SANS FRONTIERS: My Career Story (Part 1)

Start From The Middle or Where You Are

The first time I decided to craft a story about my career, I was in a state of transition; at least, that’s how I perceived it. And so I thought it’d be better when there’s less transition. I’d like to say at this point that, like a river, things could slow down (albeit barely), but there is always movement and change— transition, shake-ups etc. are always imminent. Therefore, I will begin from wherever — in this story, it is the middle.

I do not remember the exact dates, but it was in my final year— at least the second semester, when I got the call from the HR Recruitment specialist of MW Kelloggs (now KBR) that I got the role of Graduate Engineer – should I still be willing to accept. I was with my friends and classmates in the computer room, where we got together to collaborate often. To say that I was ecstatic would be an understatement and my friends with and for me. This was the season we were all getting calls from the hundreds of applications we had sent out in the hope that we would get employment before graduation— to crown our late nights of red bull and coffee with a job— more work, really, but we did not care— the reward for hard work, I now know, is more work.

Journey to Belonging

Today, over 20 years into my career— I wish I could tell you that I feel a sense of belonging 100% of the time or that it gets easier— no, it does not. Not even if you leave the professional career for your own business, not even if you get what you believed was your dream job. This is the case because we are human, living in a world we share with others who are different from us, moving around with bags of learned behaviours, untruths that we hold on to, and ill-informed biases. Bias— of course, I’m going to go there; I’m a woman of African origins navigating a world design such that its benefits are skewed towards people who look different from me. So yes.

The journey continues; we get wiser, stronger, more creative and find ways to live a life of the utmost enjoyment; at least, that’s what I do. I experienced my first notable discrimination within my first week of being an engineer— from an over 50-year-old Caucasian male, who frankly should have known better. At the time, I was 20 years old, and
the head of engineering branded me a child prodigy (in his words); he thought it admirable that I graduated so early top of my class.

I guess this made the said ‘aggressor’ feel some kind of way, so he decided to bring a weirdness my way. Honestly, I did not even have the tact to address it at the time— I acted the way I knew best. When he stopped saying good morning to me deliberately, I returned in kind until he decided to come by my desk to say, ‘good morning’. I also noticed how helpful he was to a young Caucasian colleague, but he ignored me. Hey, I hope you’re not feeling bad for me; I did not feel bad for myself. I am Nigerian, and I, for the most part, was raised to push back. I was matching energy long before I knew what that meant. I’m not advocating tit-for-tat—ok, maybe I am a little, but this is just how it happened.

It is crucial that we all understand these situations will arise, like the new engineer (oh wait, he was also Caucasian), who happily assumed I must be my boss’s assistant (even though the assistant had her desk with a sign that read Project Secretary) and would leave drawings for my boss on my desk, in a very dismissive way. I enjoyed this foolishness because I knew what was going on; until we had the kick-off meeting when I introduced myself as the process engineer— oh, the look on his face— guys, I was twenty, living my best life.

I was not anyone’s aunty, so I did not take the time to educate anyone – I guess we all learn somehow. I was courteous, always have been, and always will be. He later tried to be friends, but the gate was closed forever— the proverbial ‘olive branch’ is not available in all situations, I’m afraid. I wonder what happened to all those drawings, though! I learned how to build alliances. I’m not sure if this will apply to all of us, i.e., Nigerians, women of African origins, and historically marginalised groups etc.,—but I learned to work the relationship building from a pretty young age.

Now that I reflect, I think I had this same attitude in boarding school, with seniors, with teachers, at VALERIE B
LAWSON SANS FRONTIERS home—with aunties and uncles, and at university, I found that with classmates and professors alike. We all need a tribe. I have, so far, navigated at least seven different organisations across all the
continents of the world, am seasoned in ‘the owning’ of my journey and my story, and so eager— always— to share it as I still forge toward uncharted waters.

As a person belonging to a historically marginalised or underrepresented group— in various human-made institutions, people always want to know how I perceive belonging. How do I fit in to the ‘boys club’—how do I deal with the microaggressions and ignorance that come from all over? I get the need to flag myself up as a case of diversity. I share my experiences; they’re mostly different because no matter how similar we look or sound, we’re invariably different. And for me, that difference is what binds us—our never belonging.

In the following three parts of this series, I will share some fun ways I have dealt with the unbearably ambiguous
task of being. For now, I’ll end with one of my favourite quotes on belonging, by Maya Angelou: “You only are free when you realise you belong no place —you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is
great”.

About Author /

Nigerian born, Valerie Lawson is a 20-year Oil & Gas Industry veteran, currently a Products & Technology Leader with Baker Hughes an Energy Technology Company, headquartered in Houston, Texas. In 2002, she began her career in the United Kingdom as a Process Engineer in the Engineering Procurement & Construction segment of the Oil & Gas Industry. She has since worked with such companies as TechnipFMC, KBR and Worley Parsons. She also spent over four years with TOTAL E&P playing a pivotal role within its largest Deep-Water Field Development project. Valerie has a Chemical Engineering (BEng) Degree from the University of Bradford, U.K, a MSc. From University College London (UCL) & London Business School (LBS) and expecting a Global Executive MBA from IESE Business School, Spain. She’s passionate about, health, knowledge, cycling and traveling – and has lived, worked, and conducted business in over 15 countries across several continents. She currently lives in Houston, Texas, USA.

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