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I’m a great believer in collective intelligence
Portraits 21/02/2024

I’m a great believer in collective intelligence

Passionate about the challenges of the energy transition and how technology can contribute to it, Gabrielle has spent many years supervising technicians, researchers, PhDs and PhD students, apprentices and trainees at Lab Crigen, one of the ENGIE Group’s research centres. Now the Chief of Staff to a member of the ENGIE Executive Committee, she continues to work to make her dream come true: to be able to travel the world... without emitting carbon.

Research has helped to develop my curiosity and capacity for innovation.

I’m delighted with the intuition I had at school: that the world of energy and decarbonisation is exciting and diverse.

Tell us about your career before joining ENGIE.

After studying Energy and Process Engineering at the Ecole des Mines de Saint-Étienne and then its counterpart in Paris, I did an end-of-studies placement in cryogenics, i.e. liquids at very low temperatures – in this case, liquid nitrogen. Afterwards, I applied to Lab Crigen, one of ENGIE’s research centres, where I stayed for eight and a half years.

Was energy an area of research that interested you at the outset, or did it come about by chance?

I’ve always found energy fascinating, and it was my major in engineering school. Energy involves technical and economic issues, it has links with markets and finance and it also has a huge impact on society. It’s these multiple facets that have always interested me.

In my second year of studies, I did a research placement at university, but for me it was too far removed from the business side, and I said to myself “never again!”. Then, during my final year work placement, I worked on cryogenics, not in R&D but in industrialisation – in other words, the missing link between R&D and business. This got me back on board with industrial R&D. Just goes to show you should never say “never again”!

And then you came to Lab Crigen?

I was looking for a technical challenge, a link with the business side. I wanted to satisfy my curiosity about energy and work for a major French group. I had a bit of a background in cryogenics, so I applied for a job as a research engineer at Crigen. I then became project manager, deputy Lab manager and then Lab manager. And now I’m no longer at Crigen – I’m Chief of Staff to Sébastien Arbola, ENGIE’s Executive Vice President in charge of the Flex Gen & Retail GBU.

It seems like a world apart from research. Is that the case?

I don’t think so. As Lab Manager, I combined technical expertise, HR and a bit of finance – working on a lot of cross-functional topics. In this sense, my new role just continues this.

What does your day-to-day work involve?

I manage and ensure progress in the GBU’s strategic or development-related topics. On a daily basis, I support Sébastien Arbola in his decision-making by involving his Executive Committee and the GBU teams.  I also hope I bring clarity to the GBU, providing details about development projects and facilitating decision-making. So my role is very diverse, and I think that’s what makes my job so rewarding.

Your technical background must be very useful in understanding these issues...

Yes, my engineering training and the subjects I’ve worked on at R&I have helped me to gain a grasp fairly quickly of technical issues such as batteries, seawater desalination and pumped storage dams. What is very new is the size of the projects. CCGTs (Combined Cycle Gas Turbines) and desalination plants are gigantic industrial tools that fulfil market economy and financial requirements on a huge scale. This is the area where I need to improve my skills the most. There’s also the whole retail side of the GBU, with individual customers. Two very different worlds that need to be understood, but that’s what makes it so exciting.

What would you say research has given you?

My time in research has strengthened my technical expertise. My education at engineering school was very theoretical, despite two work placements. Research has helped to develop my curiosity and capacity for innovation. I’ve filed several patents, which I’m proud of, but I’ve also appreciated the fact that we’re allowed to keep on ‘digging’, to have the time to look for longer-term solutions than in the business units. My time at Crigen prepared me to better understand the Group’s business. Lab Crigen is an incubator, with a strong culture of training and developing talent. There are lots of interns, apprentices, PhD students and more. After this stage, people might want to stay in R&D or they might choose to move into the Group, as in my case.

Is there a little phrase, a mantra, that guides you on a daily basis?

I’m convinced that “alone we go faster, but together we go further”. I’m a great believer in collective intelligence. We really need diversity, to have people around us with different points of view. I also think this is what will enable us to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

When you work on the energy transition, you’re working to improve the common good

What power would you like to have?

To be able to travel long distances without emitting CO2. I love travelling, getting to know other people and discovering other cultures. And I’d like to be able to travel outside Europe without it taking three weeks by container ship, while also protecting the planet – but that’s just a dream for the moment! I miss going to Asia or South America. I could fly, but it’s a personal choice not to... The good news is that ENGIE’s teams are working on this, helping our customers to decarbonise, particularly in aviation. So I hope that one day my wish will come true!

Do you have any ideas or advice for attracting more women to research?

 You have to start young – that’s something I’ve seen with the young girl I coach at a secondary school in a disadvantaged area.

The first thing is that when it comes to making choices, girls don’t limit themselves. They choose maths and physics at secondary school if they like these topics. I think it’s great that ENGIE is playing its part in civil society and supporting various initiatives. For example, it’s providing mentoring in Paris and funding studies in Peru. Increasing the talent pool and getting more girls into science are part of the solution.

And we need to continue to showcase our businesses. Research engineering is a difficult profession to explain, and we need to communicate more about what our work brings to the world. Girls with a scientific background tend to go into medicine and care. But when you work on the energy transition, even if you don’t save lives directly, you’re working to improve the common good, you're trying to make the world a better place, and I think that’s a goal that resonates with a lot of women.

Finally, we may also need to work on career paths and support for people who want to retrain to enter our professions. Personally, I’m delighted with the intuition I had at school: that the world of energy and decarbonisation is exciting and diverse. So come on, girls, don’t limit yourselves!

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