It was while she was on a three-month career break as a high flyer in the energy sector that Raylene Whitford set herself the rather unusual goal of having 101 cappuccinos with people she was connected to on LinkedIn. Her 13th cappuccino connected her with someone she had met during her time as a senior adviser at KPMG working with BP, who happened to be looking for a director to lead a cost optimisation project. “Three days later I was on a plane to Quito in Ecuador,” she says.
The role allowed Whitford to interact with government and gain insight into how the energy sector impacted Indigenous people in the Amazon. After the consultancy project ended, Whitford made the decision to stay in Ecuador and launched Canative Energy, a social enterprise that worked with Indigenous peoples in the Amazon to help them commercialise their businesses.
One community had a hostel that the energy company built for them, and while they knew how to operate and maintain it, they didn’t know how to attract tourists. Helping them with their marketing on platforms such as booking.com helped the business to flourish and support the 90 families that were relying on the hostel for their livelihoods.
Helping Indigenous communities
Working with Indigenous communities resonated with Whitford, herself of Cree-Métis origin. She returned to Canada in 2019 specifically to work at the intersection of government, community and the energy industry, however, she quickly missed having international connections, which pushed her to start INDIGI-X. “It was a passion project that I started just off the side of my desk right before the pandemic.
“Originally INDIGI-X was set up as a way for Indigenous professionals in Canada and New Zealand to do exchanges or job swaps and allow them to get more international experience,” Whitford explains. “Because when I reflect on my career, the critical point in my development was when I went to the UK to train as an accountant.” The opportunity to learn about different approaches and bring them home was invaluable, she says.
When the pandemic hit, Whitford’s programme went virtual. So far INDIGI-X has hosted three cohorts of 24 Indigenous professionals each in Canada and New Zealand. During the six-week exchange, delegates would share experiences, discuss problems and come up with pieces of short policy advisory for their respective governments.
“It’s a really powerful programme in creating relationships. And there’s a very high degree of trust going into the programme just because we as Indigenous people come from a common shared experience,” she says.
Both Canadian and New Zealand governments remained supportive of the programme throughout the pandemic. The next step is for these groups to do in-person exchanges and continue the transfer of knowledge and relationships. INDIGI-X is also planning to expand the exchange to include Australia later this year.
From roughneck to CFO
Once one of the youngest CFOs on the London Stock Exchange, her career in the energy sector has taken her from being the only female roughneck on a drilling rig for Devon Energy for six months to her most recent appointment to the new federal Task Force on Women in the Economy, created to advise the Canadian government on equitable economic recovery from a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting women. Whitford is also a member of the Deputy Minister’s Advisory Committee for International Trade.
Looking back over her career to date, Whitford credits her success in no small way to the business grounding given to her by the ACA training. “It’s the foundational training that has translated into so many different places and I don’t think I truly appreciated it until recently,” she says.
Despite hankering after a career as an engineer, Whitford’s eyes were opened to the possibilities of a career in accountancy. After qualifying with KPMG and working in the energy sector, her natural affinity to risk taking was already clear. In 2014 she took a sabbatical from her corporate role with KPMG to spend a winter working as a roughneck on a triple pad drilling rig in northern Canada to gain field experience.
Over the course of her career, Whitford has directed a $42bn capital efficiency project for an energy company in the Middle East and spent several years working with BP’s Commercial Performance Improvement Unit where she advised on cost optimisation in Europe and West Africa.
Her technical accounting days may be behind her, but the lessons learned at the coalface stood her in good stead for a career that has gone from strength to strength. “I haven’t actually done accounting for a long time, yet I sit on a Finance and Audit Committee, which I find strangely gratifying.”
Whitford is currently on the path to completing an interdisciplinary PhD in Indigenous Studies and Business at the University of Alberta and is a proud member of the Métis Nation of Alberta.
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