May 16, 2023

Every so often, I meet someone who reminds me how far a determined mindset and a strong work ethic can take you. These people set themselves apart from the rest not because they boast of their accomplishments and the challenges they’ve overcome, but rather because they don’t view their own tenacity as anything beyond the norm. “Looking back on college and my early days in the workforce, it was hard, but in the middle of it, it’s just what I did,” said Bonnie Black ’94, the senior vice president for technology and operations support at Pioneer Natural Resources.  

Hearing her story, though, showed me that few people could “just do” what she has done as a female in the male-dominated oil and gas industry.  

Young and Hungry to Serve 

Black’s time at Texas A&M University studying civil engineering differed from most. While classmates spent their Saturdays in Kyle Field watching Aggie football, she worked a waitressing job. “I knew that working on gamedays would earn me the most tips because Aggie alumni were very generous,” she shared. Between loans, grants and tips, Black supported herself through much of colleg. “My mother would’ve given me her last penny, but at a pretty early age, I became determined to figure it out for myself.”  

Growing up in San Antonio, Black excelled in math and science. Her father, who was a fighter pilot in Korea and Vietnam before she was born, and her mother, a real estate agent, taught her how to earn respect from others by working hard. During her senior year of high school, Black lost her father to a sudden heart attack. That same year, three of her four grandparents also passed away. “That year defined a lot for me,” she remarked. “I realized I needed to figure life out for myself pretty quickly.”  

For a year, she stayed home to attend the University of Texas at San Antonio before transferring to Texas A&M. “Everyone in San Antonio basically told me I had to go to Texas A&M to become an engineer,” she said. “So that’s what I did.” 

Alaska and the Arctic  

Although based in Anchorage, Alaska, Black spent many weeks north of the Arctic Circle on a man-made island called Oooguruk. Between the wildlife, stunning snow landscape, picturesque sky painted by the northern lights and the remarkable people she worked alongside, it was easy to endure the nearly 30-below temperatures. “I was living in a National Geographic magazine,” she shared. “It was the most fascinating and amazing time of my life.” 

I was living in a National Geographic magazine. It was the most fascinating and amazing time of my life.”
- Bonnie Black '94

Depending on the season, they would drive on an ice road, take a helicopter or take a boat across the open water. On an island made for about 100 people, Black was often the only woman. “It was the early days for women leaders in the industry,” she said. “I’m grateful it’s wildly different now. It’s welcoming for different genders, ethnicities and backgrounds.” Though she wouldn’t say it herself, Black has played an integral role in that culture shift to empower more women engineers. 

After six years in Alaska and the Arctic, Pioneer took notice of the high standards of excellence Black had created. “I’m most proud of Pioneer for seeing what we were doing in Alaska and saying, ‘We need to bring that to the rest of the company in the lower 48.’” Black returned to Texas and was named the vice president of environmental and sustainable development before becoming the vice president of drilling. Today, she is the senior vice president of technology and operations support, where she oversees technology solutions, supply chains, safety and environmental departments.  

Mentoring and Mothering 

With a longtime interest in the environmental side of the industry, Black was excited when Texas A&M’s Department of Civil Engineering recently added environmental engineering to its name. This change is one of many ways Black has made an impact as a member of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Advisory Council. “It’s an honor to help the department that shaped me,” she said. “Because of my experience with cutting-edge technology in the workforce, I can help guide the department to prepare students with the skills to be successful in this dynamic work environment. I love knowing we are helping Aggies become top-notch graduates that employers can’t wait to hire.” 

Providing guidance and mentorship like this is a passion for Black, because until she was about midway through her career, she didn’t have any guidance of her own. Whatever mistakes she made, she dealt with herself. “I probably stubbed my toe and fell hard more times than I needed to, but I had the perseverance to get back up. That’s why I want to help others,” she said. “If I can help them at least know the obstacles they’re about to face, I will always gladly do that to set others up for success.”  

In particular, Black enjoys mentoring expectant working mothers to help them navigate having a child and a career. “I always start the conversation by writing a plan in pencil with the mom-to-be. I say pencil because it’s going to change. This baby will change their life,” she explained. “I tell them to maximize company benefits and have an open dialogue with your managers or supervisors. As engineers, we think we can confidently say exactly how many weeks or months we will take off before returning to work, but in reality, you need to slowly feather in coming back to work.” By gradually returning instead of attempting to jump back into a 40-hour work week on a Monday, Black said working moms can avoid a failed return to work. “As mothers, we have worked too hard to get to college, graduate, land an amazing job and earn an equal seat at the table for groundbreaking projects for it to be lost in a poorly executed return to work.”   

As leaders, it is important to be available and give ourselves to the next generation.”
- Bonnie Black '94

A second envelope is just one example of how quickly Black is ready to give selflessly. In 2021, she utilized matching funds through Pioneer to give $25,000 to the Zachry Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Excellence Fund. To her, this gift represents her gratitude for the department and the Aggie Network. “Texas A&M has done so much for me,” she shared. “Not only did I get my job at Pioneer because of Aggies I met in Alaska, but those same Aggies have also been my most valued mentors.” 

From her early days of waitressing on Aggie football gamedays to becoming a top leader in the oil and gas industry, one thing is constant: Black remains determined to work hard and stays grounded in her purpose. “Every day when I come to work, I ask myself, ‘Do those who work with me and for me know why they’re here and the impact they can create?’ I don’t go into my office until everybody on my team has the resources and knowledge to be successful,” she said. “As leaders, it is important to be available and give ourselves to the next generation.” 

Interested in supporting the Zachry Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering like Black? Contact Patrick Wilson ’10 to see how you can give today.