Ashley Zumwalt-Forbes started out as the first in her family to attend university, eager to leave the small, Oklahoma town she was raised in. Over the next 12 years, her career would find her globe-trotting with ExxonMobil, starting businesses and ultimately becoming the co-founder and president of Black Mountain Metals, an electric vehicle battery metals mining company in Australia. Zumwalt-Forbes was featured in Forbes' 30 under 30 for Energy earlier this year. We spoke to her about her experience coming up in the business of finite resources, her advice for aspiring entepreneurs, and where she sees the electric vehicle industry going in the next few years.
Thinknum: I’d love to hear you talk about your path overall and how you started from a small town in Oklahoma to dealing with the culture of venture capital and big oil. I’d love to hear you touch on what your journey was like and how you found success there.
Zumwalt-Forbes: I was raised in a small town in Oklahoma called Choctaw. So I grew up in quite a rural environment, and Oklahoma has a lot of oil and gas. A quote that really resonates with me and that I love is “it’s hard to be what you can’t see.” So when you’re a kid and looking around, what I really saw as my available options were, “You can be a doctor, you can be a lawyer, or you can go into oil and gas.” I knew I was going to leave my small town, So when I went to college those were my career options, because it was the only thing people in my town who had gone to university did. I was actually the first person in my immediate family to go to university.
So I majored in petroleum engineering at the University of Oklahoma which ended up being fantastic for me. I got really involved in a university incubator that just literally gave me this entrepreneurial bug. I loved being able to build something myself and being able to design my business model from scratch. But I ended up going the opposite direction upon graduating. I joined ExxonMobil, which was effectively like working for the government.
I joined a really cool team there that managed all the international shale exploration. So that means that this small town girl from Oklahoma got to travel all over the world and really be like the first person in the country. I worked in China, Qatar, Siberia, Georgia, Columbia, and Argentina. I actually lived there for a year - basically in the midland Texas of Argentina. Oil is never in pretty places.
Wow, you were really globetrotting. It’s nice to hear that you took this industry that you grew up around and really brought it with you around the world.
Absolutely! And you know what’s funny? That’s never worked in the US. To this day, I have never had a US project. It’s not great in the COVID-19 era because I can’t travel, so my time zones and Zoom calls are just absurd. But I worked internationally and loved it. I loved mega-projects and being on the early stage of a project.
I ended up leaving ExxonMobil and going to get an MBA at Harvard Business School because I really wanted to make that transition. I was like, “If I have to stay at a big company for another day, I’m going to lose my mind.”
I wanted to build something for myself but I loved resources, so when I graduated from Harvard in 2017, I met a man named Rhett Bennett who’s the CEO of a company called Black Mountain in Fort Worth. He’s super young and started Black Mountain in 2007. He has started 9 different businesses since then.
But we're not creative namers. So it’s all things like “Black Mountain Oil and Gas” or “Black Mountain Something.” I joined Rhett as his director of business development, and 6 months later I transitioned to founding this global battery metals mining company. So it was one of those serendipitous moments where we were kicking around ideas for what else we could do and what was exciting, and oil and gas just wasn't exciting me. It felt very much like a steady or even declining industry, whereas renewables and batteries and electrification is a growth wedge. It’s growing, and it’s exciting.
So I dove into understanding batteries. Because, again, Petroleum Engineer over here - I didnt know mining, I didn't know batteries. All of it was new. So I really learned that lithium ion batteries are more nickel than anything else, and it’s a very specific kind of nickel. I got in their minds and said, “Hey, nickel is also a finite resource, so why don’t we go and try to buy some Nickel Mines? So cue a global search for nickel mines that landed us in western Australia.
"Certainly you are going to be the X in a room full of Y's when you’re a woman going into resources and private equity or investment. But the good message is that you can manage it." — zumwalt-forbes
To date, we’ve deployed 75 million dollars into that entity. We own a nickel, copper and cobalt mine called Lanfranchi, and I led a hostile takeover of a company called Poseidon Nickel. We now have active operations over there in the Nickel space. And then late last year I bought 1.7 million acres in northwestern Australian gas acreage. That’s a separate company called Black Mountain Exploration, which is also very active at the moment.
Also - that takeover earned me the nickname “Black Widow.” Which is absurd, because I’m actually really nice - or I believe I’m really nice. I’m very friendly.
Well you’re making a good impression so far, so don’t worry.
I mean it is a very funny thing, because there was this gossip site in Australia for ASX-listed companies called Hot Copper, where I’m consistently referred to as the Black Widow. That’s just a fun fact.
If you’re comfortable talking about it, I’d like to hear about your experiences in big oil and venture capital as a young, female professional so fresh out of school. What advice would you give to somebody going into a similar company in your position?
The headline message is it’s a challenge. Certainly you are going to be the X in a room full of Y's when you’re a woman going into resources and private equity or investment. But the good message is that you can manage it. My best advice is the first thing you need to do is find good mentors and good champions within the business. Maybe it’s your boss, maybe it’s not. But it shouldn't only be your boss. Particularly when you’re early in your career, you need to make sure you have those contacts who are really looking out for you and have your best interest at heart. So my best advice is to find those people that you know you can always go to.
The other piece of advice that I have, whether you’re a woman or man. Ask as many questions as you possibly can. There are no stupid questions. That’s how I’ve climbed learning curves and find efficiencies and synergy opportunities - by asking questions other people were afraid to ask bc they were afraid of looking stupid. Ultimately, that’s how you can really drive some real value.
In your interview with Forbes, you talked about how your greatest challenge as an entrepreneur was how much you got into your head. So how did you reach a point where you were able to overcome those self-doubts?
I wish I could tell you that it goes away at some stage. That at some point, you’ve proven yourself enough or you’re confident enough in your abilities that the imposter syndrome and self doubt totally goes out the window. It doesn’t. Full stop. I still struggle with that. I think everyone does, though. It’s just something we don’t talk about very often.
What I’d say is now, when I start to feel that way - And this is a ridiculous thing - I keep a note in my phone that’s a bullet list of great things that I’ve been able to accomplish either personally or professionally that I didn't think I would be able to do. So any time I get in my own head and think, “What did you get yourself into, who do you think you are?” I go back and read that note, and I remind myself who I am and what I’ve done, and that I’ve really earned my spot, and I go do it. And I knock it out of the park, and then you can add that to your bullet list. You just have to believe in yourself. There’s a saying about the entrepreneur’s mindset that goes, “If you can’t bet on yourself, what can you bet on?” But really, in my career trajectory, I have never hit a point where I’m like, “Oh man, I am it now!” No doubt, It has not happened.
It’s comforting to know that even someone who’s found as much success as you have still has to give themselves friendly nudges to remind themselves they’re doing good work.
Oh, I do crazy stuff. I keep that note, I put sticky notes on my computer monitors, on my mirror in the bathroom - it depends on how bad a week it is, you know? But it’s natural, and the more people that acknowledge it, the better we’re all gonna feel about it. I think that’s just a key to success. Growing in that uncertainty.
I think your personal goals should very much be coordinated with your professional goals. I will say, though, that professional and personal goals don’t have to interact. They should definitely be headed in the same direction, but it’s ok to want something different out of your personal life than your professional life. I do not walk the walk there, though, but I aspire to one day have that balance and separation.
I want to ask some questions about Electric Vehicle batteries and the work you do at Black Mountain Metals. What was it that made you want to jump into that business? Do you think you saw something in the space that others didn’t, and how did you spot it?
So something that is a core belief of mine around identifying an idea to build a business around is to look at any sector that’s growing and break it into pieces. Figure out which piece could be improved in some way. For me, I saw electric vehicles and energy storage, which are both growing considerably. So what makes that tick? The lithium ion battery. So once I broke that into pieces, I just found this incredibly compelling story about how there’s more nickel in those batteries than anything else. And this particular kind of nickel is in short supply globally.
I don’t know if you follow “Nickel News”, but recently Elon Musk said something like, “Miners, please mine more nickel.” The nickel is actually what makes batteries go further. So nickel will just be in more batteries that can make our cars go further and last longer and have fewer charges. So there were some incredibly compelling stories around nickel, and some incredibly compelling assets to acquire in Western Australia.
Are you concerned at all about it being too limited of a resource?
So, what I would say is that I would never bet against human ingenuity. There have been tremendous amounts of dollars spent on nickel exploration the last few years. And we do have a strong pipeline of nickel projects that are quite expensive to mine. So I’m not worried about nickel running out. I am however cognizant that in order for those more expensive mines to get built, the nickel price is going to have to rise. We bought nickel mines that were profitable at a steady-state nickel price. So once it rises, we’ll just have a higher profit margin. I’m more focused on the nickel that is yet to come online but is just much higher up the cost curve.
I would say our skillset is more targeting these smaller, scrappier assets that wouldn’t be profitable if they were mined by a company that was much larger because of their cost structure. We’re able to take these assets that other people would say “nope” to and turn a very strong profit margin. That’s very much in our DNA across all our businesses - be fit for purpose. Don’t make decisions because it’s what everyone else is doing. You need to make sure you’re making the right decisions for that specific asset.
How do you see the market for EV Batteries evolving in the near future? Like you said, I’m not following Nickel News, so I see the consumer side of it. And there, Tesla’s self-driving fleet seems like the next big thing on the horizon. How do you see the response to that impacting your market?
So broad brushstrokes, there will be more nickel than cobalt. Right now, lithium ion battery cathodes are made of nickel, cobalt and manganese. And again, don’t know that you follow “Cobalt News”, but the problem with cobalt is that the vast majority of reserves are in the [Democratic Republic of the Congo], so there are really, really bad problems in a lot of those mines around using child labor. Right now it is required in battery chemistry, but in the future I see nickel playing a bigger role.
Are there any electric vehicle producers that you currently work with?
I’m not able to disclose our end users, but what I will say is that there are actually very few EV manufacturers who make their own batteries. Generally you sell directly to a battery manufacturer. Tesla is the exception. They do that in house. I will say, however, that I drive a Tesla and the self-driving feature is awesome.
So you get to see the end result of the work that you do.
Yes, and I feel great about it. I have the long-range Model S, so it’ll go 375 miles on a single charge and that is all due to more nickel. And I am very proud of that.
What’s the most exciting thing on the horizon for your industry?
I think the thing that’s gonna move the needle most on the clean energy side is cracking the code on energy storage. Because then you’re going to enable solar and wind power to be utilized without needing backup for when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. That’s going to open up an entire world of distributed power generation. For me, that’s incredibly fascinating. That’s really where the turning point is for renewables. And I do believe it will happen in the next ten years.