For a week in November, a group of 29 female leaders from the U.S. energy sector met at Shell’s Robert, Louisiana, training and conference center for a first-of-its-kind experiment.

The inaugural Energy Executive Program, orchestrated by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, immersed women’s business enterprise (WBE) attendees in a curriculum aimed at improving their managerial skillsets. As a result, major owners Shell, BP, Chevron and ExxonMobil hope to shake up their business models by making WBEs more competitive.

Lindsey All, senior manager of marketing, programs and business development for WBENC in Baton Rouge, says the program is based on a 15-year-old “industry agnostic” program at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, and included a mix of lectures, expert panels and field exercises.

During the five-day course, professors from the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business led educational sessions on topics such as marketing strategy, decision making, strategic management and finance. Participants also toured the Shell facility and listened to executive panel discussions in the evenings. “This marks our first industry-specific initiative,” All says. “We were very careful to find a university partner that had the right experience in both the oil and gas industry, as well as the necessary curriculum.”

Successful in their own right, participants in the program already earn an average of $5 million to $30 million in annual sales, and came from as far away as California, New York and Chicago. “The common thread is that they are all owners, operators or CEOs and are current suppliers of the energy industry,” All says.

Still, it was time well spent. “It provided me with an opportunity to meet some dynamic women that work in the same industry,” she adds. “I think sometimes we get siloed into what we do every day and forget that other people out there are dealing with some of the same challenges we are.”

The idea for the program originated from an analysis by WBENC’s Energy Advisory Board, which includes leaders from BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell. Debra Stewart, Shell’s director of supplier diversity and diversity outreach in Houston, says the program went from an idea to reality in less than a year. “We were the first underwriter to get it moving and then our peers came on board, but WBENC took the ball and ran with it.”

Stewart says WBEs and minority-owned businesses are often excluded from work because of the sheer size and scope of most energy sector contracts. “We started this because we were not happy with our ability to do business with them,” she adds. “We write big checks to suppliers day in and day out, but there are very few minority- or women-owned businesses that have the necessary scale or capabilities.

“When they understand us better, they serve us better. We also know that women- and minority-owned businesses naturally hire more women and minorities, so that creates jobs in the communities that need them most.”

Ray Dempsey, chief diversity officer for BP America and president of the BP Foundation, is excited about the program’s potential. “It’s unfortunately true that because of the scale of our business and the kinds of projects that we do, it limits the ability for a lot of women- and minority-owned businesses to participate.”

Dempsey hopes the program will help BP make headway toward its goal of “getting a seat at the Billion Dollar Roundtable.” Created in 2001, the Billion Dollar Roundtable recognizes corporations that spend at least $1 billion with minority and woman-owned suppliers, as well as shares best practices in supply chain diversity.

He says increased participation by WBEs and minorities is equally beneficial to BP. “It underpins business performance and helps all of us think about ways that we can drive that spend into our companies. We decided a couple of years ago that that was our goal.”

WBENC is committed to continuing the program in Louisiana for at least the next four years. An after-action review will identify best practices and room for improvement.

“We hope to identify how we can improve and build upon the experience,” says Shell’s Stewart. “We’re now collaborating with the National Minority Supplier Development Council, and we’re looking to take this to the next level. This inaugural event planted a seed. It’s the beginning of a process.”

RIG-CHEM’s Davis has no regrets, saying the program gave her a leg up in a down oil cycle. “No one gives you business today,” she adds. “That just doesn’t happen. We have to earn it and we have to be consistent.”

This article was originally published in the first quarter 2018 edition of 10/12 Industry Report