28 Mar 2018
Fueling the Future
An energy expert channels her personal energies to helping women, girls, and young entrepreneurs find success at workRe: Anne Maffei (MBA 1994)by Jill RadskenTopics:
Photo by Michael Paras
Women who pursue STEM fields are accustomed to being challenged.
When Cecily Kovatch (MBA 2002) began her career working as a field engineer for Schlumberger, one of the world’s largest oilfield service companies, the all-male crews on the oil rigs were often less than welcoming.
“I’d drive up and they’d ask, ‘Who are you?’ I’d reply, ‘I’m your Schlumberger engineer.’ They’d say, ‘No, you’re not. Send a guy out.’”
This was in 1994, and after explaining a replacement would not be coming, Kovatch would get to work. By the end of the job, seeing the quality and efficiency of her work, and how she anticipated customer needs, many crews and companies requested she come back.
“I felt that I changed some people’s perceptions of the fitness of a woman in such a demanding job and environment,” she says.
Since those early engineering days, Kovatch has held diverse roles in the industry, from recruiter and marketing director to head of innovation. Today, she runs Fueled for Growth, an innovation consulting company, which assists financial firms with due diligence in the energy and industrials sector and helps companies solve issues and grow.
In addition, she was recently selected to be an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Stevens Institute of Technology’s Venture Center in New Jersey, advising startups in the energy space, specifically clean-tech. She is also an adjunct professor, teaching entrepreneurial management.
Kovatch always had an entrepreneurial nature. Growing up in a suburb of Boston, she had a half dozen jobs (lawn mowing, farm stand, newspaper delivery) by the time she was 15.
“Once I learned I could make money and have freedom, I was all about capitalizing on opportunities,” she observes.
She attended Princeton, studying mathematics and science, including physics, biology, and chemistry. But it was an introductory geology course captivated her.
“Building bridges, building roads, finding oil––so many practical things are related to geology. I knew this is a science I can use to make and build things, and make the world better,” she recalls.
After working on more than 300 oil rigs, Kovatch became an engineer recruiter in North America for Schlumberger, visiting more than 40 colleges and universities a year.
“I loved the adventure, telling the stories from the oil patch and being the face of the company on college campuses. Ninety percent of the room wasn’t going to want the job due to its remote locations, potentially dangerous nature, and relentless work schedule; but finding the 10 percent who did was a great challenge I enjoyed,” she says. “The attrition in this industry is huge––30 percent leave within six months––and in two years we reduced that to 12 percent. That’s a significant savings when you are hiring 250 engineers per year.”
A short stint as assistant to the area management team for Schlumberger’s land division in 1999 exposed her to upper management, a move that led Kovatch to apply to HBS, where she focused on operations and marketing in courses with professors Das Narayandas, Forest L. Reinhardt, and (now Dean) Nitin Nohria. Kovatch embraced equally the academic and social aspects of campus life, volunteering as social chair and traveling to Japan, Australia, Portugal, Brazil, and Iceland.
“I had worked on oil rigs for many years, where your social life can be challenging with a 24/7 schedule,” she says. “I wanted to take advantage of everything HBS had to offer, including the cultural trips and social events.”
Hess Corporation hired her after graduation to work as a regional marketing manager in New York, after which Kovatch made a career detour to American Express to work on the strategy team for US commercial cards. In 2005, HBS alumna Anne Maffei (MBA 1994) hired her to run the retail/consumer division of Vista Research, which was at the time a part of Standard & Poor’s and is now Guidepoint Global. Kovatch said yes and immediately asked to also build an energy practice.
“Oil prices were soaring, silicon prices were fluctuating, and solar and wind were huge topics at that time. I saw that as an opportunity,” she notes. “So I quickly got retail humming, built an energy and industrials research practice, and then added basic materials and aerospace and defense.”
After seven years leading teams at Vista, Kovatch joined Covanta, a renewable energy company where she was responsible for building an innovation program as well as a marketing function. She helmed a total rebranding initiative, creating a new logo, website, and mission statement to reflect the broader vision for the waste-to-energy business.
“Combusting garbage to produce electricity in an environmentally controlled manner keeps waste out of the landfill and creates electricity from a fuel source that is not a hydrocarbon. It is very purpose-driven, and that’s why it appealed to me,” she says.
Kovatch’s passion for innovation and solving complex challenges at Covanta led her to found a consultancy, Fueled for Growth, where she helps businesses to find value for their waste materials and conduct due diligence on new ideas. She also started Fueled for Business, coaching busy working women with better nutrition and time-efficient exercise as a means toward better health, more energy, and work/life balance.
“Fueled for Business is designed to help women get more fit and handle stress better,” she says. “Making the time for exercise isn’t simply about health: it’s when and where individuals get some of their most creative ideas.”
Her support of women extends to the younger set as well, and Kovatch uses her story especially to motivate teenage girls. She serves on the advocates board of Covenant House, a shelter for homeless and trafficked youth in Manhattan, helping young people in the job readiness program. She has also traveled with a delegation to Guatemala to volunteer at Covenant House’s Guatemala City location.
As a volunteer at ESchool4Girls, a two-week summer program teaching entrepreneurship to high school girls in Manhattan, Kovatch acts as a judge during the pitch competition. She’s also helping the nonprofit develop a scale-up plan. The lessons are empowering and the results transformational.
“One student wasn’t paying attention, and seemed like she just wanted to be the cool kid,” Kovatch recalls. “At the end of the two-week program, all of the students had to present a business plan on their idea and that particular girl shined in her presentation. She had dedicated herself, and it was very fulfilling to see someone who didn’t seem engaged, but found her passion.
“That’s what entrepreneurship can do,” Kovatch says. “If you don’t like the status quo, you can act upon your passion. It got her to recognize this.”
Class of MBA 2002, Section D