International Women in Mining Profile: Lara Smith
Lara Smith is the Founder and Managing Director of Core Consultants, a consultancy firm that provides commodity market research, analysis and valuations to the global mining industry. Although Lara reluctantly became involved in mining, today she cannot envisage another career. She regards mining as a fascinating, multidisciplinary, international field and loves the opportunities that it provides for meeting incredible people and amazing personalities, as well as international travel and involvement in projects around the globe. She suggests taking every opportunity you can: just saying yes! Don’t think too much about the future, and don’t have set career goals. As a mining economist, Lara is a trailblazer in her field who believes in consistently providing high-quality work, adding value to all she does. Things have come a long way from when she first started out and was asked: ‘But what can a woman tell me about mining?’ By Kathy Sole
How did mining come to you? How did you choose mining as a career?
To be honest, I did everything not to be in mining; I studied chemistry at the University of Cape Town. It was a one-way ticket into Anglo American or Sasol [large multinational companies based in South Africa].
After I graduated, I switched out into finance and then became an equity analyst so as not to have a mining career. However, due to my chemistry background, I was offered the mining sector to analyse — which I declined. Eventually I was told to analyse the mining sector if I wanted to develop my career in finance. So reluctantly I did that, which led on to other jobs — all in mining.
Today I can’t picture anything outside of mining, as it is definitely one of the most fascinating, multidisciplinary, international fields out there.
Please describe your current role.
In 2009 I founded Core Consultants, a commodity consulting firm. We are mining economists, offering two broad services: consultancy and market outlook studies, which are available on subscription.
Our consultancy tends to focus on market strategy, looking at offtake agreements, and finding joint venture partners. We assist our clients in making informed business decisions with respect to their mining assets and help them monetise these assets.
What is your experience of being a woman working in the mining sector?
Now I’m so used to it. Initially it was tough. I was very young when I started so I expected some backlash, but I didn’t expect that someone would turn around to me and say, “but what can a woman tell me about mining?” I thought this was unique to South Africa but, hearing the stories from other women around the world, I now understand that this is quite normal.
Now I think back, trying to get meetings with people was impossible — unless I agreed to do a dinner. And if I did agree to dinner, it was taken as a date, rather than a business meeting. So, I would arrive in a suit and with a note book. They would arrive in casual attire and start ordering the wine.
Today, I’m better known as a consultant, so I tend to get meetings during normal working hours, and I’ve learned to put people in their place, but nicely (like a lady 😊), if there’s any disrespect.
Have you/do you encounter much discrimination in the workplace or in recruitment processes?
Not discrimination as such, but I definitely had to prove myself and really put up with a lot of nonsense. I don’t believe this would have been the case if I were a man. But the other side of it is that I may not have gotten the introductions, meetings and opportunities that I got if I were a man. Because, let’s face it, initially as an unknown consultant, men in high positions started speaking to me, just because I sparked their interest as a young woman interested in mining. I don’t know if this would have been the case if I was a guy in my mid-twenties.
Have you had mentors or sponsors that helped you on the way?
I definitely have people in the industry I admire and who I could call if needed. Not mentors as such, because I’ve run my own firm for most of my career, so it’s a bit different for me.
Dr. Jeanette McGill is one of the most impressive people I know, and we are lucky to have her in the mining field. She’s unbelievably well qualified, so humble, has been on boards and held director positions, and has summited every major mountain. She’s always backed me up and I know I could count on her completely.
I have had the pleasure of working with John Parker and Iain Bryson. They are very knowledgeable in their respective disciplines and I often call on them for a second opinion or for information.
In general, I’ve had the privilege of meeting so many incredible minds and amazing personalities in mining from so many disciplines. I’ve often wondered if I would have had this experience in any other field. I am fortunate that my network and the people I can call on just keeps getting bigger and bigger the longer I stay in this industry.
What challenges have you experienced by virtue of working in an industry that is predominantly male? Do you feel you have had to adapt to ‘fit’ the industry?
No, definitely do not adapt to fit in. Rather stand out and be noticed.
What are you passionate about in your work?
I like to understand new markets and how the economics tie up with the technical. I enjoy working on multidisciplinary projects and seeing how the economics and market strategy affect the technical issues, such as how one might choose to process a particular ore body in order to maximise market value.
I also really enjoy the fact that, through Core Consultants, I’ve been able to see the world, work on projects in different countries, meet people at conferences, and I really do have an international network that is amazing.
What would you love to do next?
As a mining consultant/economist, the problem of market transparency and how to gauge prices of non-exchange-traded commodities has been an issue that many have grappled with. We’ve developed an AI [artificial intelligence] and machine learning-based technology that can extract price and market information based on big data analytics. Right now we are looking for funding to develop this product further. If we get it, then this would definitely be a new challenge for us and something I’d love to work on and develop.
What is one thing you wish you’d been told when you were starting out that you know now?
Wow, there’s so much that I just didn’t know! But I think one thing that is important for a woman in business is to know, fundamentally, is that you can do anything you want as a woman and you can have children too. For me, it took years, even after starting Core Consultants and running it successfully, to actually have the faith that I could be successful — and that blockage held me back. As a person, not just as a woman, it’s so important to have that belief in yourself and that you can add value.
Do you sit on a board? If not, would you like to?
I would love the opportunity to sit on a board. I don’t currently, as I’ve never been asked.
What is your opinion in the women on boards debate? Are you pro quotas or against them?
Tough one. In general, I’m pro meritocracy and against quotas. I still believe that good people get good jobs and the way to challenge or change a society is through education not force. However, if quotas are needed to get the ball rolling, then I’m fine with them being implemented, provided that the person genuinely deserves the role based on education, ability and merit, and that there’s a set period where the quotas are applicable. In other words, if as a country we implement quotas, make it a policy for a finite number of years and then phase it out.
Do you believe women in mining groups can help to change the image of the industry and make the sector more attractive to women?
I believe that education in general can help change the image of the industry. If women in mining groups are in the public eye and are seen to be making meaningful impact in industry, then the benefits could be far reaching.
Any advice to young women starting out in their careers?
Take every opportunity you can: just say yes! Don’t think too much about the future, and don’t have set career goals. I was planning to be a portfolio manager in a finance company and today I run a mining consultancy.
The company I have today is also very different in nature to the company I planned to create, with different services. But in that flexibility I’ve learned a lot, been to many places, earned more than I ever dreamt of, and met the most brilliant men, women, and companies along the way.
How do you manage your work/life balance?
In one word, “badly”.
Look, I do try, but I think the nature of consulting is that sometimes you are hugely busy and productive and deadlines are flying at you, and sometimes you have too much free time. I’m getting better at it. I’ve also learned to turn down work and say no to clients and put on “out of office” notifications.
In the beginning I’d work across three time zones and answer every email immediately, thinking that if I couldn’t do it all, then I wouldn’t be chosen. Today, and I suppose it comes with experience and maturity, I realise that if you’re going to be able to do it all for the long term, then you need to set boundaries. Clients are human, your colleagues are human — you can also allow yourself to be human.
Have you any hobbies or pastimes you would like to tell us about?
I’m the type of person that likes to start lots of different things—sports, art, crafts—get really excited about them and then move on. The only things I’ve stuck to for years and years are Core Consultants and my dogs.
Recently I’ve started swimming again. And I really enjoy a good fictional series and reading biographies. I started reading biographies of people living in China and Africa because when I became an analyst I was told to “read up on the politics” of both. At the time, I couldn’t think of anything worse than reading some textbook on Chinese policy, so I got into reading biographies. From there, I was able to get a good grasp of the politics, the economics, the life, the demands, and so I just continued to read this genre of books. I must say I really enjoy it and it’s my preferred genre when choosing something to read.
Lara Smith has been an analyst for over thirteen years, starting her career as an equity analyst at Foord Asset Management and then as the lead analyst for a diversified mining investment firm, where she was responsible for sourcing, analysing and evaluating potential mining acquisitions in Africa and the Baltic regions. In 2009, she independently authored three in-depth studies that formed the inception of Core Consultants. As the Founder and Managing Director of Core Consultants since June 2009, Lara, with her team, is committed to supplying high-quality commodity market research, analysis and valuations to global institutions. An internationally recognised expert in the field of mining analysis and a well-known speaker, Lara has a BSc in Chemistry, Statistics and Economics and a BComm (Hons) in Financial Analysis and Portfolio Management from the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
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