The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist and When Girl Meets Oil: A Conversation with Christine Bader

Few would admit to loving big oil because it helped them help the world but Christine Bader, author of The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil, is a vocal representative of that minority conviction. Bader spoke to YPFP NY on July 22, 2014, about corporate social responsibility (CSR) and her own path from non-profit work to BP.


“To me, CSR is about the impact that a company’s core business has on people and on the environment,” Bader said in an interview with YPFP NY. “It is not about extraneous activities like philanthropic activities or employee giving, which can be core but generally are not. It’s about what impact does the company have on the world through what it makes and how it makes it, what it sells and what the people to whom it sells, what do they do with it.”

Bader joined BP after completing the MBA program at Yale. Prior to business school she served as a core member at CityYear, worked for Phillips Andover and in the office of then New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Thinking back on her varied career experiences, “One thing I learned is that when we think about our careers we get really hung up on sector, whether it’s public, private or non-profit,” Bader says. “I think we need to think about what are the skills we want to use.”

Bader first experienced BP’s core business directly when she was sent to work on a project in the Tangguh gas field in West Papua, Indonesia. BP was in the process of developing Tangguh and faced a number of issues. The problems were what are “euphemistically in the oil industry called ‘above-ground non-technical challenges,’” Bader said. Meaning, the area was full of particularly diverse flora and fauna and the deigned site for the plant was already the site of a village.   

Bader initially was crunching numbers for the Tangguh project as a commercial analyst but after expressing interest in the human-side of the project, she was charged with organizing a social peer review of the site. Oil companies often conduct peer reviews on technical issues, but this peer review would focus on human rights and resettlement. Bader convened a group of BP executives with experience working with indigenous communities, an anthropologist who had spent years in West Papua, and an environmental consultant. “I was to help people and companies whose lives would be upended by BP’s entry, in part to prevent unrest that could jeopardize BP’s interest,” Bader writes in her book. The nearby Freeport mine, one of the largest mines in the world, stood as an example of the economic cost of failing to get a “social license to operate”, as Bader put it, from the surrounding community. The mine operators spend millions of dollars on security every year due to a series of violent unrests, in addition to lost profits from interrupted production.

By designing a resettlement policy in Padua that put the opinions and well-being of nearby people in the forefront, BP was hoping to minimize unrest (and the expenses that go along with that)—as well as to behave in an ethical fashion. “My belief,” Bader writes, “which I felt my BP bosses shared, was that my goal was to align the interests of the company and the community, not to compensate for or distract from wrongdoing.”

The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist outlines various ways that an extractive company can mishandle relationships with nearby communities and so exacerbate the so-called “resource curse.” Companies make deals only with the national government and never negotiate with the locally affected persons. Companies build roads to ease construction but also thereby open remote areas to rapid population growth causing both social and environmental problems. Bader also delineates various strategies BP implemented in Tangguh to avoid these errors.

After the resettlement project was complete, Bader then took her CSR experience to China, where BP was working with Sinopec, a state-owned Chinese energy company, to build a petrochemicals plant. The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist describes Bader’s efforts both to promote workers’ wellbeing and to convince her Sinopec counterparts of the value of the CSR proposals and programs.

At the end of Bader’s lecture, YPFP NY members asked questions, many of which were variations on the query, “How can I break into CSR?” It’s a growing field. Some business schools now have CSR-focused tracks. Companies have started to hire people with CSR titles. Bader says that it depends, as CSR varies so much by industry. “If you want to work in apparel or manufacturing, you want to make sure you’re studying operations. If you’re working in oil and gas or mining company it might be useful to study indigenous cultures or it might be useful to study macroeconomics because those sorts of companies can have a really big impact on the economy in those companies,” Bader said. One commonality is that it helps to have strong communication skills and understand the language of business.

Evolution of a Corporate Idealist is peppered with anecdotes from other CSR professionals that Bader interviews. She spoke to CSR types that work in a wide variety of industries from apparel to mining. “I want[ed] to shine a light on people working  deep within these companies trying to prevent disasters and what happened after they failed,” Bader said.

Each person she spoke to came to CSR by a very different path but their experiences promoting human rights and sustainability within their organizations show commonalities. “No one gets rewarded for what doesn’t happen,” Bader said was the first theme of her conversations with fellow CSR workers. Companies hire CSR experts to avoid catastrophes but in the absence of accidents, the urge to cut the CSR budget can be strong.

Two of Bader’s other takeaways from her interviews focus on the value of communication and a realistic viewpoint: “The importance of non-evangelizing” and “The theme of incrementalism.” CSR professionals must determine the savviest manner to advocate internally. They must set bold goals but develop pragmatic plans to achieve them. What the goals should look like is still a matter of debate within the CSR community and judging from the response of the lecture crowd, perhaps not a few members of YPFP NY will be participating.

Final piece of advice from Bader for YPFP NY members? “Never take anyone’s advice. Whenever people offer you advice in the form of a ‘you should,’ turn it into a ‘I did’ and ask them to tell you their story. When people are offering you advice they are usually incorporating their own biases into it anyway and no one knows better than you where you are going to thrive. Ask for people’s stories and take your own lessons from it.”

Also an excellent framework by which to read The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist.


The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil was published in March 2014 and is available on Amazon.


Eve Ahearn is associate director of communications for YPFP NY.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

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