January 24, 2023
Namita Shah ‘93 (Finance, 1993-2002, New York City) earned a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Law in India before moving to New York City to pursue a Master of Laws at New York University School of Law. From 1993 to 2002, Namita worked with Shearman & Sterling in the Real Estate and Finance practice groups, first as an International Associate and later as an associate. In 2002, Namita moved to France and joined TotalEnergies, one of the world’s largest energy companies, and has been with the company since.
I remember getting my first contract shortly after joining the firm. After working on it and giving it to the partner to review, I came into my office the next day and saw the contract laying on my chair. It had been heavily marked up by the partner with lots of comments and exclamation marks. We met to go over his comments, all of which were basically saying no to what the other side wanted. There was a good amount of colorful language in the discussion and the mark up. He must have realized that while this young, foreign woman understood the objective, she did not really use the same kind of strong language, so he looked at me kindly and said, “Ms. Shah, I know that you will not use my exact words, but I suggest you adopt the tone.” I learned to negotiate hard and fight for every single point. I love this memory because it was a lesson in strategy but also reflected an understanding and a human connection.
I learned to think in a logical and structured manner. Working at Shearman & Sterling taught me to carefully consider all the possibilities and explain the risks and strong points of each option. I understood that my job wasn’t to solely expose problems or risks; it was to make deals happen and find ways to mitigate risks. These two skills, combined with knowing how to work hard, think under pressure and be incredibly organized, have stayed with me all these years and helped me to succeed.
My husband is French and was offered a job in Paris. I had been with Shearman & Sterling for almost nine years then, had two young children and wasn’t sure about my path to partnership. When we decided to move, the firm sent my CV to TotalEnergies which is how I got my interview with their legal team.
I did not know anything about energy and did not speak French. I joined as an M&A lawyer despite never really having worked in M&A. The people here are passionate about what they do and the work is exciting and challenging. After six years, I moved to the business development side. Then I became the Managing Director of our affiliate in Myanmar. After returning from Myanmar, I did Finance, HR and IT. In 2021, I joined TotalEnergies’ Executive Committee and I now head up OneTech, a division which organizes our engineers and researchers into one entity to serve all our energies.
Objectively, I suppose so. I’m a foreign woman in what was a traditional French engineering company, and I’m not an engineer, although I never really thought of it that way. I mostly took the opportunities that came my way. I did not think about breaking barriers, and I didn’t put too much pressure on myself as a result. It was only when I was asked to be on TotalEnergies’ Executive Committee, where I would be the first woman, that I “felt” the glass ceiling in the sense of having a responsibility to make sure it worked, no matter what. I did not want to give people an opportunity to say that putting a woman on the Executive Committee was a mistake or putting someone atypical was a mistake, shutting down the opportunity for others after me.
Don’t plan your life—learn to recognize opportunities and take them. Don’t be afraid of failure. If I had had a plan for myself, I would never be where I am today because I wouldn’t even have imagined my current job as a possibility. I would not have been open to the opportunities that came my way. Let’s not forget that luck and being surrounded by the right people at the right time plays a huge role in anyone’s life. I was lucky to have people who believed in me at home and at work. Be open, be excited to learn new things and give everything you do your absolute best. Also, and most importantly, be kind.