Virginie Bahon leads the communications for Rio Tinto Guinea and its iron ore project Simandou. It will be the largest mining/infrastructure project in Africa. She has more than 15 years-experience in the extractive industries where she has held a variety of marketing and communications roles working in France, the UK, Italy and the Republic of Guinea.
What made you choose chemical engineering as a degree followed by marketing, an unusual combination?
I have always been interested in understanding how products are made and I was very good at science at school. Engineering in France is a sought after degree and provides a much valued educational background. It suited my personality being very Cartesian. I soon realised that although I knew how things were made I also wanted to know how that product reaches the market. This made me opt for a Masters in marketing.
My educational background allowed me to work in a non-technical role in a highly technical industry.
What is one thing you wish you’d been told when you were starting out that you know now?
At the beginning of my career, I wish I had been encouraged to seek more advice from senior peers, which I lacked the confidence to do. I was once offered a job which I turned down as I thought it wasn’t the right role for me. With hindsight, if I had reached out to my business unit leader for his opinion I would have taken the role. I believe it would have been an excellent experience.
I learned from that episode to seek advice, choosing as my mentors senior peers performing similar functions and also by looking for role models.
There have been two women in particular who have inspired me as role models to emulate.
Anji Hunter was Director of Government Relations for Tony Blair before she joined BP as Director of Communications. During my time with the company, I admired her energy levels and learned from her to speak up, remain calm in times of crisis and rely on common sense to drive communications.
I remember the time a shelf four feet above her head and laden with books fell off the wall nearly hitting her. She looked up, realised what happened and then started to laugh. It taught me to put things into perspective and realise that not everything is a crisis. Another time, BP made the front page of the Sun newspaper in November 2004 being described as ‘BP, Bonkers Paradise’ after CCTV footage showed employees having sex behind the filing cabinets. Senior management were livid and waiting for Anji’s course of action. Anji’s response was to do nothing and that the news would die down naturally – and it did.
Simone Niven, Global Head of Media and Communications at Rio Tinto, is also an inspirational figure and a role model. She readily gives trust and support to her team members; she is calm, considerate and an excellent team builder. She has been a driving force in raising Rio Tinto’s profile.
So my advice to young women is:
Look around for the people who can provide you with advice and share their experience. Look for role models that you aspire to. Reach out to them, they will feel valued to be approached. It’s amazing what you will learn from them and equally they will learn from you.
Did you encounter much discrimination as a woman? Is there a difference between the mining and oil & gas sectors, as you’ve worked in both?
Both at university and later, I have always worked in male-dominated environments. While it is true that it can be challenging to impose yourself and make yourself heard, my engineering background has given me a sense of equality and the confidence that what I have to say is credible and relevant.
Could you share one or two challenges you’ve experienced in your career and how you overcame them?
My first job was as the Lubricants Marketing Manager for Shell, quite a senior position for someone right out of university. I was working mainly with male manufacturing plant managers, some of them with over 20 year’s experience. My job was to review all our product ranges and make recommendations and changes where necessary. I was effectively challenging their status quo. I received a lot of push back not because of the changes I was proposing but because I was the newcomer, young and female. My approach to the situation was to acknowledge their long standing experience and expertise and invite them to work together to look at ways to develop even better products in a more commercially viable way. It took three months but it paid off and we eventually became close colleagues and even friends.
What are you passionate about in your work?
I love the products and the complexity of our projects. But most of all I love the people I work and interact with. Maybe this is why I am in communications. It is all about people. In mining, teams are multi-disciplinary; they are a mix of backgrounds, culture, gender, age, experience and skills. The outcome is a rich human environment with effective teams. But my passion goes beyond just the operational teams, all the other people I work and communicate with, whether they be the communities within which we operate, the governments we partner with or the journalists I talk to, motivate me and make me love what I do.
What would you love to do next?
I am currently working for a very large complex project, Simandou in Guinea. I would like to offer my past and present experiences to other projects to share best practice. Ultimately, I would like to look after the entire communications function for an international company, be it large, small or even a start-up. Having the opportunity to set up a communications department from scratch, be part of the journey of a new business would be really exciting.
What are your recommendations to support the development of women in mining and your feedback regarding the work of WIM Community Portal and the WIM chapters around the world?
I see the value of Women in Mining in both promoting mining as a fascinating industry for women to work in and also for us to share best practises whether they be career or work situation related.
We, as Women in Mining, need to be role models in changing the stereotype that mining is for men. We need to promote engineering to women before they reach university age. With the scarcity of engineers, there are a huge number of well paid work opportunities for men and women in mining. I am always delighted to share with students my experience of studying engineering and where it led me! Allowing students to shadow us at work would inspire them to find out how interesting and exciting the mining industry can be and could make a huge difference to the numbers of women entering our industry.
We also need to change the perception that mining is ‘bad’ for the planet and the communities within which we operate. I have seen for myself in Madagascar and Guinea how at Rio Tinto we strive to bring long-term benefits as a result of the projects we develop. Whether it is the environmental programmes we have put in place, the engagement programmes we have with the communities or the socio-economic development initiatives – health, education, local enterprise development etc – we develop locally. I am proud of our commitment to do things the right way.
Have you been a Board Director/ would you like to sit on a company board?
I haven’t been a board director but would like to be. I have a lot to offer.
Are you pro targets or pro quotas re Women on Boards?
I believe that a board director should be nominated on merit, capabilities and track record; not on gender. Having said that, I find the most productive, forward-thinking and innovative teams are the multidisciplinary ones with a mix of backgrounds, culture, age, experience, skills and gender.
If I was a CEO I would try to have a balance on the board but competence would come first.