Shawn Emerson Simmons, PhD, is ExxonMobil's resident expert on Nigeria, and the company's environmental and regulatory advisor in developing the country's rich resources.
"I'm enjoying Africa and the projects there. It's all so big and exciting and I like that," Simmons says. "I love it when people on other projects call me and say, 'Hey, we were referred to you because you do such a good job!'"
Simmons works for ExxonMobil Development Co, a unit of the corporation's upstream exploration and production business in Houston, TX.
The development company's work is project management. It plans and builds the infrastructure needed to develop resources pinpointed by an ExxonMobil exploration company. After that, ExxonMobil's production company takes over.
"Our teams include project managers and sub-project managers, cost and schedule people, regulatory folks like me, safety professionals, construction experts, everything that it takes to develop the resource," Simmons says.
She adds that most of the actual design work is contracted out, but an engineering group oversees it to ensure the work is to spec, especially in international locations.
Operating within regs
Simmons has to ensure that ExxonMobil is building and operating within Nigeria's regulatory guidelines, especially on the environmental side. For more than two years she's had two ongoing projects in Nigeria, keeping track of that country's regulations as well as applicable international regs. She started on each project part time, and now she's the full-time lead resource person.
"My primary role is to make sure we have all the permits in place ready for when we hand it off to operations, to be sure they'll be keeping records, monitoring or whatever the requirement is," Simmons explains.
One of the projects is nearing completion. It involves the use of a floating storage and offload (FSO) vessel to produce an offshore reserve. Oil is processed on a production platform and stored in the huge FSO until it's offloaded to a tanker. "This is the first project like this I've ever done and I'm eager for the next challenge," Simmons adds.
Credibility, not race
Simmons goes to Nigeria three or four times per year, two to three weeks per trip. "I've come to love Nigeria and its culture, which I think has given me an edge on working well and really getting something accomplished," she says.
Although she's African American, she thinks her ability to work comfortably with Nigerian co-workers or officials is "more a credibility than a race issue. Once I was able to establish that I could produce and bring value, nothing else really mattered.
"Before you talk business, you find out how their families are doing. That's a very important part of their culture and of my culture, too. It's a way of breaking down barriers," she says.
Born to be a techie
Simmons grew up in Houston, TX where her dad was an Exxon chem plant operator and her mother taught math. She attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Engineering Professions, and interned at Chevron through the Inroads program, working in exploration and geology and with reservoir engineers.
She earned her BS in petroleum engineering at the University of Oklahoma, where she was one of two women in the petroleum group of fifteen. One college summer she interned in Oak Ridge, TN as an environmental project manager for the U.S. Department of Energy.
Environmental: an emerging field
She also interned with Exxon, and when she graduated the company offered her a full-time job. But she preferred to go on to an MS in environmental science and engineering, an emerging field in the petroleum industry. She studied at Rice University (Houston, TX) while continuing to intern at Exxon's production research company.
She did other internships during her Rice years. The summer of 1998 she was an environmental technician at the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (Houston, TX). In 1999 she was an environmental associate at GB Biosciences Corp, where she learned to work with the regulatory community. "It really set me up for success when I went to a bigger company," she says.
With her masters completed she dove right into PhD work at Texas Southern University. She was a teaching assistant there, and director of environmental programs. She married and had her first child while working on the PhD.
Finally fulltime at Exxon
In 2000 she completed her PhD coursework and started a full-time job with ExxonMobil, later completing her dissertation on environmental toxicology and receiving her PhD from Texas Southern University. In 2002 she had another child.
Simmons notes that her family has been very supportive of her career. Her husband, a geologist by degree and now an entrepreneur, keeps the home going while she's away. She's hoping for a future assignment where the whole family can be with her in Africa.
When she's not traveling for work, Simmons participates in a mentoring program with other ExxonMobil volunteers at her engineering high school. ExxonMobil has had a partnership with the school for more than fifteen years.
"When I came to the development company, I never thought I would be traveling like I am and seeing so many new things," Simmons says. "It's quite exciting for me."
It's also an impressive professional achievement for someone who's just thirty-five years old. There's undoubtedly more to come.