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In a male-dominated industry, Ashley Zumwalt-Forbes knows the importance of standing up for women in oil and gas—and standing up for herself. Although she has had some negative experiences as a woman in the industry, it has only made her want to stand up for women more. She has earned her place at the table over years, stepping outside her comfort zone and bravely exploring the possibilities of the future of energy.
“What I have learned is that you can never make everyone happy,” she said. “You can also never let your worth be driven by external gratification; only you know what you have and haven’t done, how you approach business and what you are capable of. Oftentimes you have to let insults and misunderstandings roll off your back.”
This kind of mindset has made her successful as the co-founder, president and director at three companies: Black Mountain Metals, Black Mountain Exploration and Black Mountain CarbonLock. Today, she lives with her husband and their two shelter-adopted cats.
Small town roots
“I am from a small town in Oklahoma, a state that was blessed with significant oil and gas resources. I saw petroleum engineering as an opportunity to earn a better life for myself, to see the world and to contribute to the needs of society. There are few needs more acute than the world’s insatiable need for more energy. I also really love the personalities involved in oil and gas; we are an industry filled with entrepreneurial spirit and a can-do attitude. No challenge is too big, and that is the ethos with which I have lived my life.”
Accomplished at a young age
“[Persistence] is not a specific bullet point on my resume, but rather the way that I approach life. I am one of the most persistent people you will ever meet. I was the first person in my immediate family to graduate from a four-year university and, within nine years of graduating from OU, co-founded three companies, raised over US$100 million and been involved in two IPOs.
Many days I feel like I wake up and get kicked in the teeth, go to sleep and choose to do it all over again the next day. My life has not been an easy one, but it has certainly been action packed, and I am truly proud of the way my life has been lived.
After graduating from Harvard Business School in 2017, I joined Rhett Bennett at Black Mountain. Within a year, I had co-founded Black Mountain Metals, a battery metals mining company based in Perth, Australia. To say that I felt completely terrified and out of my depth is an understatement. However, I stuck with it. Day in and day out, I woke up, worked as hard as I possibly could, asked questions, learned, grew and left it all out on the field. That is now a successful business, and I am much more well-rounded for the experience (albeit definitely shaved a few years off of my life).”
Leading the pack
“I think good leadership is not industry-specific. Requirements include strong communication, doing what you say you are going to do and leading by example. As a leader, you should strive to never ask your team to do something that you yourself wouldn’t be willing to do. You should also always try to show up for your team when something is needed, communicate both good news and bad news, and strive to be better each day. I am an imperfect leader, but I do my best to emulate these qualities and learn to improve.
Pre-COVID-19, I was spending about 70% of my time in Perth with my team there. On March 15, 2020, I was on one of the last flights out of Australia, and I haven’t been allowed back in the country since. Despite the extreme time zone difference and the unusual situation surrounding inability to see each other face to face due to COVID, I am proud of how I have continued to lead the team. Our team looks different now than it did pre-COVID, but I am proud of each team member for stepping up to the plate and making it work, despite the very unusual situation.”
Big shoes to fill
“I have been blessed to have an incredible amount of strong mentors throughout my life who have given me strong counsel, believed in me and supported me. I truly believe being both a mentor and a mentee makes life much richer and is a fantastic way to bring up the next generation of leaders [and] pay it forward for what has been given to you. My earliest professional mentors were Daniel Pullin and Jeff Moore at the University of Oklahoma. JoAnn Meyer, Beth Casteel and Jason Hilliard were incredibly helpful during my time at Exxon Mobil. My entrepreneurial mentors include Mick McMullen, Nev Power, Patrice Merrin and Rhett Bennett. I am a product of my strong, supportive network and cannot thank these individuals, as well as many others, enough. The best advice I’ve ever been given is ‘no one will work harder for you than you.’”
Advice to young professionals
“Be open-minded. Just because something is different from ‘the way it’s always been done’ or is a different path than what you envisioned for your career does not mean that it is inherently wrong. I started my career in oil and gas, but I began focusing on EV metals and energy transition three years ago. At the time, people did not understand why; now energy transition is an incredibly pertinent subject.”
“Young industry members bring a diversity of thought, which is an incredible thing. Studies have shown that having people of different backgrounds, genders, ages and life experiences together on a team will reach a better outcome than only having a single demographic. There are few better examples of a need for more diverse thought and life experiences than that of public boards. We cannot be insular. We need to collaborate. The energy transition is not ‘one size fits all’ or ‘fake news.’ Oil and gas needs to evolve its skill set and way of thinking to be part of the solution and to continue being investment grade.”
Three More Things
- I have traveled to more than 50 countries.
- My favorite genre of music in '90s country.
- I was the first person in my immediate family to attend university.