The oil and gas industry has traditionally been a male-dominated sector of the economy. Allison Sawyer didn’t let that stop her. She’s the co-founder and CEO of Rebellion Photonics, which sells innovative imaging technology that quantifies chemicals in real time to improve safety and prevent leaks on offshore rigs and oil refineries. Rebellion Photonics has worked with major organizations, such as BP and the Air Force, on four different continents. Yet even today, some are surprised to find a woman at the helm of Rebellion.
“It’s a good industry to be in. It’s really profitable, even now, but it’s such a closed-off boy’s club, that is very hard to break into just for cultural reasons. It’s not very friendly to new tech, or new people,” says Sawyer.
That barrier to entry for new people has been tough to combat as a woman in the C-suite.
“It’s a double whammy. Ageism is really bad in this industry. In Silicon Valley, you’re old in your early 30’s, but I am still an infant for oil and gas. The combination of being young and being a woman is really atrocious. Immediately when I walk in they’ll make assumptions, not just about me, but about my company. ‘Oh, the tech must be in a very early stage’ will be one of the first things out of their mouths. I say, ‘No, we operate on four different continents and we work with the EPA; we’re around.’ Then they’ll ask, ‘How old were you when you started the company?’ and I’ll say ‘25, and my cofounder was 28,’ and their brains will just explode,” says Sawyer. “25-year-olds at the big companies are just not trusted to do anything, and that’s why they lose so many people. I know very, very few women in oil and gas services and even fewer under 40.”
It’s not only entrepreneurs, but also women investors who are noticeably absent.
“It’s hard to be an entrepreneur and a young woman in oil and gas, and it’s just as difficult to be on the funding side. I meet very, very few women on the investment side. We did a 10 and a half million round two years ago and I did maybe 100 meetings for that round, and I only had one meeting where there was a woman in the room. I mean, can you believe that? That’s my industry,” says Sawyer. “There are no women funding companies really, so the people you’re working with have never – it’s bizarre, like the 1950’s – they’ve never worked with a woman. They’ve never funded a woman, they won’t have money for women, they don’t have any coworkers who are women, so they’ll just be a little weird. They’ll just treat you like an alien and you want to say, ‘We can still get a beer, it’s cool.’ It’s just amazing. I hear normalcy starts to come around 20%, and if we’re going at this rate, I’ll be 80 when that happens.”
In an uphill battle for diversity, Allison doesn’t just sit around and complain. She takes action to make the industry more welcoming to women. For example, she’s been working with a new startup incubator to host a women’s hackathon, and started a Lean In circle for local women in oil and gas.
“I formed a group with that one woman I had a meeting with. We didn’t take funding from them but I did call her after – and we didn’t click or anything, it’s not like there was this great love – but I called her and said, ‘Dudette, keep up the good work. Let me know if there’s ever anything I can do to help.’ She said, ‘We should form a group for women.’ That was two years ago now, and we’ve got around 30 women in the group,” says Sawyer. “It’s been really cool. We meet once a month and occasionally we’ll have – I wouldn’t call them speakers, just people who come and drink with us. The mayor came and she was hysterical. We had a lesbian mayor, and she was just telling us stories about doing Houston politics being openly gay in the 80’s, and it was tragic but also hilarious, and sad. We let the Lean In corporate office know and Sheryl Sandberg actually sent a signed book for the mayor thanking her for hanging out with us. The group matters to me more than I thought it would. I schedule things around that meeting.”
So how can the oil and gas industry change, and embrace greater diversity?
“If we’re going to have real progress, it has to start with more women investors. Some private equity firms but also venture capital firms and corporate investment firms. Big companies like Saudi Aramco or Chevron or BP all have an internal venture capital unit and they need to really focus on diversity in that unit, which I don’t think even gets considered,” says Sawyer.
As an example, she spoke of one company that changed their bonus structure by just an extra checkbox: managers were graded on the diversity of their groups. Unsurprisingly, diversity rose.
“It’s not rocket science. It comes down from the board; it really is a board-level decision,” says Sawyer.
Now in business for over six years, Sawyer has learned much.
“I’ve learned I’m capable of much more than I thought. I think the unknown is very scary when you’re starting a company. I still get vertigo when I walk around the office; I can’t believe all these people work for me, that’s really intimidating, but it’s amazing what happens when you put one foot in front of the other,” she says.
Rebellion Photonics continues to grow: they’ll be launching a new product line in August, selling miniature versions of their camera so rigs and refineries can cover their sites even more effectively.