “Take every experience that is offered to you in your work – try never to turn down an opportunity, no matter how daunting it may seem at first. You never know what exactly will help you in future.”
I wish I would have known when I was aged 25 that most of my professional career will happen in a country with a social-political system so different from the first 25 years of my life.
Have you any hobbies, pastimes, or secret talents that you would like to tell us about?
I like listening to music, which helps me to stop for a while, look around myself, observe, and find the right balance in my life. I do not think I have a specific genre: I prefer a wide range, it’s quite versatile from Classics to the Beatles. And, of course, I like book reading – for me it is always as a conversation with good friend, where subjects can be different again – from something to laugh to deep immersion into the sometimes intricate world of human personality.