For a woman in the 1970s, choosing a career in the energy industry meant pursuing a path fraught with challenge.
Yet over a 32-year career, Hertz Fellow Sandra Phillips ascended to the top of BP Alaska as senior geoscience adviser, providing technical expertise on projects from Nigeria to New Zealand, Venezuela to Vietnam, and ultimately leading exploration in Alaska.
The Hertz Fellowship made it possible, Phillips said.
“The Hertz Fellowship was a key professional credential. It allowed me to advance to the level of senior geoscience adviser on the technical — rather than managerial — track, demonstrate the impact of technical leadership for delivering business value and, more importantly, pave a path for others to follow,” she said.
Now retired, Phillips is giving back to the Hertz Foundation by funding an endowed fellowship in geoscience. “I want to foster a sustainable future for growing the next generation of geoscientists,” Phillips said. “The Hertz Fellowship changed the trajectory of my life and career. Perhaps I can do that for others.”
Raised in the Houston oil patch by a widowed father who was determined that she and her sister be self-supporting, Phillips felt a career in petroleum geology was a logical choice. She was exposed to geology through an earth science class at an Arizona boarding school.
While working on her master’s, she applied for a Hertz Fellowship to fund her last year of research, not planning to pursue her Ph.D. “Once I received the fellowship, I realized what an amazing opportunity it opened up for me,” she said. The fellowship enabled Phillips to transfer to Cornell University and pursue industry-sponsored research, an outgrowth of a summer intern project at Exxon Research. She was then hired as a senior research geologist at ARCO.
Although accustomed to being in the minority as a female student in geosciences, Phillips discovered there were even fewer women in the oil and gas industry. “The challenges spanned the gamut, starting with having to be twice as good as your male peers to be thought half as good by your colleagues.”
Being the only woman in the room became the norm. “It took nearly 20 years for that to gradually change. Affecting that change — creating a more level playing field for women — became a core goal of my career,” Phillips said. When she retired six years ago, the numbers of men and women on the teams she worked with were roughly equal.
Phillips has helped level the playing field by mentoring both women and men. “There’s a tremendous amount of commonality in the kind of support that they are seeking and their issues and concerns. It’s true across men and women and different disciplines,” she said.
Lacking industry mentors herself, Phillips included mentoring in her performance contracts at BP. Now she is doing the same with the Hertz Foundation as a mentor to Hertz Fellow Emily Geyman.
After decades in leadership, Phillips has advice to share. “First, be very clear about your values and what you stand for professionally and personally. Second, lead by example, and through your actions and vision for the future, show others what leadership looks like. That has made all the difference for me.”