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CEO trades ‘ceilings for trampolines’ at woman-led carbon credits firm

Jana McDonald, CEO of Guardyan Conservation and chief development officer of Obsidian Engineering. (Courtesy Guardyan Conservation)

When Jana McDonald walks into a boardroom, it can be an uphill climb to establish herself as a founder of a multi-million-dollar company. “Why is there a 12-year-old in the room?” is the vibe she has often felt in the mostly male spaces.

McDonald, the CEO of Calgary-based carbon credit developer Guardyan Conservation, is forging an unlikely path through oil and gas into sustainability. An outlier in the industry, as a young woman with no formal education in engineering, research science or business management, she wanted to work in oil and gas due to its dominant position in Alberta’s culture.

The communications and media studies graduate from the University of Calgary is the first in her family to work in the sector.

But the 28-year-old Calgarian rarely had it easy breaking into the male-dominated resources field. In her darkest moments, she contemplated dropping everything and moving to Vancouver, where she thought she might find a more hospitable environment.

“But I was raised by wolves. I have three older brothers and my dad and my mom, who is a force to be reckoned with. And from Day One, they would say, ‘You are a McDonald, you can handle this. So handle it.’ So there’s no quitting.”

From event planning to carbon credits

It took several years for McDonald to actually break into the oil and gas sector.

She had formed a corporate events company in her last year of university, where an event she organized connected her to the industry.

That led to a position with OEL Projects Ltd. (now McIntosh Perry Consulting Engineers) in November 2018. She would leave OEL Projects after five months, having absorbed a great deal of knowledge about the sector.

Her next stop was as director of business development and client relations at another engineering firm, where for 18 months she specialized in translating engineering work into “something tangible that can be marketed.”

Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, seriously impacting company budgets.

She adapted by seeking opportunities for the firm in the carbon offset industry. Her first shot at carbon credits involved a client with a small budget who wanted to increase production, which she helped it achieve without raising its corporate emissions.

That led to the founding of Enviro-Capital Solutions in October 2020 after she recognized the success of the concept, but she had to dissolve and then resurrect the company when a partnership went bad. Convinced the sector still offered opportunity, McDonald was not about to give up.

“There was no way I was going to go down,” she told herself.

Obsidian Engineering and Guardyan Conservation

A new opportunity arose when she joined Obsidian Engineering, in August 2021, where she is now chief development officer.

She brought the carbon credit concept to Obsidian, arguing it would add value to the company. She continued to provide carbon credit development consultation and executed carbon trades until Obsidian's owners bought into her own rebranded firm, which is now named Guardyan.

Guardyan employs Obsidian’s engineering expertise and personnel, while Obsidian leverages Guardyan’s carbon credit offering. Both companies operate in the same building.

Today, Guardyan develops and monetizes carbon credit projects for clients across various industries. The clients are usually organizations paying large carbon taxes or serving sustainability-minded consumers who want to invest in emissions reductions.

Projects range from changing lighting systems to helping develop a renewable natural gas facility or supporting a more sustainable way of mining helium.

Guardyan hopes to create seven million carbon credits – representing seven million tonnes of offset carbon dioxide – in 2023.

Fighting the headwinds

The Alberta government stated in a 2017 report on the oil and gas industry that about a quarter of the jobs were occupied by women, and McDonald said women do continue to face judgment and bias.

As an example, McDonald recalled sending an email to a venture capital company, with Guardyan co-owner and managing partner Mark Czechowsky CC’d. The response was addressed to Czechowsky, instead of McDonald.

She sometimes brings Czechowsky to meetings for “male clout” because she worries she might not be taken seriously: “I am not the picture of a $20-million carbon capture entity."

McDonald called Czechowsky, also the CEO of Obsidian, an “incredible” male counterpart.

She also discussed the burden of being a young female entrepreneur: “There’s this assumption that they (some men) can do what they want and the ramifications won’t be there."

She said she has endured harassment and “sabotage,” including one incident she believes cost her company a major transaction.

Despite all this, there are some advantages to being a female entrepreneur. She cites “tremendous” initiatives exclusively available to women, such as large grants. But for every female-focused program, men have many more open doors for investment.

“Female CEOs and entrepreneurs are a minority in tech, in oil and gas, in transportation, in sustainability, because we still are a minority in STEM and in engineering and in the blue fields,” McDonald said.

“If a female and a male entrepreneur with the exact same project in a male-dominant industry were to walk into Dragon’s Den, who would be taken more seriously? I don’t know.”

Guardyan's female "disruptors"

McDonald, second from the left, with some of Guardyan Conservation's female staff. (Courtesy Guardyan Conservation)

Guardyan, as McDonald defines it, is female-dominant. She identified female "disruptors" in large oil and gas companies and “poached the heck out of them.”

Her leadership team includes Kaila Stepanic, vice-president of operations, and Anna Davison, director of projects.

Stepanic, an engineer and project manager at a pipeline company for close to a decade, had divulged to a mutual friend she felt overlooked as male counterparts were promoted ahead of her. The friend urged Stepanic to talk to McDonald for a fresh start, after which she was hired.

Davison, whose resumé covers 14 years at Imperial Oil as an engineer and safety manager of a 2,000-strong team, traded a generous salary and lofty position for Guardyan.

Guardyan attracts talent and has grown rapidly, McDonald said, because of a culture in which women can express their ideas and collaborate. “We traded ceilings for trampolines,” she said, a reference to women breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling.

McDonald advises female engineers in the oil and gas sector to “take up space and to bring their entire person to their job.

“In such a male-dominated industry like engineering, women tend to be quiet and they tend to be like workhorses to not rock the boat . . . And my encouragement is to be as much as possible.”

Additional advice includes:

  • looking outside their engineering disciplines;
  • betting on yourself, including starting a company; and
  • collaborating with people outside of a male engineering perspective to grasp a wider range of issues and solutions.

Women, she said, are incredibly collaborative and supportive with their networks. One of her champions is Tanya Gillrie, manager of major accounts at the Business Development Bank of Canada, whom McDonald calls a “fantastic female networker."

Leading a change in corporate culture

McDonald envisions Guardyan as a place where women can bring their culture, experiences, strengths and personalities to the table. She deliberately hires women who intimidate and compete against her, and McDonald said she doesn't want to be the smartest person in the room.

As the companies grow, McDonald wants to continue seeing a variety of backgrounds, cultures and genders included to broaden their perspective.

Her dream for Guardyan is to see it become a household name in sustainability - reducing millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide by being part of every emissions reduction project and innovation, and investing in high-impact projects and female-run companies.

“I want to continue to be an example of how, if you just get out of the way and watch what these female brains can do with their technical backgrounds and creative skills and astronomical ambitions, there’s nothing that can stop us.”

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