International Women’s Day: Exclusive Interview with CEO of Crystol Energy, Dr Carole Nakhle

In an interview given to Masahudu Ankiilu from African Eye Report for the International Women’s Day, Dr Carole Nakhle, CEO of Crystol Energy and President of Access for Women in Energy (AccessWIE), shares her life and career journey.

Who is Dr Carole Nakhle? And what does she stand for? What are you so passionate about the energy sector?

Dr Carole Nakhle was born and raised in Lebanon. She moved to the UK in 1998, originally for one year to pursue a Masters’ degree in Finance after obtaining a Bsc in Economics Science in Lebanon, then got attracted to the field of energy economics and decided to enroll in a PhD programme.

More than 20 years later, she continues to live in the UK with her family. She worked with different stakeholders then set up Crystol Energy in 2012. She has been acting as the CEO of the company since.

Dr Carole Nakhle stands for many things – shaped by her upbringings during the civil war in Beirut, Lebanon, then her international experience. I am, above all, someone of utter common sense and balance, and that’s what I stand for in a world full of nonsense.

I find the energy world fascinatingly complex but also full of myths and half-truths which need to be constantly challenged and put right.

I admit that my attraction to energy issues stems partly from my determination to show that what was traditionally a very masculine world can be illuminated, informed and guided just as much by women as by men.

And behind this may be my motivating wish to show that someone from a very different and difficult background can achieve high expertise and prominence and reputation in a completely different environment and culture.

There are lots more that could be said, but perhaps best isn’t.

Dr Carole Nakhle speaking at the Atlantic Council Energy Forum in Abu Dhabi in 2018
How challenging was your growing up? And how did you turn it into a good one?

I was born and grew up during the civil war in Lebanon – you can imagine how challenging that was. Having machine guns and hand grenades on the dining table was normal.

Talks about death, hatred and fear dominated our daily discussions. We had to survive on the truly bare minimum – no food, clean water and electricity. When we made it to school, we had to be prepared for the harsh reality that we may not be able to make it home at the end of the day and there were instances when me and my brothers escaped by miracle, either from a heartless sniper or a bomb that exploded near the school bus. Sadly, many other children were not that lucky.

In the midst of that dark phase, dare I say it wasn’t all evil.The community support was pretty unique. Imagine around 30 people, from different generations, hiding in a small room for days and nights, yet no fight broke and no one complained – they were in all this together and it was important to support each other and lift everyone’s morale.

Now compare that with how, under normal circumstances, people tend to react in a plane when they have to share the same armrest: a discrete elbow fight often erupts.

Deprivation and the realization that tomorrow may never come or that the people around you can disappear any time, make you value the smallest things.

I remember on the days when we were lucky enough to have electricity, the whole neighbourhood would start clapping and shouting in happiness then all lights were put on, TVs and radios switched on, irrespective of the time of the day. No one complained.

I learnt a lot – from making tough choices, to sacrifice, to life has to go on. But one incident has surely affected the way I would behave under a truly stressful situation: I recall my father driving home with me and my elder brother sitting in the back seat and my mother in the front. It was around Easter and I was carrying a big box of large raw eggs to cook and decorate the following day. Then bombs started to fall on a hill opposite us.

As my dad was trying to park the car on the side of the road, both my mum and brother opened their doors and run out hysterically into a nearby building, leaving the car doors wide open.  My immediate reaction was to do the same but holding the eggs slowed me down.

Then my dad was fast enough to call me by name several times and told me to look at where the bombs were falling. He said they were still far and there was no need to panic.

He then asked me to put the eggs on the side, and get out calmly – which I did. I even managed to close the three doors of the car and joined my mum and brother, but before I entered the building where they were hiding, I waited for my father.

I can go on and on, but in a nutshell, there is always something positive even in the darkest moments – though it takes us time to realise that.

What has been the key to your journey to success?

Tenacity, curiosity and the determination to pursue my passion and what made me feel genuinely happy and fulfilled.

At first it was frustrating as I could not properly articulate what I exactly wanted – to the annoyance of family and friends. I knew I wanted to do something different and challenging but I wasn’t sure what it was.

I then accepted that I was sailing in a heavy fog and sooner or later I would see the other side of the lake. In this respect, you can say that I am not scared of taking risks.

The further I sailed, the better the vision became. But it took a while – it required patience and perseverance as well as the ability to go back on track after nasty experiences and sometimes unavoidable distractions.

I also have good intuitive abilities (to quote my former PhD supervisor).

In addition to personal attributes, I have worked hard on equipping myself with extensive knowledge particularly as related to my area of work and on sharpening my analytical skills and technical abilities. This process never ends.

What are some initiatives that you are doing as a leader?

I have been involved in several initiatives that I instigated. Chief among them is Access for Women in Energy, of which I am particularly proud. I started AccessWIE in 2007 with the aim to support the development of women in the energy sector globally.

Throughout the years, we have organised many events that showcased female expertise in the energy sector and have partnered with other initiatives that share our values and principles around the world. We have also supported the development of similar initiatives in other countries.

More recently, and following the economic crisis that hit Lebanon, in addition to Covid-19, as well as the disastrous explosion at Beirut port in August 2020, I approached a local NGO (Lebanese Oil and Gas Initiative – LOGI) to help Crystol Energy in offering regular internship to young graduates with interest in energy.

The idea was to enroll, under each round, one young man and one young woman for a couple of months and help them to improve their understanding of the global energy sector.

From my perspective, this was a small token of appreciation to Lebanese youths who are very talented yet struggling badly at these difficult times. The idea proved to be very successful – not only we had 71 applicants in the first round, but we have also come across some brilliant minds and personalities.

What inspired you to start Crystol Energy?

Starting Crystol Energy was not based on sudden inspiration or a specific business model to follow. It was based on experience, ambition and intuition.

As soon as I completed my PhD degree, I got a job offer from the prestigious Wood Mackenzie. I had and still have a lot of respect and admiration for the company – especially that they shared with me one of their core financial models when I was doing my PhD and which gave me access to crucial data that was instrumental in completing my thesis.

However, I do recall sitting on my bed, rocking back and forth wondering whether I should play it safe and accept the offer especially that my student visa was expiring and I hardly had any income.

Still, I decided to turn it down. I didn’t want to play it safe and wanted to explore what was out there for me. Indeed, I explored various options including academia and industry (Eni and Statoil) as well as House of Lords in the UK.

I also worked with international organisations but as a consultant; I turned down two full time job offers from one of them.

It was not that I did not enjoy what I was doing, but I felt that there was still something I wanted to try now that I had a better understanding of market needs and gaps, something that would make me feel deeply fulfilled, and that would give me the ability to work with a wide range of stakeholders as well as the constant luxury to select what I wanted to work on. I was also curious; I wanted to test my ability to run my own show.

This is when I decided to start Crystol Energy in 2012. Absolutely no regrets.

What is your motivation behind ‘Access for Women in Energy’ and supporting it to expand to other countries including Ghana?

Two main things motivated me to set up AccessWIE: my own experience and observation.

I have experienced discrimination based on my gender on many occasions and throughout my career. Though I loathe discrimination, I also recognise that it is embedded in many people’s minds, irrespective of where they come from, though its severity varies from one place to another.

Perhaps one of the first encounters I had with discrimination was back in Lebanon and it came from the people who are the closest to me: my own family, whereby I was told that I was not allowed to do the same things as my two brothers.

I asked again and again “why?” but they couldn’t give me a convincing answer, largely blaming our culture which was and still is male driven. Although I felt deeply saddened then, looking back it was such an attitude that pushed me to explore a new world and move to the UK. I am glad I did.

As my career developed, I couldn’t help but noticing the absence or limited presence and engagement of women energy experts in my working circles and at conferences especially as keynote speakers. I simply couldn’t find a convincing answer.

A typical answer, however, was that there weren’t many women around in the energy industry. Indeed, the participation of women in the industry is much smaller than it is in other sectors. But there were surely women working in the sector and others willing to join should the right message is put out there.

This is when I decided to establish Access for Women in Energy in 2007 with the aim to support the development and improve the visibility of women in the energy sector.

I didn’t want to set up a group to address issues such as women’s rights at work or how to get a seat on the board – there are well-respected organisations that are doing that and doing it pretty well.

Dr Carole Nakhle at the Women in Energy brainstorming session in Accra

Instead, I wanted AccessWIE to become an important platform where women can share their expertise in the energy sector with other experts – both women and men. We made it our mission to ‘hunt’ for female energy talent and set a goal of having 50/50 representation among our speakers and participants at the various events we organised. We weren’t always successful; ironically, in the first few years we tended to have more men than women, but I am pleased to say that we have restored the balance in recent years.

Based on the same philosophy, we expanded our reach globally and supported the development of similar initiatives. The latest one was earlier this year in Ghana. I can still feel the tremendous energy in the room when I gave a presentation about AccessWIE in Accra.

One woman after the other shared their own experience with discrimination and how they have struggled because of limited opportunities, but that wasn’t going to stop them. On the contrary they were seriously determined to change that distorted reality.

How do your many roles affect your work as the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Crystol Energy?

On a professional level, I find the various activities I am involved in as complementing and supporting my work as the CEO of Crystol Energy. Take teaching for instance. I have been teaching for years and at different institutions and I have no intention to give it up.

Originally, when I embarked on teaching in the UK, it was partly to pay for my PhD and partly to improve my English language (Arabic is my mother tongue and French was the main language at the school and university where I studied in Beirut). I soon realized that I didn’t look at teaching as a job but as an activity that I would look forward to each day.

Teaching is a demanding profession and students can be a tough audience but it is a rewarding experience. In addition to improving your communication skills, it teaches you to be conscious of time, straight to the point, and to read silent signals coming from your audience (are they following? Is it too boring for them? Are they interested in that angle?…).

Such a ‘training’ has helped me tremendously with giving presentations at industry gatherings and conferences. Every time I listen to speakers who go well above the time allocated to them and are utterly blind to the lack of interest from the audience I tell myself “they should try teaching”.

Apart from this personal gain, there is an even bigger reward and which goes in line with one of Crystol Energy’s main principles: being able to impact other people’s life positively especially when students continue to remember your words, advice and comments years after they graduated.

During my visit to Ghana in 2018, a colleague arranged for me to meet some of my former students. I can’t tell you how humbled I felt when a former student who graduated in 2008 repeated verbatim some comments I made on his dissertation, adding that he still follow that advice in his professional life.

Then there is my engagement with NGOs, such as the Natural Resource Governance Institute where I sit on their Governing Board. Such a role easily complements my engagement with Crystol Energy and again, supports, the company’s mission, particularly with respect to reaching out to wider range of stakeholders which is becoming a must for most businesses.

In energy and oil and gas, this is particularly true because they enter into every aspect of our modern life. For instance, exploring and producing oil and gas it is not just about government and investors, think of local communities, or civil societies who are increasingly calling for transparency and good governance, think of future generations, think of the environmental footprint.

You cannot simply ignore these aspects and people, if you are to give a sustainable and fair advice on the contractual framework for oil and gas, for instance.

On a personal level, my most important role is being a mother. Here the list of skills I have developed and sharpened and which hugely support my role as CEO of Crystol Energy is very long.

I discovered new thresholds of patience I didn’t know they existed. The ability to figure out what a tiny creature who has its own language which is alien to you is trying to say or needs, improves your problem-solving skills as well as your communication skills.

Add to that time management and long term planning. Perhaps equally important is that I acquired a better understanding of working mothers’ needs and challenges.

I also learnet about the many misconceptions that some people have about pregnant women; some assume on your behalf that your career would be put on hold as you dedicate your time to your family.

My career did not stop when I was pregnant or when I became a mother. Yes it has its challenges but in my experience it has just made me stronger and even more determined to be a good example for young women who want to pursue a career and have a family, including my own daughter in the future.

Dr Carole Nakhle shares her experience in dealing with COVID-19 crisis as part of the Access for Women in Energy initiative - Click on the photo to read her story
What advice would you offer to young business leaders?

There is the basic textbook advice such as aim high and be determined to reach your goals. Challenge yourself, be patient and embrace difficulties. Take risks and be ready to challenge the conventional thinking. Stay true to your own values and follow your passion but remain agile in today’s fast moving environment.

Then there is the all important people’s angle. You should also be a good listener and a good communicator. But above all I would say recognize the influence you will have on other people’s life and decisions, and use it wisely.

What are your future goals for your company?

Crystol Energy started as a simple idea and an experiment from my flat in London. At first and for a while, it was a one woman show, though I am grateful for our Advisory Board members who believed in my vision and ability to successful run a business in an already crowded market. Their advice and support are simply priceless.

From Day 1, I had one important contract secured. A few months later, we were solicited to bid on a major project in Africa where much bigger players were involved. Everyone around me told me not to bother as we were not going to make it.

Despite the doubts, somehow I felt otherwise. I thought that if we were approached directly, then the potential client must have heard something that interested them in our work.

Two months later, I was proven right. Ironically, we had a similar experience a few years later when we were approached and three other companies which are among the largest in the world to bid for a project.

Here too, initially my colleagues significantly downplayed our chances, but I convinced otherwise – I told them think of us as David (as in David against Goliath). And, again, we won the project.

Our strong reputation for meticulous work, original technique and robust analysis has spread globally. Our work has been quoted in international media and we have been approached directly and continue to be consulted by energy industry leaders and policymakers from different countries.

That is a lot to be proud of.

Where next? The sky is the limit! Apart from the basic financial goals and objectives for any commercial entity, on a more macro level, we want to be instrumental in shaping policy making and business strategies as related to our field of work.

We also want to strengthen our collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders and help in establishing a balance between their interests, no matter how different they may be. And of course, we want to continue to support initiatives such as Access for Women in Energy, and NGOs with a strong focus on good governance of the energy sector.

What advice would you give to young girls and women living in developing and advanced economies?

Whether you live in a rich or poorer country, be mindful that you will experience discrimination of some sort and at some stage of your life and career. However, don’t let that distract you from pursuing your goals.

I know this sounds like a cliché, but you have to persevere, believe in yourself and think strategically.

I know how tough it can be for women, especially in certain cultures, when they want to pursue a career, particularly if it is perceived as unconventional, and at the same time have a family. But, from my own experience, the two need not to be conflicting.

I went through such a dilemma earlier in my career, especially that the specialization I wanted to pursue and the way I wanted to pursue it was unheard of among my family and probably in my entire neighbourhood.

I recall confiding to a wise older (male) friend, telling him I didn’t think I could have it all, to which he responded calmly and without hesitation “Yes you can, but maybe not all at the same time”. He had a point.

But today I do feel I have it all and at the same time, though some trade offs were bound to be made and tough decisions taken. After all, one of the first things I learned in economics is that every choice carries an opportunity cost.

There is no way you can get it right all the time, but often you have to jump into the water to have a better feel of how warm or cold it is.

Do you have a favorite quote that has inspired your journey?

The Difficult We Do Immediately. The Impossible Takes a Little Longer.

What are you doing differently to thrive in your industry?

As Albert Einstein once said “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”And it is not just curiosity, I tremendously enjoy what I am doing.

What are your hobbies?

I LOVE dancing. When I was very young, my mother enrolled me in ballet classes as she noticed how I would move at the slightest beat. When I first requested a National Insurance Number in the UK, it was for a part time job as a belly dancing teacher.

I also love swimming, writing and traveling. I have been to many places around the world but my most memorable trip was to the Arctic where I reached 84 degrees North on board of a Norwegian ice breaker. The serenity and sheer simple yet majestic beauty of that place is simply magical.

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