We are excited to continue Mining for Leaders, an interview series highlighting the diverse management team within Mining & Metallurgy’s operations, through examples of leadership, mentorship and personal experiences recounted in this interview with Alexandra Almenara, General Manager, Peru.
Q: Tell us a little about your experience and how that has shaped where you are in your career today.
A: As a biologist, I have always been passionate about the environment. When I first finished school, I never thought of working for the mining sector but rather working for a non-governmental organization (NGO). However, my first career opportunity working for the Ministry of Energy and Mines in Peru influenced my perception of extractive industries. In a country like Peru, where we have a lot of poverty, mining represents an opportunity for development. For example, in the highlands areas, where mining projects are located, communities don’t usually have access to education and health services, and infrastructure is not very good. But when a mining company comes in, they support the government in building schools, hospitals and roads, besides providing economic alternatives to agriculture and farming.
While working for the Peruvian government, I decided to pursue a Master’s of Science degree in conservation biology and sustainable development where I focused on topics I had come across in the Ministry. I returned to Peru to work as an environmental consultant and was involved in environmental impact assessments, mainly for mining projects. I had the opportunity to travel to mining projects across Peru and also international projects in Canada, Panama and Mexico. I became involved in project management– first on various small projects and eventually, bigger ones as well.
I joined SNC-Lavalin in 2011, where I was hired to develop the Environment and Social team, this team is now one of the most renowned groups for environmental consultancy services in Peru. In 2015, I was offered the opportunity to become the General Manager for the Peru office and be responsible for the M&M and O&G sectors, a big challenge that continues today.
Q: What was a great/defining moment for you? A mentorship, stretch assignment, accomplishment or opportunity, for instance?
A: A defining moment was the assignment as General Manager and becoming responsible for our engineering teams. I had very little experience with engineering projects, and had to lead a team comprising both people who were familiar with me, and other engineers who weren’t - and who were very conservative too. It was challenging to gain respect in a male-dominated work environment.
In addition to this challenge, when I took on my new role, it was a very difficult period for the extractive sector: metals and gas prices were down; strong measures were taken in the office to be able to generate positive numbers. I had to let go of a lot of people and implement strong changes in terms of the office and how we were set up.
I enjoy taking on new challenges every day to improve our results and win more projects, but I believe the office has grown into one that generates positive economic results and a good reputation in Peru.
Q: As a successful woman in a male-dominated industry, how have you strived for balance at different times in your career?
A: I am still struggling to find balance: I got married last January and although my husband is very supportive of my career and goals, he still needs to have a wife during weekdays! It’s hard to leave the office early during the week.
But there are moments in my life where I make sure to prioritize family time. My parents are based in Lima but my brother lives with his wife and my two adorable nephews in Italy. I try to go visit them at least once a year.
Q: Who are your role models, male or female, and why?
A: My parents are two of my biggest role models.
I remember a very special moment observing my dad’s leadership skills which shaped me: He had spent most of his life (+30 years) working as General Manager for the Lima Stock Exchange. When he quit, I joined him to work on a Saturday following his retirement announcement (I was around 18 years old at the time) to collect his things from the office. Suddenly, 25-30 people showed up to his office and told him how thankful they were and that they were ready to quit with him, wherever he should decide to go! He was super strict but that specific moment showed me how he had been able to combine strict leadership and getting things done with being a good boss and a good leader to all his employees.
My mom is very different, but is a social leader in her community. She is very sensitive and is always there to support other people. She does volunteering activities and spends extra time caring about everyone. She has over a thousand friends - everyone loves her! I learned from her the importance of humility and how supporting other people actually supports your own growth.
Q: Who are your allies who have helped shape your development, leadership style, etc.?
A: My first boss and mentor shaped my career and leadership style by taking time to provide feedback and empower me in my role. At that time, I was very shy: an introvert. I was not comfortable giving my opinion, but he pushed me to speak up and supported me in being very confident to say what I was thinking. I still struggle at times and to this day, he continues to be the person I go to for guidance.
Several colleagues in our team at SNC-Lavalin have also influenced me, especially from Human Resources. No one has ever told me “you cannot do this; you can’t achieve success doing this”.
A group I am also thankful for is Women in Mining (WiM), through which I have found an important network in the sector but also a group of allies. I share a lot of things with them that I cannot always share with people in the office: some tough decisions I need to take, for instance. They have acted as a sorority that I can go to for support, especially when it comes to things that happen to us as women.
"It’s difficult to be a woman in a leadership position. The more I learn from the feminine leadership style, the more I find women face the same obstacles, same perceptions, and same doubts everywhere."
I have come to learn that the ostracism is not intentional, so I don’t react in aggressive way; rather, I stay silent and listen and then explain my position to men who can, in some ways, be old-fashioned in their thinking. It’s not entirely their fault: Latin America is a very male-oriented culture.
Q: What piece of advice would you give to young women pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)?
A: Follow your passions! If you really like the idea of making a career for yourself in STEM, just go for it. And if you’re passionate about what you do, you’re going to be successful no matter the career path you choose!