Shell’s Kathy Khuu – A Woman In The Realm Of Development Economics

Kathy Khuu

As Women’s Month in South Africa draws to a close, Africa Oil Week – scheduled to take place in Cape Town from 4 to 8 November – profiles Kathy Khuu, Senior Advisor for Economic Development and Local Content at Shell. 

In this role, Kathy advises senior business leaders, management, and project/asset teams at Shell on the joint role of government and industry in delivering development outcomes for natural resource countries through market-driven principles. 

At Africa Oil Week, Kathy will lead discussion in the African Local Content Forum (sponsored by Shell) on Wednesday, 6 November. 

On the purpose of the forum, Kathy says: “Stimulating thought and conversation about the role of the oil and gas sector in driving socio-economic development across the African continent is vital in deciding the actions needed.” 

Read the full interview with Kathy below to find out how this dynamic woman influences Shell and other sector players in addressing the design and implementation of impactful local content programmes. 

Q: Growing up, what were the challenges and how did you deal with them? 

Kathy: My family – Vietnamese, of Chinese origin – left their home country during the Vietnam war and settled in the United States (US). I was born in New York but we moved to West Virginia – which is not very ethnically diverse and probably has one of the lowest GDPs in the US – when I was five years old. Growing up, I faced a huge culture gap. 

It was a good lesson for me though, firstly because it taught me how to interact, listen, respect and work with people completely different from me. My family was the only Asian family in West Virginia for a long time. We had to try to fit in without losing our identity.

Secondly, West Virginia is an interesting case study of the root causes of the natural resource ‘curse’, and how one addresses it. For centuries, West Virginia has been completely dependent on coal. I don’t think it has developed beyond this – it is just as poor and constrained as it was when my family moved there 40 years ago. 

Q: Who influenced you during that period? 

Kathy: There is a large university in West Virginia, and we were lucky that we lived near one the professors. He stood out for me as he could interpret West Virginia’s economic development situation and the opportunities I had as an individual from a neutral perspective. He has always been, and still is, one of the advisors who helps me view my upbringing and my professional development against the environment from which my family came.

Then, of course, there were my parents, especially now that I am a mother of two. I see how their devotion to my sister and me related directly to how well we did. 

Finally, because West Virginia is less ethnically diverse, I encountered more close-mindedness than you would want. But I think it was a good learning curve because, when you deal with this kind of people every day, face-to-face, it reminds you of what you don’t want to be. 

Q: Did your parents encourage you to go into a corporate career? What were your first thoughts about going into a corporate career? And how did you pursue these? 

Kathy: I didn’t think about working in the private sector until I was approached by Shell a few years ago. My parents were in business, which is why they had to leave Vietnam. Against that background, the corporate sector seemed ‘riskier’ for me. 

I wanted to work in a sphere that I felt that made a difference in peoples’ lives, and at the time I felt like the corporate world was not delivering that. Now I think that mindset is outdated, because when I look at what Shell and other corporates are doing, it is quite the opposite. 

Some of the biggest changes can result from corporates who are purposeful and align their activities with the activities of the countries in which they operate. I’m not just saying this now because I have ‘converted’ to the corporate world; there are academics who talk about corporates having a greater impact on a country than that of even government and public interest organisations.

Q: Do you have any observations about the challenges you face as a woman working in the corporate world? What were some of the challenges you faced as a woman and how did you address these? 

Kathy My first career choice was not to be a development economist. I studied sciences in my undergraduate studies as I wanted to become a physician, and I spent my summers and semesters working at research laboratories, dissecting animals and doing medical research. 

When I was young, I wanted to save the world; I wanted to do something that was impactful, and I thought being a physician might help me do that. After interning at hospitals in the US and in Asia, I realised that the issue was not the lack of skilled physicians; a lot of it had to do with public policy and the decisions that government make. So, I switched careers in my early twenties and moved to development economics and public policy because I felt that was where the most impact would be felt. 

Switching careers is not a gender-specific challenge, but there’s a general aversion to moving from a ‘safe’ career path like a doctor to the grey world of public policy, which is still male-dominated and sometimes unclear as to exactly what you will be doing in your profession. 

Q: Now that you have made a career switch, do you have any observations about the role you are playing as a woman in the oil and gas sector? 

Kathy: I think the issues that women face in the developed world are the same issues that poor people face in the developing world, whether you are a man or a woman. I think it is more about the opportunities and whether you have someone who opens the door that provides you with opportunities to try out your skills. 

I would say, whether you are in oil and gas or other sectors, it is your duty to create opportunities for generations that come up after you. In my career, it has been both men and women who have helped propel me forward. The point is, we have a responsibility whether we are in the early or mid-stages of our careers, or retired, to keep the door open for those who are coming up behind us.

Q: What advice would you give to young people who are seeking their first role in the oil and gas industry? 

Kathy: I think one of the first reactions young people have about the oil and gas sector is that it is ‘old school’ and conservative. In part, that stereotype is correct because oil and gas has long-term investment timelines around it, and huge capital amounts – billions of dollars – that go into it. A lot in terms of engineering and technical skills make the industry work.

Because of this perception, it tends to not attract people who are looking for excitement. But I think the potential is there – the industry is going through a change; there’s going to be an energy transition from oil and gas to renewables. It’s hard for most people to imagine it because it’s probably 10 to 20 years away, but if you are a young person who’s interested in doing something in shaping how energy is going to be delivered, this is an exciting space. 

Somebody must solve the energy issue because energy demand is only going to increase. The teams I work with at Shell are thinking ‘out of the box’ on future scenarios. 

Q: In thinking about the future of energy, what are some of the specific challenges that you face in linking this to local content?

Kathy: There is a lot that a corporate can do, but there are also a lot of unknowns that are out there. I am very aware that there are unpredictable politicians and governments in play, not just in the developed world but also the developing world, and when you are looking at a 20-30-year investment it’s hard to deliver enough on your core oil and gas exploration and extraction. Tying in other programmes adds an additional layer of complexity. 

At Shell, there’s no choice; local content and local economic development supplement our primary focus. In Canada, Australia, the US and Norway, figuring out local content and economic development is core. In the US, there are entire supply chains that have been developed around oil and gas.  Internally, it’s about understanding that local content and economic development do not have to be at extra cost – although they can be if you wait until the last minute to do something. 

Being purposeful and looking at our supply chain, looking at what government wants early on – that’s the challenge, not just to Shell but the whole industry. Diagnose weaknesses and gaps earlier on in the investment cycle; not mid-way or later.

Q: What are some of the standout successes for you personally and for Shell that you have seen in your workplace?

Kathy: I am grateful for the opportunity to work for a company like Shell. I was concerned, when I transitioned from the World Bank, about why Shell was looking to hire a development economist who would hammer it about economic diversification and economic development. I need not have worried. 

I am not alone in Shell working on local content – there is a team that work across contracts and procurement to social performance to the business. Knowing what other companies have done, I can say that this is a model with which I am particularly impressed.

I haven’t been at Shell long enough yet to have had an impact on the oil and gas sector; I know this requires a long-term, personal investment. But if I didn’t think I could have an impact, I wouldn’t be here.

ADC Editor
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