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Interview

Maria Angela Capello: SPE Honorary Member and Diversity and Inclusion Advocate

Capello (in the middle) with her coworkers.

Maria Angela Capello is an Honorary Member of SPE, thought leader, reservoir management expert, and a proponent of  diversity and inclusion and talent development. She was the first woman to supervise seismic acquisition in the jungles of Venezuela. Her career has spanned three continents, with several significant achievements across technical and management disciplines. She is an SPE Distinguished Lecturer and chair of the Distinguished Service Award Committee. She was previously an associate editor of JPT, chair of the Business, Management and Leadership Committee, and serves as director at large of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG). Capello was recently knighted by the President of Italy with the “Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella d’Italia,” for “her contributions to the energy sector, that elevate the prestige of Italy abroad.” She is the author of two books, Learned in the Trenches: Insights into Leadership and Resilience, and Mentoring and Sponsoring: Keys to Success, and more than 89 articles.

Even today it’s not common for women to follow a STEM career. I am sure it was even more uncommon when you were an undergraduate student. What was your inspiration to become a geophysicist?

It started in high school. As time passed by, I understood that there was an element that was instrumental for my passion about science—I studied in an all-girls school. At school, I didn’t have competition or biases of any kind, or any conflicts remotely related to being inferior to boys. I did not know that was an issue. I was free to just love mathematics, chemistry, biology, and achieving the highest GPA in my class. I chose physics because it was wild enough for me to demonstrate my value. Perhaps, this high school experience at Caracas fueled my passion to be an advocate of women empowerment.

In the middle of the university studies, I became unsure about my selection. I was the only woman studying physics and was asked repeatedly: “Why are you studying physics? How strange to have a woman in this career.” Geophysics became a more appealing option for me after I took a class called Basic Geophysics and Basic Geology, which was an exploratory option for the different minors offered.

My first geology field trip changed my life. The trip transformed the way I looked at what before were simple rocks or mountains from the road, a common sight, into a geologic setting that told a story, that had a meaning. Before, it was like driving without any knowledge, it’s like being blind. As soon as I was explained the geological meaning of all this, I loved it. It was an “Aha!” moment for me. It changed my life, and I stayed in the geo-realm.

Additionally, Venezuela, as you would be aware, is an oil country. That steered my career decision too. My specialization in geophysics is how I started in the oil and gas industry. I was the first physics student to ever do an internship in an oil company.

You moved from Venezuela to Kuwait to continue your professional career. How did you make the jump?

At the time, I had two daughters, both under 4 years of age. When I finalized my master’s degree, we all returned to Venezuela. My husband had been very supportive and took a leave of absence to accompany me during most of my master’s studies. After returning to Venezuela, we kept working and advancing our careers in PDVSA, the national Venezuelan oil company. Then in 2002, Venezuela was in turmoil, and the state-owned PDVSA laid off 22,000 engineers, in what was considered a politically grounded decision. That decision affected us.

After PDVSA, I was hired by the Universidad Central De Venezuela and later by Halliburton as the subsurface practice regional manager for Latin America. My husband landed a job in Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) and we decided that my husband would go to Kuwait for a year or two, while I would stay and work in Caracas. When my husband left, I experienced what is called “express kidnapping,” and I decided I needed to leave Caracas; it had indeed become too violent and dangerous. Luckily, Halliburton opened a regional operations manager position based in Kuwait. I couldn’t believe it. I always say: “When your life breaks down, and you are in an emergency situation, God will send you an ambulance.” I became the first woman technical manager working for Halliburton in the Middle East. After only 2 years at Halliburton Kuwait, I was hired by KOC and I have been there ever since, for 12 years.

You are an advocate of inclusion and diversity. Can you share the initiatives that you have followed to support this topic? What do you consider to be your biggest professional accomplishment related to inclusion and diversity?

On the diversity and inclusion side, I provided guidance and support to the co-founders of the Professional Women Network for KOC at first, and later on, for all the nine companies that shape the Kuwait national oil sector from 2009 onwards. At that time diversity and inclusion initiatives didn’t even exist in the Middle East. We were pioneers, and I supported this all along with two visionary female leaders. That’s very close to my heart. This was not one of my areas of expertise at that time, but I am very proud of having cofounded this initiative, and through time become a recognized expert in diversity and inclusion. This is one of the areas of work that has been very rewarding for me, as I have been able to propel change—positive change and support for women in oil and gas, at the regional and global scales.

I have chaired SEG’s Women Network Committee twice. I am an advisor for the SPE Women in Energy (WIN) Committee, advisor of other women organizations, and I am co-chairing the United Nations “Women in Resource Management” committee for the UN Economic Commission for Europe.

I have written several articles for SPE and the SEG related to women and diversity. My last presentation related to this topic was in Saudi Arabia in January 2020, as a panelist at the International Petroleum Technology Conference where I presented the Eastern view of gender diversity to the Western world. For me it was a fantastic moment in my diversity journey.

At SPE, I took the initiative to mentor young women. For example, when I was a distinguished lecturer, I specifically requested to meet with WIN committees of the SPE sections that I was visiting. These meetings were one of the most enjoyable moments that I had on those trips. It was a surprise for several of the sections I visited. Some did not have a WIN committee and had to improvise, and I think this petition probably triggered reflections on them and especially on the women themselves.

Have you seen an increase in the number of women since you first joined the industry compared to today? How does it differ across regions?

At present, women make up 24% of the oil and gas industry and is substantially lower in some specialties like in geology and geophysics.

The percentages do vary depending where you are in the world and depending on the role. For example, in the Middle East there are no women in operations, but there are 30% to 40% women in technical functions that are related to hard skills. For example, there are women in field development, research, and planning. Women in Kuwait have risen to senior positions, such as deputy CEO. They get to go to the field, supervise drilling, do pressure tests, and monitor gathering centers. In Kuwait’s upstream and downstream segments, there has yet to be a woman CEO, though there has been a woman CEO of the Kuwait national petrochemicals company.

In Venezuela, there have been women general managers, but still there hasn’t ever been a female CEO in PDVSA. In many ways it has been similar in Venezuela and the Middle East, with the difference that in Venezuela and the rest of Latin America, women are assigned to operational roles, like drilling. However, in Latin America, it’s not common to have women in the role of operational managers. In Venezuela, we had several, like Juana Albornoz, who was already handling a division producing more than 800,000 b/d as early as in the early 80s, and that is more than what many countries produce. Others have been CEOs of joint ventures. I presented a paper on Venezuelan women in oil and gas in the 2020 SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition. I have had wonderful role models in Latin America and the Middle East.

What are the challenges for women at the highest levels of seniority?

There are barriers for men and women; the trick is to know how to wade through those or overcome the barriers. That is the stuff leaders are made of. Look, whomever is in a senor role tends to pick the people he or she feels comfortable with. It is a human characteristic to feel comfortable with people like you. So, in the oil and gas industry, these decisions have been driven in large majority by men, hence so far, we have more men in leadership roles than women.

Take this interview for example. We feel comfortable in this conversation. We are both women from Latin America, and we are more or less the same age. That happens at corporate levels too. When senior roles are held primarily by men, they feel comfortable, they are roughly the same age, and they have the same background. Why would they pick someone totally different? I think that we need to work to reduce this unconscious bias, go out of our comfort zone, and embrace diversity. And not only gender diversity, also for ethnicity, ability, and expertise.

Originally, I was not pro-quotas, as is done in some countries of the Middle East. However, I saw what happened in the Canadian cabinet when the prime minister decided that women were going to be half of his government team. Amazing step-change. Similarly, in Norway, they imposed by law to have 50% women in all boards of directors. That was a big shift in representation. Now, I am in favor of quotas, because big shifts are needed to make progress.

In our industry there are a lot of assignments that keep us far from home. In your specific case, as a distinguished lecturer, you visit different countries. How has that impacted your personal life? Any lessons learned on being away from home?

I have enjoyed being a distinguished lecturer, and the hectic traveling and preparation time this implied had not created issues for me. My husband and our two daughters are very supportive. I keep connected with my family when I travel. If I travel once a week, for example, I share everything that I do during the day using WhatsApp messages, home videos, or social media. I speak with my daughters every day and the last message that I send every day is a “good night” to my daughters. Actually, I say “buonanotte” (good night in Italian). Of course, my husband and I stay connected. We are very flexible and we know what to expect from each other. One of the benefits of the intense travel experience is that you become more flexible when you encounter so many new and different cultures.

Any personal accomplishments that you would like to share?

My most important personal accomplishments are my two daughters, of whom I am very proud. Alessandra is a psychologist and Claudia is a medical doctor in Ireland.  

On a personal note, I have started to play the piano again. I started when I was 8 years old. Then, life took precedence, and I let it go for more than 20 years. I resumed playing the piano 13 years ago and it is still my passion. I play baroque music for keyboard; J.S. Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, and Antonio Soler are my favorites.
 

New SPEI Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Standing Committee
We are excited to announce that the SPE International Board has recently approved a proposal to expand the remit of the Women in Energy (WIN) committee to cover Diversity and Inclusion(D&I) as a broader topic. The energy industry has continued to grow and develop since the WIN committee was founded in 2016. Leveraging the existing WIN network, the new SPEI D&I Standing Committee has an expanded mission and vision to encompass D&I within SPE and the oil and gas industry. If you wish to set up a D&I committee in your region, or for further information on this please contact diversityandinclusion@spe.org.

Patricia E. Carreras is a reservoir engineering consultant located in Houston. She is a member of the SPE Business, Management and Leadership Committee and a mentor of the SPE eMentoring program for young professionals since 2018.

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