INTERVIEW SERIES | Chatting with Shastri Ramnath and Ashley Kirwan

Shastri Ramnath and Ashley Kirwan, the founders of Orix Geoscience, spoke with Covergalls about their work, challenges faced, best advice, and more.

As the global pandemic continues to put extraordinary demands on people everywhere, Covergalls decided to reach out to speak to CEOs and inspiring leaders for words of wisdom. Last week marked the first in our interview series on amazing leaders who inspire us!

This week we share our talk with amazing humans Shastri Ramnath and Ashley Kirwan from Orix Geoscience, a geology firm based out of Toronto (and offices in Sudbury and Winnipeg) that partners with exploration and mining companies to provide geological expertise, business strategies, creative passion on a number of projects.

Please note that this interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Let’s start with what's your title? 

AK: My name is Ashley Kirwan, I am from Sudbury Ontario and I’m a geologist, entrepreneur, and mother of a two-year-old daughter who keeps me in check with living in the moment each day. I was one of three co-founders of Orix geoscience along with my business partner Shastri Ramnath in 2012 and I’m currently the President & CEO.

Ashley Kirwan in action

SR: I am Shastri Ramnath and I like to call myself an Overeducated Geopreneur. I am also a mother, daughter, and sister as well as a geologist and CEO. I am from a small town north of Winnipeg called Arborg, which has the world’s largest curling rock.

Shastri Ramnath taking charge in the field!

What made you interested in getting into your field?

AK: When I was younger, each year I would pick something different that I wanted to be when I grew up. I was creative, loved the outdoors, and wanted to travel as part of my career. I decided to take geography and switched into geology after my first year introductory course at Laurentian University. Learning about earth’s evolution and cosmology, on top of having job offers that allowed me to work outdoors with down to earth people, opened up my eyes to an exciting career path in geoscience... I never looked back.

SR: It’s embarrassing to say it but Geology was my highest mark in first year university with a B. Since it was my best mark, I thought it made sense for me to become a geologist! I had no concept of what the career entailed but I thank my lucky stars every day that I chose mining and geology. It’s been a perfect fit for me.

What do you love about your field of work?

AK: I love the people in the mining industry. It’s one of the only fields where early on you need to both work and live with your peers so you get to know each other really well and connect. Geologists are unique and creative with a work hard/play hard mentality. In a cyclical industry you want to be surrounded by good people that can come together when it matters the most. The reason I stayed in the industry and continue to get excited about the future of our business at Orix is because of the people.

SR: I love that every day is different. We get to be creative in both business and geology and we get to travel the world. The people I work with have become my extended family and I never knew how much rocks and business go together. The TSX lists over 55% of the world’s mining companies and Toronto is a hub for mining activity.

What types of challenges have you faced as a woman in your field, and how have you overcome them?

AK: My career to date has involved working in remote exploration camps, underground environments, and in the boardroom. I’ve had comments said to me along the way, been mistaken for a non-technical professional, and been questioned about how I can handle both work and family commitments.

I do think the biggest challenge I have faced and potentially currently face as a woman in the mining industry is not what is said to me but what is not said to me – the opportunities that are not presented, the contracts that are not approved and increased push back during business negotiations, etcetera. 

I am optimistic for the future of our industry and as more leaders in the industry, both males and females, stand up and speak up for a new generation of diverse leaders and become ambassadors for diversity I personally choose to surround myself with people that have integrity and companies that focus on a healthy corporate culture.

SR: After spending three months in a camp in West Africa, we had a goodbye dinner where one of the local employees was talking with me. He thought I was the wife of the ‘Patron’ the whole time I was in the camp! He had no idea that I was a geologist and working with the Project Geologist. 

Some other more specific examples: I’ve faced pay inequity twice in the last 20 years; I have been told in a professional industry event that “I was beautiful but not very smart,” and nobody spoke up for me while I held back my tears; after having a baby, and attending my first conference when my son was 10 months old, a male acquaintance walked up to me and said, “shouldn’t you be parenting right now?”

There are many challenges facing women, many of which are difficult to put a finger on.

And what would you say are some of the challenges facing women in leadership?

AK: There is a catch-22 for women in executive and board positions in our industry. Most boards require directors who already have previously held a board or executive position, but there are barriers for women in mining that often prevent us from being hired or promoted to these positions. So how can women get initial board experience? I believe companies and industry leaders can be advocates for promoting women to leadership roles that have the right expertise and interpersonal skill sets and not necessarily 25 plus years’ experience. Many women in our industry would make great board members for junior companies and bring technical experience and fresh ideas to the table. Our industry also has an aging demographic and this would be a great opportunity for companies that have some of our industries top leaders to share their knowledge and mentor the next generation of diverse industry leaders.

SR: I think confidence is a challenge for women. It’s easier for us to exhibit the soft side but it is a challenge to be assertive without coming off as ‘aggressive’. Women are perceived differently. Our passion can be misinterpreted as ‘emotional’ and assertiveness can also be misinterpreted as anger.

Specifically, it can be challenging for women in mining because we are often the only woman at the table. In those cases, it can be very difficult to speak up and often people forget why it is important to be inclusive. The whole point is to have diversity of thought as an organization and often people would rather align themselves with like minded people. This defeats the purpose of having a diverse group of people!

How did you get to where you are today, as CEO of your company?

AK: My business partner, Shastri, and I have worked together for over 15 years at four different companies. When you find people you like to work with in our industry you tend to try and stick together. I’ve always been a sponge at every company I’ve worked and said yes to any opportunity I could get, from working underground in Sudbury to running exploration programs in Nevada and logging a lot of core along the way. In 2012 Orix was started to fill a gap in the industry where companies needed to increase the geological understanding of their projects in order to raise funds but they lacked the expertise and capital to do so. We carved our niche in the industry when starting Orix and built really strong industry relationships along the way. Both Shastri and I are entrepreneurs and have invested in a lot of start-up ventures and co-founded other complimentary companies in the industry, so after six years of being the Vice President of Orix I organically transitioned to the CEO role in 2018 so Shastri could run one of our other spin out companies, Exiro Minerals.

SR: I am where I am because I had the confidence to make life decisions that landed me as an entrepreneur. The confidence comes from my parents – full stop. Without my family behind me, I never would have even thought that starting a company was possible. I also gain confidence from both my business partners at Orix and Exiro. People like Ashley Kirwan and Joshua Bailey encourage me to speak up and we navigate the industry and partners. I am very fortunate to have cross paths with people like them in my life.

Shastri Ramnath (left) and Ashley Kirwan (right). The two of them are great friends and make an incredible team!

What is the best and the worst part of being a CEO?

AK: The best part about being an entrepreneur and CEO is the flexible work schedule, another plus since I also have a two-year-old, and the ability to make decisions, since Orix is a private company with two owners and no other shareholders the decision making processes is also very efficient. The “worst” part can be the emotional roller coaster that can come from taking responsibility for the success of a company along with the growth and wellness of the team. You’re never really “off”.

SR: People forget that the person at the top has to make very difficult decisions. Sometimes it’s hard for people to understand why decisions are made. It’s a lot of pressure being the CEO of any organization and it’s not very often people say “way to go CEO, you did a good job today.” The reward is seeing people be individually successful and part of making the company a success. The best part about being the CEO and building a business is figuring out how to be the best. Coming up with new ideas and rolling them out is one of the most gratifying things a person can do.

What changes would you suggest implementing in your first year as a company CEO?

AK: I think the first thing a new CEO can do when starting with a new company is to talk to as many of the team members as possible. Get to know people, their roles, and listen to what new ideas are floating around and challenges that come up time and time again. A CEO has the benefit of seeing the bigger picture but needs to understand the company’s history and corporate culture to start implementing any changes.

SR: Hearing all perspectives is important for success. Having the confidence to suggest change takes a lot of courage. The first year as a CEO requires a lot of courage and it is critical to build a positive and collaborative relationship with the team.

Your company’s executive leadership team is half women, roughly. What’s that like, and how does it compare to the industry as a whole?

AK: I genuinely enjoy working with the team every day, and that is one of our biggest goals for the team internally. Over 50 percent of our employees are female including around 60 percent of our senior leadership team, 25 percent of our employees were also born outside of Canada. In terms of diversity, our company looks very different from other companies in the mining industry. Because of this we have a 90 percent employee retention rate and have won the Employee Recommended Workplace Award from Morneau Shepell and The Globe and Mail in 2019 and 2020. Our industry is facing a workforce shortage, so retention and engagement is very important to us. We have a great team with diverse experience that enjoys working with each other and steps in when we need to come together and turn a challenge into an opportunity.

SR: Our team is approximately 50 percent women and 50 percent men. To sum-up what our workplace is like - it’s amazing! I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to work with both men and women. A diverse workforce offers diversity of thought and different perspectives. Through these collaborative discussions we have built friendships that go beyond the business and we get to learn from each other. There is not a day that goes by that we do not laugh together. Being able to count on each other on a day-to-day basis is so very rewarding.

What do you think are the biggest challenges your industry will face in the next five years?

AK: First, a shortage of geologists - we need more people to be introduced to what a career in geoscience can be and retain and promote people once they are in the industry so they stay. Second, the ability to work with historical and current datasets. Our industry is starting to embrace technology, but there are still gaps between bringing older valuable information to current use. Third is knowledge gaps; as an older demographic retires we need to find ways to pass on valuable insights, experience, etc. to the next generation of leaders. Finally fourth is continuity of knowledge; as more M&A’s and acquisitions are on the horizon projects get passed from one group to another and there is inevitably some valuable knowledge that is lost along the way.

SR: Some of the challenges the mining industry will face are a shortage of people, shortage of metal, and keeping up with technology.

What is the biggest challenge you've faced personally in your career? How did you overcome it and what did you learn from it?

AK: We started Orix in a downturn in 2012 but this past year I faced our biggest business challenge as all field work stopped in March 2020 and our industry took a big pause. Our team came together for multiple creative sessions and got specific on our vision and industry value-add to expand our reach by communicating to the industry, first that Orix geoscience was a geological consulting company with a diverse team of geology and data experts, second that we specialize in the integration of data and innovative geological understanding, and third that although we were all working from home we can still work to advance your exploration project in a strategic way. Right NOW we are now busier than ever and I learnt once again the critical importance of having a strong team.

Is there any advice you would give to women entering the field and who want to become leaders / CEOs of their own company?

SR: The most important piece is surrounding themselves with great people. Read the book “Good to Great”. It’s all about getting the right people on the bus and then deciding where the bus is going. It’s amazing how much a business can evolve and grow based on the people on the bus.

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as the CEO of your company?

AK: Especially during this past year I’ve learnt that as a leader, there will be good

times to thrive and there will be tough times to navigate, and what you need in both of these times is a great team. You interact with your colleagues just as much as your family and so you need a team that you enjoy working with and a team that can come together and build opportunities from challenges.

SR: To listen.

Thanks for checking out this week’s interview! Tell us: what do you think makes a leader? 

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