Playing A Different Tune

As a child growing up in Kenya, Audrey Mascarenhas dreamed of being a concert pianist. But it was her passion for the environment that led her to take a chance on Questor Technology Inc.

When Audrey Mascarenhas joined Questor Technology Inc. in 1999, she knew she was taking a risk. In fact, she says that decision represents the greatest risk she has taken in her professional life.

“I was the laughing stock of the oil patch,” says the 54-year-old CEO from her 11th floor office at Questor headquarters in Calgary, which overlooks the shimmering Bow River and the Rocky Mountains. “People said, ‘Nobody is ever going to care about the environment.’”

Now, Questor is an international oil-field service company whose environmental solutions and clean combustion technologies are in demand around the world. The company designs and builds high-efficiency waste gas incinerators that destroy noxious or toxic hydrocarbon gases, providing an alternative to flaring the gas, which releases emissions into the atmosphere.

But back in 1999, Questor was a struggling startup. At the time, many in industry denied global warming. Leaders who stepped up to protect the environment were few. Mascarenhas, however, had a vision of using her engineering background to help improve the company’s technology, and allowed herself to be wooed to Questor by her former mentor and then-CEO Daniel Motyka.

“Everyone around me was saying, ‘You are one of the brightest engineers around, and this company will never be successful. You’re wasting your future.’ But in my heart of hearts, I felt the work Questor was doing was important,” she says.

“It wasn’t about the money, it was about the passion.”

In the small African town where Mascarenhas grew up, following her passion was not an option. Life in Nakuru, Kenya, was a world of wild animals, chickens and dreams of being a concert pianist. The eldest of four girls, Mascarenhas loved playing piano.

However, at the tender age of six, her dad sat her down one night and explained the hard facts of life. There is no future in music, he told her.

“He wanted me to study math and science. It devastated me,” she recalls of the conversation. “There were many tears.”

Then came the culture shock of her life. The family immigrated to Canada.

At 13, they moved to Toronto. Mascarenhas had skipped a few elementary grades, and she found herself in high school, taking classes with girls much older and more mature than she.

She had to adapt to a new country, a new culture and a language she spoke with a British accent brought along from her old private school, along with the uniform her father made her wear.

Audrey Mascarenhas, playing piano on stage in the Rozsa Centre on the University of Calgary campus.

photo: Paula Arab

“I didn’t fit in. I went to school in a navy blue skirt, a blazer, white shirt and tie. As you can imagine, I looked like a geek,” she says.

At home, things weren’t much better. Her dad, in his 50s, couldn’t find work. Nor could her mother. That caused stress and escalating problems. As the eldest, she felt responsible to fix things. “The only path I could see was to quit high school to start working so that I could support the family,” says Mascarenhas.

In what she describes as one of several pivotal moments in her life, the right person appeared from nowhere. In this case, it was her godfather who showed up from the U.K. for a visit.

She remembers the conversation, word for word. “He said ‘Audrey, how long have you tried to solve this?’ I said, ‘My whole life.’ He told me to go follow my dreams, to go get an education and to then come back and make a difference. Those were the wisest words anyone had ever said to me.

“Throughout my whole life, every step of the way, there are these amazing people and words of wisdom.”

Another mentor was the pharmacist where she worked part-time as a cashier and assistant during high school. When he learned she was going to university, he insisted he pay her a retainer in case an “emergency” came up at the pharmacy and he needed her to come into work.

“I look back on that and realize it was his way of making sure I made it through and got an education,” she says.

Mascarenhas wanted to be a doctor but chose engineering “by accident,” because it was more practical. She didn’t even know what engineers do. But she knew they were well-paid, and it only took four years of school.

At university, her life path was set and she flourished. Mascarenhas studied chemical engineering at the University of Toronto and after her first year, she was recruited by Texaco to work in the pumphouse of their new refinery, which ended up being the “most amazing summer experience.”

She loved fieldwork, and got along well with the mostly male workforce. “They teased me a lot because I was so naive. I loved the logic and the sense of humour,” she says.

Even now, connecting with the workers in the field, she says, is one of her greatest strengths. Her leadership style is to be herself, rather than emulate a man’s style of management.

“I’ve never looked at it like I can’t do this because I’m a woman, or the doors won’t open for me because I’m a woman. I just wanted to be recognized for being a good engineer.”

After climbing the ladder to success during a 17-year career at Gulf Canada Resources, the chemical engineer took early retirement to be a stay-at-home mom. Realizing she got her energy from talking and being with people, Mascarenhas decided to return to the workforce. When the Questor opportunity came up, so did many other opportunities, and she had her pick of well-paying job offers. But her gut told her to join Questor, and she followed her passion because she “really wanted to give back.”

From today’s rear-view mirror, the company was ahead of its time and is reaping the benefits now that the world is catching up. As environmental regulations become more stringent around the world, Questor’s market continues to grow. Demand for Questor technology has gone beyond its traditional oil and gas base to industries that include agriculture, landfill, sewage and water treatment sectors.

In Mascarenhas’s corner office, awards and mementos reflect her career success. Distinctions include the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2011 Prairies Award and the Business in Calgary 2014 Leader of Tomorrow. She has presented internationally, at the World Petroleum Congress in Johannesburg and the Eco Expo Asia in Hong Kong.

Like Questor’s journey from a small startup that was losing money in the ’90s to becoming an industry leader today, Mascarenhas’s life has followed a similar path of unpredictable turns and detours.

One thing endures – her philosophy: “If you’re passionate about it, that’s all that really matters,” she says. “Life is too short. Really enjoy and be passionate about what you are doing.”

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