Celebrating Women: A Q&A With Oberon Fuels' Dr. Rebecca Boudreaux
The biofuel company president talks changing paths, the importance of mentors, and the thrill of working in early-stage companies
Photo by Joe Wilson
Erin Meanley Glenny: You lead a biofuel company, but you originally wanted to go to medical school. What changed?
Rebecca Boudreaux: I’m one of four children. My parents said, “You all have to go to college, but you have no college funds, so you’re going to have to figure it out.” That was the motivation to study really hard. The National Science Foundation has a program where undergraduates get paid to do research at universities all over the country. The first summer I got a spot at Princeton, and the second summer at MIT. I realized I didn’t want to go to medical school. I wanted to discover new science, not necessarily apply science, as in medical practice.
EMG: Not many people excel at both science and business development.
RB: In graduate school, I was a chemist by training but I worked with the biology department. I also took business courses. Using a different part of my brain, interacting with completely different people—they were talking about things I don’t understand in a business class—it gave me the confidence to say, “It’s just another language, right?” I’m often asked, “Why did you get a PhD? Why go through all that to then take a business-focused role?” Graduate school teaches you to solve really complicated problems. While I’m not making a new molecule in the lab, I am trying to figure out how to launch a new global transportation fuel—dimethyl ether—and create regulations.
EMG: Have you had mentors?
RB: I’ve had unofficial and official mentors. When you’re working in the early stage of a company there’s no professional development; you have to find it yourself. I got involved with the W.O.M.E.N. in America mentoring program in New York City. From San Diego, I would fly there three or four times a year as an investment in myself. The women there put me on another level. I was talking to a woman today about confidence and how certain things are difficult to do. I remember one of our mentors said, “If you don’t feel uncomfortable or sick to your stomach at least one time a day, you’re not pushing yourself enough.”
EMG: What draws you to those kinds of early-stage companies?
RB: I like when companies have so much to figure out and nobody has ever done it before, so you have to chart your own course. I think that’s where my skill set is best suited. As the business model changes, different leadership is needed. I’m always watching as our business model solidifies: Is there someone else better to take on the role? Where we are now as a company, my skill set is still needed, and I’m still learning, so it’s a win-win for everyone.
EMG: Now that you’re a mom, how do you decide to say yes to a speaking invitation?
RB: The bar for me to get on a plane is definitely set higher. Is it something that’s going to move your company forward or something that is going to give back? When I went to Case Western Reserve University two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to share with these graduate students what I wish I would have done as a graduate student. So that was an opportunity to give back.
EMG: Your job takes you all over.
RB: For quite a few years I was flying over 200,000 miles a year. This year I had already been to Europe three times by the end of March. And I have a not-quite-two-year-old daughter. My husband’s going to land from Portugal in three hours. He travels more than I do. We try to stagger our travels as much as we can.
EMG: Your travels are also tied to some nonprofit work. Tell me about UrbanPromise.
RB: About eight or nine years ago, I met with the founder, who said that with my entrepreneurial background, I could provide a lot of insight to UrbanPromise International, which was their latest offshoot. It was about training entrepreneurs to help break the poverty cycle with children. I started working with them and joined the board. I went with them in 2014 to Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world. When my daughter was born I rotated off the board, but I’ve still stayed involved with them. About a week ago, we had a fundraiser at my house.
EMG: What do you think about working in San Diego?
RB: The innovative culture here is fantastic. When I came here nine years ago, I started to get integrated in that and founded the San Diego chapter of the Startup Leadership Program, giving young entrepreneurs the hard and soft skills they need to start building their company. I love being a part of that organization.