Avatar Online: Latest Iteration Of Young Professionals Program A Big Win For Energy Sector

This article is one in a series that will showcase final presentations from this year’s Avatar Program — an industry-wide leadership, training and collaboration forum held virtually this summer. A partnership between Beaver Drilling Ltd., the Young Pipeliners Association of Canada (YPAC) and the University of Calgary, the program was designed to advance innovative solutions to the oil and gas industry and create new business lines, and engage young professionals.These articles will run each Wednesday.

Today, we kick-off the series with a look at the program and its value to industry and participants.


When Ana Villarreal and Justin deMontarnal attended a Canadian Energy Executives Association (CEEA) event earlier this year, the Young Pipeliners Association of Canada (YPAC) Calgary chapter co-chairs were not expecting it would lead to their participation in an industry-wide leadership, training and collaboration forum that would advance innovative solutions to the oil and gas sector and create new business lines.

But that was before they heard Kevin Krausert, president and chief executive officer of Beaver Drilling Ltd., speak to CEEA members about “oil and gas beyond Baby Boomers,” and what the energy sector looks like past 2050. “We were both really inspired and immediately said we needed to go talk to this guy,” said deMontarnal. “We boxed him into a corner and introduced ourselves. Kevin was super receptive and invited us out to coffee the next week.”

The rest — as the saying goes — is history. Beaver Drilling and YPAC, in partnership with the University of Calgary, relaunched the Avatar Program across six virtual sessions this summer, between which young oil and gas professionals participated in several real-world, new energy future ‘Action Learning Projects’ and developed business proposals for recent presentations to a panel of industry leaders.

Over the upcoming weeks, the Daily Oil Bulletin will be showcasing all the final presentations from this year’s Avatar Program, starting with the winning submission on a proposed carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) network across Western Canada. There were nine teams in total.

Speakers at this year’s Avatar included University of Calgary economics professors, as well as presentations by such notables as Peter Tertzakian, deputy director of the ARC Energy Research Institute. Krausert even managed to wrangle a question-and-answer session between Avatar participants and Canada’s and Alberta’s ministers responsible for natural resources and energy, respectively, Seamus O’Regan and Sonya Savage.

“After we had the first anchor speakers locked in, George Whiteside [chief space officer at Virgin Galactic] early on and then [Tertzakian] was all in right away too, from there it was like a tidal wave,” deMontarnal said. “Pretty much everyone that we asked within our network was very keen to jump in and participate, other than the ministers, which is a whole other story. Kevin spent many hours behind the scenes co-ordinating that.”

Local media, including the Bulletin, promoted this year’s Avatar Program leading up to its first session, and its organizers were expecting to receive around 30 applicants. They ended up receiving close to 100.

“We had initially been planning on five teams of six, and we decided the [weekend before] we were doing it that we had to let more people in, but we didn’t have the coaches,” Krausert said. Each team got an industry-expert coach, and there were not enough for the 54 applicants that organizers decided to let into the program. “We had 24 hours to find four more coaches. There were some people we were good friends with, and we just ‘voluntold’ them to do it.”

He added: “Once we realized there was a way to work on this, we then framed out academic content that would be most valuable with the university. We distilled the best of the [previous] programs of Avatar, and the best of what those professors were able to offer. We contacted the chancellor at the University of Calgary, who had been actively involved in the first Avatar, and she was really enthusiastic about some of the work we were doing.”

All their efforts paid off, it seems. The online sessions, workshops and team projects resulted in nine presentations dealing with a range of energy-industry concerns that Beaver Drilling’s CEO believes are among the best ‘pitches’ he has ever heard in his time as a company executive.

“There wasn’t a single one that would’ve been inappropriate at any boardroom table,” he said, adding the separate visions for the future demonstrate the opportunities and creative excitement that young professionals offer to oil and gas. “If you work together and empower young people to think bold and think big, it’s magic what they can come up with.”

What is also incredible about this year’s Avatar Program, aside from it evolving out of Beaver Drilling’s smaller, employee-only event in previous iterations, is that organizers developed this ‘new-and-improved’ program right when Calgary, the energy sector, as well as the rest of Canada was hit by the ‘Black Swan’ event of 2020 — the coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdown of the country.

Innovation in a time of COVID

What Villarreal thinks is “really incredible” about this year’s Avatar Program is that everything organizers, the various speakers, teams, coaches and judges did, occurred via a Zoom account. Despite challenges of a fully-virtual multi-week program, she said, the uptake was substantial and participants flourished with this limited platform.

“Participants came up with meaningful pitches that’ll grab a lot of attention, and already have, and they’ve also made a really significant [impact] on their own careers just through the networks they created in the program and the people they were able to interact with at a senior leadership level, which is very cool,” she told the DOB. “It’s difficult to get that exposure as a young professional, and we’ve been able to offer that.”

Once COVID-19 struck, it forced Villarreal, deMontarnal and Krausert to design an online program to compete against other webinars available to those in industry, noted Krausert. “How do we create a sense of community and connect young professionals with the future of the industry? That was the genesis story.”

According to deMontarnal, rather than it being a limiting factor, going online actually presented an opportunity for Avatar to reach a broader audience, garnering voices not only from Calgary and Alberta, but from across the country as proximity was no longer a limiting factor for participation.

“One of the big wins of doing the program virtually is that it allowed us to get so many different viewpoints. We had your classic Lower Mainland view of oil and gas versus your Alberta view of oil and gas versus your politically-charged Ottawa view of oil and gas.

“By being able to do it virtually, it really expanded the viewpoints of our participants. Because of that, it was very advantageous and led to the end product being the pitches. For me, I’m very much a face-to-face person, but for this particular platform [going online] seemed to work really well.”

Upcoming Avatar sequels

Having just wrapped up this year’s Avatar Program in August, Krausert said organizers have already received strong industry interest from both midstream and upstream, as well as the financial services sector, to further their participation into the program’s future.

“There are a number of directions forward, but we’ll be listening to industry stakeholders over the coming weeks, undergoing a strategic planning process, with plans to announce in the fall of what the next iteration looks like,” he told the Bulletin. “Rest assured: It will be bigger, bolder and better.”

Not only does Avatar attract a senior level of quality speakers, Krausert noted, but it provides a creative outlet for young professionals to innovate, fail and learn for the future of the energy sector — something not always available in the capital-intensive and safety-conscious resource economy. “What we’ve done is create a space and opportunity for industry to innovate in a way that’s safe.”

Avatar is also a means by which young professionals can voice their thoughts, opinions and ideas to senior leaders at all levels of industry, Villarreal told the DOB. “If you give young professionals an opportunity, then they will blow you away, and I think we showed that really, really clearly.” She added: “Young professionals have great ideas, and if you give them the opportunity, then they will deliver.”