From Favela’s Kid to Brazilian Oil Company’s CEO

Who said the Cor­po­rate world was lack­ing of strong female role mod­els? Petro­bras is the world’s fifth-largest oil pro­ducer, and on Mon­day Feb­ru­ary 13th 2012, Maria das Gra­cas Fos­ter has just been appointed CEO. She thus becomes the first woman to run a top-five oil com­pany. Hard to fig­ure out how Maria das Gra­cas Fos­ter could have achieved this ascen­sion, from the bot­tom to the top of Brazilian’s soci­ety, with­out hard work and a strong sense of com­pe­ti­tion. Def­i­nitely a strong “Heroine’s Jour­ney”. An inspir­ing story, that sheds a dif­fer­ent light on one of the BRIC coun­tries’ most pow­er­ful female leaders.

All the ingre­di­ents of a fairy tale are there, just like  in Ursula Burns’s story:

  • The ordi­nary world. Pic­ture one of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.

Just like in a Charles Dick­ens story tak­ing place in Brazil 20th cen­tury, you can imag­ine how Maria das Gra­cas Fos­ter grew up.  She was born in 1950, in a favela, a slum, a part of Rio de Janeiro now known as “Com­plexo do Alemào”. Valor Eco­nom­ico reported (via The Finan­cial Times) that “she started work at the age of eight col­lect­ing waste paper, bot­tles and alu­minium cans to sell to pay for her school things.”  I could not imag­ine read­ing Chris­tine Lagarde’s or any Euro­pean CEO’s bio and dis­cov­er­ing such an extra-ordinary life’s story, of trans­for­ma­tion and meritocracy.

  • The obsta­cles. Class, poverty, gen­der and…domestic violence.

I expe­ri­enced domes­tic vio­lence dur­ing my child­hood and the dif­fi­cul­ties of life. I have always worked hard.”

  • The Call for Adven­ture. No Prince Charm­ing, but hard stud­ies, sci­en­tific stud­ies. Maria went to an Engi­neer­ing School, she holds a degree in Chem­i­cal and Nuclear Engi­neer­ing and on top of that, a doc­tor­ate of economics.
  • Her secret weapon? Her strong char­ac­ter, cast in iron, forged like a sword by self-discipline and hard work. “The Iron Lady of Oil”.
  • The Fairy God Mother. One of her men­tor is for sure Dilma Roussef, Brazil’s Pres­i­dent. Dilma Roussef chaired Petro­bras’ board when Lula was Brazil’s president.
  • The Long Jour­ney with many ordeals and tri­als. Her nom­i­na­tion, marks the peak of a 30 years career at Petro­bras. Maria das Graças Fos­ter entered Petro­bras in 1978 as an intern (just like Ursual Burns with Xerox…). She had been direc­tor of the Gas and Energy sec­tor since 2007. Not a magic wand, just hard work and persistence.

I worked my way up the cor­po­rate lad­der, one step after the other in this com­pany. I didn’t sud­denly wake up and real­ized I was Direc­tor of Gas & Energy sector.”

  • The Reward? Achieve­ment. Aca­d­e­mic, busi­ness, polit­i­cal, achieve­ments and the high­est rank in Brazil’s cor­po­ra­tions. She will be the second-most pow­er­ful woman in Brazil, after the pres­i­dent. Not bad for a favela’s kid…

I don’t remem­ber that I have a husband”…

But also her wis­dom, about work and office time and fam­ily time, what­ever the moment may be:

“Ded­i­cate your­self to that moment.”

Next post will be an analy­sis of Maria Foster’s Lead­er­ship and com­mu­ni­ca­tion styles, among the 12 dimen­sions SPM model. But you may have already guessed…

Fur­ther read­ings, 3 sto­ries around the heroine’s jour­ney in the cor­po­rate world…

  • A Fairy Tale Story in The Cor­po­rate World, the story of Ursula Burns at Xerox. Read it here.
  • Sylvia Ann Hewlett and the Heroine’s Jour­ney. Read it here.
  • Ari­anna Huff­in­g­ton ‘s story: Ari­anna and the Labyrinth of dilemna. Read it here.

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