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Aligning my roles with my convictions
Testimony 02/02/2024

Aligning my roles with my convictions

Combining a love of science and nature, Elisabeth Aubert quickly realised that studying engineering would open up a rich and varied career. And that career has a common thread: the challenges of the energy and ecological transition. Her position as Head of Environmental Performance  for ENGIE's Networks GBU also earned her a nomination for the Trophées des femmes de l’industrie in the sustainable development category.  Meet a remarkable woman.

I’ve been fortunate in the ENGIE Group to have been able to hold positions that made sense to me, and throughout my career I’ve endeavoured to align my roles with my convictions.

I think that women need to take their place in society in science and technology.

Tell us about your career. What’s your background? What did you do before joining ENGIE?

Apart from a few internships, including one at CNRS, my career began at ENGIE twenty years ago. After studying engineering at Chimie ParisTech-PSL, I joined the Research Department at Gaz de France, as did many of my peers at the time. This forerunner of Crigen was already the Group’s incubator. Gaz de France then became GDF Suez, then ENGIE, and I stayed because the Group always gave me roles that made sense!

Twenty years is no mean feat. What have the major stages of your career been? 

I’ve often had responsibility for pioneering projects and I’ve often been given challenges from scratch, as is the case in my current position. In 2004, at Crigen, I started working on the biogas sector in France, supporting local authorities and elected representatives. At the time, little was known about biogas and biomethane, so I had a lot of educating to do to help explain that energy could be produced from waste. I quickly convinced the local councillors to carry out field studies on recovering their waste and to identify their energy needs at local level. What I’m most proud of is my contribution to the launch of France’s first biogas demonstrator, with the Lille Urban Community, in 2006. 

And then? 

After biogas, I moved on to another subject linked to the energy transition. I managed a CO2 capture project on coal-fired power stations in partnership with Alstom, EDF and Armines. We built a demonstrator on an EDF coal-fired power station in Vitry. It was an opportunity for me to manage a very large industrial project: a €14 million budget, around forty employees and an international dimension. At the same time, I took part in the working group that drew up Gaz de France’s first carbon strategy.

I’ve often worked on pioneering subjects.

Then you changed course?

Yes, after a few years at Crigen I wanted to move on to more concrete, shorter-term issues. In 2010, I joined GrDF just as the new thermal regulations for buildings were coming into force, requiring all new buildings to incorporate renewable energy sources.

Over a very short period of two or three years, I developed and deployed the first offers in a portfolio of solutions, combining renewables with natural gas: solar thermal, photovoltaic, heat pumps, etc. These are still the solutions on offer today. 

Then, after working in a highly technical and masculine environment, I felt the need to change again and I joined the Group’s HR department, a world that is much more feminine and less technical but perhaps more political, and one that also offers an international dimension. Isabelle Kocher, then CEO of Engie, wanted to accelerate the Group’s commitment to the energy transition. To support this new strategy, I was asked to join ENGIE University and develop programmes and solutions focused on energy transition and CSR (in particular the fight against climate change). Until then, the university had tended to offer management programmes. Once again, I was starting from scratch! Today, many of the courses I developed are still part of the ENGIE University portfolio, and I’m very pleased about that. Immersing myself in the HR department gave me the opportunity to learn about other ways of working and another culture, which has enriched me greatly as an engineer and manager.

I try to defend the vision of CSR as a creator of value and innovation for the Group. 

What’s your role today? 

After 6 years at ENGIE University working on a variety of topics, including accelerating the digitalisation of training during COVID, I wanted to get back to the operational side of things. So, in January 2022, I joined the head quarter of the networks Global Business Unit. The GBU has around 25,000 employees and covers the Group’s gas infrastructure (transmission, distribution, storage, LNG terminals and biomethane production) and electricity infrastructure businesses (electricity transmission lines). I’m in charge of the GBU’s environmental performance on an international scale, as we have companies in Europe (France, Germany, the UK and Romania) and Latin America (Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Chile). My job is to set and manage the objectives that will enable our GBU to contribute to the Group’s CSR commitments. To this end, I lead the network of all the CSR directors, carbon managers and biodiversity managers of the various entities or companies belonging to the GBU – some sixty people in all, and I ensure that knowledge is shared and skills are transferred. Not to mention meeting the expectations of our stakeholders: shareholders, investors, rating agencies, customers and local areas. 

Can you give us a few more details?

 I established – and I’m now in charge of – the GBU’s carbon pathway up to 2045, the year by which the Group aims to be “Net Zero Carbon”. I’m also working to reduce our methane emissions, with a historic commitment made last year to cut our emissions by 30% between 2017 and 2030. Reducing our impact on nature, water and biodiversity is another of my focuses. I’m passionate about CSR, but unfortunately too many people, particularly operational staff, still see it as a limitation. I try to defend the vision of a CSR approach that serves the business but also creates value and innovation for the Group. 

I’ve always seen progress towards being an environmentally-friendly company as a necessity.

When you joined Gaz de France’s Research Department, did you already know that you wanted to work at the intersection of Green Tech, CSR and carbon issues?

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve known that it’s essential to protect the planet, nature and animals, and I’ve always seen progress towards being an environmentally-friendly company as a necessity. It’s what I get up for every morning. I’ve been fortunate in the ENGIE Group to have been able to hold positions that made sense to me, and throughout my career I’ve endeavoured to align my roles with my convictions. Quite honestly, I’ve turned down opportunities that would no doubt have accelerated my career, but I chose to stay the course, to be true to my values, because that’s how I work. And I’ve found that this approach has strengthened my credibility and my ability to influence others.

What would you say is your greatest asset?

I’d say it’s my ability to grasp complex issues from both a technological and industrial point of view, but also from an environmental and societal point of view. It’s linked to my twin backgrounds: after my engineering degree, halfway through my career, I did a Masters in “Global Management of Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainable Development” at the École des Mines de Paris.  I think this dual expertise is an asset for the Group.

What have you gained from your time in research?

It was my first job, my first steps into corporate life, and it taught me how to manage complex, international industrial projects, with large teams, external partners and significant budgets. I learnt to listen to customers when I worked in the biogas sector, in contact with elected representatives and local authorities, who are very demanding. At Crigen, I also learned to speak in front of fairly large audiences, and ultimately to represent the group and its work, for example at international conferences. And there was a very strong spirit of camaraderie and mutual support. I’ve kept in touch with some great friends, and we’re part of a very strong network. There were nearly a thousand of us at the time and it’s always a pleasure to bump into each other. The career paths that began at Crigen are rich and varied, and “Crigen alumni” can be found just about everywhere in the Group. It was an extremely rewarding experience for me.

Women need to take their place in science and technology.

Is there a little phrase or mantra that inspires you on a daily basis?

 Yes, a phrase from Gandhi that an ENGIE University coach introduced me to and that I’ve always remembered: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow and learn as if you were to live forever”. It’s very beautiful, and it reflects the intellectual curiosity that drives me. I love to learn – I’ve taken training courses in lots of different fields, on lots of different scientific subjects; this thirst for knowledge defines me.  What’s more, I’m currently doing a course at ESSEC to prepare me to join boards of directors.

Let’s talk about superpowers... If you could have one, what would you choose? With your love for learning, you’re bound to say: “innate knowledge”!  

In fact, I could ask for a lot of things. But if I had to choose just one, I’d like to have the gift of teleportation, to save time, avoid transport problems or traffic jams and be able to go to the other side of the world without emitting CO2. That’s my very practical, operational side talking!

Finally, let’s talk about something that’s close to your heart: women in science and technology, who are under-represented. What can we do to change this? 

This is a topic that’s extremely important to me. Today’s world is, to a huge degree, created and designed by men for men – as can be seen in the gender bias of AI. I think that women need to take their place in society in science and technology. In my pre-university preparatory classes, only 15% to 20% of us were girls. Things are progressing, but unfortunately too slowly.  

That’s why you’re making a personal commitment to this...

 Yes, I work with young girls through "Elles bougent", a charity that ENGIE has long supported. I’m a sponsor and member of ENGIE’s WIN (Women In Network) group. I also represent ENGIE in the InterElles circle, which brings together companies in the tech, telecoms and energy sectors to discuss the role of women in science. And I had the honour of featuring in a film by Rafael Duvernay, IngénieurEs, aimed at the national education system and supported by ENGIE and the Fondation des Mines. It features portraits and personal accounts from women of all ages, with very different backgrounds and professions, to show young girls that they can flourish in the world of science and technology. Society lacks female role models. If I think about it, the only example I learned about at school was Marie Curie, but role models are extremely important. We talk a lot about Thomas Pesquet, who is brilliant, but never about the American astronaut Christina Koch, for example. In 2020, she completed the longest space flight ever made by a woman. Society, the national education system and the media all share responsibility for this state of affairs. Finally, I think we need to get the message across as early as possible – in secondary school, when children are making choices, it’s too late and biases are already well established.

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