Women in Business Q&A: Blair Blackwell, Manager, Education and Corporate Programs, Chevron

Blair Blackwell is manager of Education and Corporate Programs at Chevron Corporation, a position she has held since December 2012. In this role, Blackwell is responsible for leading Chevron's education-focused social investment initiatives in the United States.

Blackwell has over 15 years of experience with the private sector, nonprofit organizations, social enterprises and international organizations in Africa, the Balkans, Central Asia and the United States. Previously, she served as director of private sector initiatives for the International Crisis Group based in New York. Prior to this position, she was executive director of Princeton in Africa.

Blackwell views education as a fundamental cornerstone of prosperity and has been involved in many facets of education throughout her career, ranging from working on education reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina to working with students in Kazakhstan. Currently, Blackwell is on the Partner Advisory Council of 100Kin10 - a program aimed at training 100,000 STEM teachers by 2021 - and on the Advisory Council of the California STEM Learning Network. She also serves as a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Blackwell is from Winter Park, Florida. She earned a bachelor's degree in Slavic languages and Literatures from Princeton University. She currently resides in Oakland, California.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I've had what many think to be a varied career, having worked both in the private and nonprofit sectors and in countries as diverse as Kazakhstan, Bosnia and Belgium. Those roles have often focused on increasing access to education as well as empowering women and girls, and I have loved every minute of it.

Growing up, however, my first dream was to become a shark biologist. Despite taking many more high school science classes than most, I wasn't exposed to strong female mentors in science fields and wasn't really sure how to pursue a career in marine biology. So I did what many young women do--dropped the science and pursued a different degree.

It has been incredibly rewarding that in my current position, I have been able to combine my passion around education with my early interest in science. In my role as Manager of Education and Corporate Programs at Chevron, much of our work has focused on providing girls with resources and counsel from a very young age to pursue their dreams and encouraging them to embrace science and engineering as a possible career choice. This is especially important as women are severely underrepresented in the field of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Chevron?
Having spent many years in the nonprofit sector working in Africa, the Balkans and Central Asia, I saw firsthand the role the private sector can play in addressing global challenges as well as the importance of partnership between nonprofits, the public sector and the corporate community. At Chevron, we partner with education organizations, government officials, NGOs and community leaders to increase access to--and the quality of--education and career and technical training of students and workers. My past experience working in these different sectors has helped make me more effective at building strong and lasting partnerships, and I am a firm believer that it is only through a public-private partnership approach that real change can be achieved.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Chevron?
It's been an amazing experience being on the corporate side of social investment, especially because of the time and effort Chevron devotes to its corporate responsibility. We take a very strategic approach and work directly with our partners to research the needs of the community, to develop innovative programs and support quantifiable results. We've come a long way from the time when nonprofits and others were skeptical of the shared value that can be achieved by engaging corporations, although on occasion that can still be a challenge.

Through successful programs, we continue to prove the importance of partnership. I've had many highlights since I've been in my position, but one that stands out was watching the faces of the junior high girls who participated in the launch of the first Chevron-sponsored Fab Lab at California State University, Bakersfield. Fab Labs (which are short for Fabrication Labs) provide great opportunities for students to bring STEM projects to life using 3D printers, laser cutters and milling machines. They are also great venues for mentorship to take place. To see the light bulb go off for a girl as she connects what she's been doing in the classroom to real-life examples and ultimately to careers, is incredibly rewarding.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
My best advice for women who want a career in STEM, or really any industry, is find mentors and sponsors who can provide you with guidance, share their own experiences and help steer your path. Don't be discouraged by gender bias or the feeling that you're entering a man's world--embrace the strengths that make you different from your male peers. Most of all, be confident in yourself and your own abilities, as you are your own best advocate.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
I've learned that if you are eager to learn from every experience and ask for support when you need it, it's possible to shape your own path and success. I always knew that I wanted to have a career with social impact. Even though I didn't pursue my childhood dream of becoming a marine biologist, my work at Chevron centers on bettering the community. By focusing on STEM fields, we're helping to develop an innovative, science-literate population that can strengthen the country's workforce and economy. Now my goal is to provide resources for girls so they don't lose sight of their aspirations simply because they can't immediately find the right path or they don't speak up.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I'm not sure there always is perfect work/life balance, but taking care of yourself and taking time to recharge is vital for staying happy, motivated and effective. I find a level of balance by keeping active and spending as much time outside as I can. Some days I throw my surfboard in my car in the morning to force myself to leave the office early enough to get into the water. It can often seem like a chore at the end of a long day to make the drive to the ocean, but I always feel better when I do. I've also found it's important to have friends and colleagues to hold you accountable to go to the gym or leave your desk for lunch. For example, one of my colleagues and I head to the Chevron gym together on Tuesday nights. Knowing that one of us will be standing at the other's office door with a gym bag in hand helps us both ensure that we get out of the office, take care of ourselves and re-energize.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
There are still not enough women in positions of leadership. An important element in solving this is sponsorship and mentorship. Mentors can bring great wisdom, and knowing people who have experienced a similar path and who can give advice on how to succeed is invaluable. Women also need sponsors who will advocate on their behalf for a promotion, a development assignment or a new role.

Both men and women need to be mentors and sponsors for women in the workplace. And, it's just as important for women to advocate for themselves. Far too many women think they are being pushy if they do this, but they're actually just being smart.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Throughout my career, I've had role models and mentors to look up to and learn from. I've made it a priority to call upon these people when I'm making changes in my career.

When I made the decision to transition from the nonprofit sector to the private sector, I made a long list of people to turn to for advice and guidance. These role models and mentors were able to share their experiences and provide me with the information I needed to make the career change and find the right company fit.

Now that I'm at Chevron, my boss plays a very important mentoring role to me. He has been with the company over 25 years, and provides me with essential advice and coaching on how to understand and work effectively across a large company. He also helps to expand my understanding of Chevron as a company and the industry more generally.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are many I admire. Mika Brzezinski is one woman for whom I have a huge amount of respect and have learned a great deal. I find that, often, women are not as open as we could be about the challenges we've faced and the "failures" we've learned from. We want to present a perfect picture and are afraid of being vulnerable. Mika, however, has been open and very candid, not only about her success, but more importantly about the challenges she and other women have faced and how they've overcome them. She has encouraged so many women to strive to reach their full potential.

There are also a number of women here at Chevron whom I admire. They are paving the way for other women to follow in their path and they still find the time to help support those around them. From a senior executive who sits on the Board of Techbridge, one of our nonprofit partners engaging middle schools girls in STEM education, to a young engineer working at the local chapter of the Society of Women Engineers to mentor college engineering majors, there are many examples across the company of individuals giving back to support the next generation.

What do you want to personally and professionally accomplish in the next year?
With the number of STEM jobs in the United States expected to increase steadily for years to come - and STEM jobs known to pay well relative to other industries - I want to continue to encourage women and girls to seize the opportunity to step forward as leaders, innovators, earners and mentors.

I also want to reinforce the role men play in ensuring women are successful in their career path. The conversation is not just about how women manage responsibilities in their career and personal lives, but about how both men and women can better find that balance. There has been a cultural shift in the younger generation, with young men expecting a more balanced life and career. But there's more that needs to be done to educate both men and women around this issue and working together to solve the challenge.