Vanessa Bullock, a mechanical engineer with an interest in addressing the world climate crisis, was one of five female leaders to receive an AGSM @ UNSW Business School Women in Leadership (WiL) Scholarship in 2021. This scholarship allows recipients to study a Full-Time MBA at AGSM in Sydney.
With a specialisation in subsea pipelines, Vanessa spent the last 10 years working in Western Australia’s energy sector. More recently her career shifted to focus on people management, where she could combine the skills she developed in her Bachelor of Engineering degree and throughout her career, with her passion for helping and connecting with others.
“In my last role at Woodside Energy as a Maintenance Engineering Team Lead, I managed the power generation, power distribution and utilities team at the Karratha Gas Plant. It’s a huge place, and as Australia’s oldest and largest liquified natural gas facility, it contributes about one per cent of Australia’s GDP,” Vanessa says.
In the role, Vanessa had the opportunity to work on Woodside’s gender equity projects, with the goal of expanding the number of women in the company’s engineering talent pipeline. Vanessa enjoyed the shift to people management, given an engineer’s career trajectory is often more fixed.
“There's no shortage of geniuses working in a team of engineers. But it can be difficult when it comes to aligning stakeholders and executing ideas. I'm more strategic and have found I can build bridges between people with opposing ways of thinking,” she says.
Accelerating career prospects with an MBA
Vanessa’s mentors suggested an MBA would be the perfect next step in her career. She wanted to build a more diverse network outside the energy sector, so decided to look at interstate opportunities. Several graduates within her team recommended AGSM @ UNSW Business School, and the decision to apply was sealed when she saw its high commitment to diversity and inclusion.
“Studying with a cohort from different backgrounds would help me work within a diverse team post-MBA. One of the most important things I learned when working with culturally diverse teams in engineering is that not everyone will be on the same page in thinking how to tackle a problem,” she says.
To balance the demands of both work and study, Vanessa initially started her AGSM journey through the MBAX (Online) program, then AGSM suggested she apply for the WiL scholarship and enter the Full-Time MBA program instead. Receiving the scholarship allowed her to step back from her role at Woodside and focus on full-time study.
“Getting the scholarship and building relationships with the other amazing WiL recipients in the cohort is so humbling and rewarding,” Vanessa says.
“In every class we hear so many different perspectives, approaches or experiences. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to listen to them, had I not been here. You need that mix of perspectives in the conversation, because the problems we're solving are getting tougher – there's no way just one perspective or set of capabilities is going to be enough in the future.”
AGSM provides scholarships each year for Women in Leadership, Indigenous Leaders, Community Leadership and leaders in the Not-For-Profit sector, giving more students across different industries, sectors, and nationalities the opportunity to make a difference through transformational learning.
Diversity matters – from classroom to boardroom
AGSM achieved 50% female representation in its Full-Time MBA program in 2019 and 2020, surpassing the 36% industry average. That’s something Vanessa thinks is extremely important. Entering her engineering degree, she was in the minority. Women are still underrepresented in this sector.
"Women who complete a STEM degree don't finish it by accident. It demands brilliance, grit and drive,” Vanessa says.
“It’s not just about being smart enough but working without much of a support network of friends or community to lean on. You have to be very strong to push yourself to your goals. All the women I graduated with were incredibly resilient.”
Vanessa thinks workplace targets, which is one of Woodside’s diversity strategies, and scholarships like AGSM’s WiL are important to normalise having women in the room, to participate in and lead important conversations.
“Having diverse representation in MBA classrooms is really good for the development of new business leaders. People need to understand how to work with women, and what all genders can bring to the table,” she says.
“Eventually, this scholarship will influence the path of alumni. AGSM MBA graduates generally end up in C-suite positions, and we're nowhere near 50/50 on the ASX. So, until we see more change there, scholarships like WIL still need to exist.”
Aspirations for energy transformation
Vanessa now hopes to use her AGSM MBA to make an impact by contributing to building a more sustainable Australian energy sector. It’s a complex problem, but she believes that while the parts of the government are lagging, business can lead the charge in the sector’s transformation.
“Australia’s standard of living has been shaped by the resource sector. If we don’t start to pivot this backbone of our economy, the things we value will evaporate,” Vanessa says.
“No one will want to buy our carbon intensive commodities. Tariffs will change the game, so our competitive advantage needs to adapt. We need to put the effort into people being retrained and redeployed into other industries. The window is getting smaller, we only have until 2030 to turn the tide on climate change.”
And while she knows a lot about energy, Vanessa’s AGSM MBA is exposing her to new frameworks and skills in how to approach these complex problems.
“My engineering degree gives me one way to solve problems, but the AGSM MBA gives me another,” she says. “An MBA helps you expand your communications skills, gives you frameworks to analyse things in a deep and structured way, and also gives you access to a deep opinion pool of experts – through the alumni, your close-knit cohort, and AGSM’s faculty.”
“With an MBA, you learn about finance and entrepreneurship – things I hadn’t had much exposure to previously. This can give you the edge when you’re managing a diverse team of problem solvers.”
While she is looking to remain in the energy sector, Vanessa’s MBA also includes an international exchange. She hopes to complete this in person at the NYU Stern School of Business if international travel restrictions are lifted.
“Stern is at the forefront of clean energy and economic policy so I can’t think of a better place to round out my AGSM MBA. I’ll be exposed to the latest thinking in the sector and I’ll have the opportunity to create some amazing networks in a class full with likeminded people, bringing their different perspectives to a common problem. I think that would set anyone up pretty well,” Vanessa says.
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