“If opportunity doesn’t knock, bring a door.”Â Fran Keeth, Shell Chemical LP president and CEO and Shell Chemicals executive vice president, borrows that quote from comedian Milton Berle on a crisp Friday morning in early October. She throws it into the Mays MBA student audience with her own spin. “For a lot us in this room, we had to build our own doors and even bring our own hammers to build them.”
Keeth referenced for MBAs the path that brought them back to continuing their education and for herself the male-dominated culture in the oil and gas industry that she has had to prove her mettle in.
Starting out in 1970 as a statistical typesetter, one step above the mailroom, Keeth became the first woman to head a major chemical company in 2001. Strength and unyielding integrity took her through 14 years of night school as she earned a BBA, MBA and JD degree at the University of Houston, raised a son with her husband, and progressively shattered each glass ceiling she encountered with wit and tenacity.
Her goals throughout it all? To leave her company a better place to work than when she started, and to create an environment in which people feel respected and heard.
“I want to ensure that every person comes to work as their best self,” Keeth said, explaining her philosophy as a manager to the room of future managers. “How often do you feel that being who you are â€” the color of your skin or your religious affiliation â€” is an impediment? It takes energy away from what it is you do to be who you’re not.”
Keeth fielded MBA questions as she outlined the right and wrong turns she took during her career, including turning down a job managing a federal tax division that she took a year later. She told students to the raise the standard of their places of work, to lead people with empathy and to never let themselves become their own obstacles.
The higher you go in a company, she told a student who asked about work-life balance, the more you find your personal life invaded upon. “It’s a cost of business,” she said. Then she waggled her finger with energy as she remembered advice her father once shared. “You can do and be what you want to do and be, as long as you understand the price. And you have to decide that for yourself.”