As part of Sudbury.com’s ongoing Discover Series, Dr. Mike Commito, Director of Applied Research & Innovation at Cambrian College, who is often referred to simply as Dr. Mike on campus, is sitting down with researchers and entrepreneurs in Sudbury to spotlight the innovative work they’re doing in our community and beyond.
In March, Dr. Mike picked up the phone and connected with Ashley Kirwan, co-founder of Orix Geoscience. Kirwan grew up in Lively, a stone’s throw away from the mining industry, but had never really considered a career in geology and mining exploration until she got to university.
After taking a geology elective at Laurentian, Kirwan was hooked. A true outdoors enthusiast, field work and exploration seemed to be right up her alley. Following graduation, she worked for two mining and exploration companies before she decided it was time to strike out on her own. In 2012, Ashley, along with her business partner Shastri Ramnath, co-founded Orix Geoscience, a geological firm offering a range of services from extracting value from paper and digital datasets through to field work.
Today, Orix has three locations – Toronto, Sudbury, and Winnipeg – and continues to be one of the leading geological firms in Canada. Beyond its business operations, Orix takes an innovative approach to fostering a unique corporate culture that prioritizes a positive workplace and family life for its employees.
After hearing Kirwan on a panel for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science at Dynamic Earth this past February, Dr. Mike knew he needed to speak to Ashley for the Discover series and learn more about the work she and Orix are doing. During their conversation, Ashley talked to Dr. Mike about how she got into geology, the work that Orix does, how she and Shastri have placed a premium on cultivating workplace culture, and how she hopes to inspire young girls to pursue a career in geoscience. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
MC: Once you started working in geology fulltime, did you have that feeling that you knew it was exactly what you wanted to do?
AK: I did know early on that I had discovered something pretty special. I was really surprised that there weren’t more people around me talking about entering geology. In my first year, there were only eight of us. My first job was a field assistant, mapping with the Ontario Geological Survey. I got a phone call and they said I was hired, so I asked them where I was going and they said Matachewan. I had never even heard of Matachewan before even though it’s only four hours away from Sudbury. I went online and googled it and it said, “Where the highway ends, the adventure begins.” As soon as I saw that, I was excited. Everyday waking up, you get your field gear on. You’re hiking, you’re canoeing, you’re mapping. I remember many times saying, “Do I actually get to do this and get paid for it?”
MC: What path did you take from graduation to starting your own company?
AK: When I graduated I transitioned into full-time work with a company in Sudbury, FNX, and joined the exploration team. I moved to the underground crew at one point and then moved back to the exploration team. After being there for six years, I just needed a change. It was a great company and I left on extremely good terms, which is when I think is the right time to leave a company. Then I went to Nevada and decided to do gold exploration, working for Bridgeport Ventures. After one year, the company was acquired, and then I was in a transition. I needed to decide if I wanted to go and apply for other positions or build something with my friend and current business partner, Shastri, whom I had worked with for many years. Instead of us going our separate ways looking for different roles in the industry, we decided to start a company together and Orix Geoscience was formed in 2012.
MC: Can you tell us what Orix does and how it helps companies in the mining industry?
AK: Our company is a geological consulting firm. We help other companies understand their rocks. All the things we mine, like copper, gold and nickel ore, are associated with particular types of rocks. It is critical for these companies to understand the ground beneath their feet. Our group are essentially investigators. We take all different pieces of information that many different groups have collected in the past – whether that’s drill core, surface sampling or geophysical properties taken from the air or the ground – we take all these little bits and pieces of information and we layer them and put them together like a puzzle to understand what rocks are there and what patterns do we see, and why is there ore there or where we could look to find more ore. It is important because it’s difficult for companies to raise money to do work and they need to be very strategic and careful on where they spend those dollars. Our group helps companies have the confidence to make the most informed decisions on where they should do further work to better understand a mineral deposit or to make a new discovery.
MC: Orix’s tagline is “Come for the science. Stay for the culture.” Can you talk about how your company’s emphasis on culture sets it apart from other geological firms?
AK: It’s a huge part of how we started the company and how we’ve been able to grow the company. Myself and my business partner, Shastri, had an experience working with a company before that had an amazing corporate culture. When we decided to start a company, we looked at each other and the first thing we said was that we wanted to enjoy coming to work every day, and any employee we hire, we want them to enjoy coming to work every day. I think it starts from day one. From the start we were 100-per-cent female-owned and 100-per-cent female-employed because it was just a few of us, but really our focus has always been hiring based on talent and interpersonal skillsets. Hiring people who use good judgment, who are respectful, who are curious and driven and passionate and obviously have talent as well. We’ve never hired solely based on experience. It all comes back to talent and integrity and that’s really, at least for us, why we’ve been able to build a company that’s extremely diverse and grow a business in a downturn. It starts with really focusing on talent and integrity over experience. By nature of that, we have 52 per cent women out of our 62 employees, and I believe 26 per cent of our employees are newcomers to Canada, so we have a lot of people from different countries who have different perspectives. We think that’s a big part of our corporate culture, but also how we’ve been able to be successful in this industry by thinking differently and thinking creatively. A lot of our team is also part of the technology cohort, being millennials, we look at ourselves as the next generation of industry talent that brings a technology advantage to our clients.
MC: Speaking of thinking differently, Orix utilizes the “No Asshole Rule” in the workplace. Can you talk about why it was important to adopt that approach even if it may have impacted the bottom line early on?
AK: Early on when you’re starting a company, you’re kind of taking any work because you have to survive, but we recognized early on that the reason we started the company wasn’t finance-driven, it wasn’t profit-driven – and that’s probably not the right thing to do as a business owner – [but] I think that’s partially why we also stand out and have been successful. Obviously, we do want to make a profit and continue to grow as we are not a not-for-profit business, but we recognized early on that we wanted to work with good people. I want to enjoy coming to work every day. Having that as an internal informal policy means we can enjoy coming to work every day and our family life is not suffering. Yes, there’s stress that comes from being a business owner and entrepreneur, but it’s not that kind of stress. We’ve all worked for companies before where you don’t like going to work, and that’s not good for anybody! I think that we could be going after any kind of work, but I think it’s been really good for retention of our employees because they know we have their back fully, and they know we’ll support them if someone is being disrespectful: we will stand up for them. It’s been really great for retaining our employees, but also for the clients who work with us. This industry is built on relationships. Clients know that if they work with our team, we’re going to be respectful, work hard, and we’re going to produce quality work. We have integrity – and we hope our clients also have that. I think to be sustainable and build a leading company we’ve focused on corporate culture, quality of work and creative partnerships. Making sure we’re surrounded by good people is really the foundation for everything else.
MC: It is my understanding that Orix is a progressive and family-oriented company, but mining exploration requires field work, which means time away from home. How do you balance this important work for the company and still aim to prioritize family for your employees?
AK: Field work as a geologist is extremely important. You have to be able to see the rocks from time to time. That being said, the kind of group we have right now, or at least the work we’re doing, is really a full cycle. We don’t just focus on field work. We focus on every aspect of geology. Field work is important, but our expertise is also data oriented, we do a lot of data cleanup, GIS compilation and 3D modelling in order to make the best exploration decisions. As we’ve grown the business we’ve been able to grow the employees into certain career paths that make sense for their stage of life and goals. It’s not just females balancing work/life, it’s the males as well. There are a lot of males who work with us who have new families and they don’t want to be away from their families either for long periods of time. We’ve worked on creative rotations, so certain individuals are still going to the field. We have tiered rotations, so they may do field work for a portion of time, and then they’re off for a portion of time, and then they go to the office. Then they go around to the field, the office, and then they’re off, as opposed to just going back and forth to the field, which can create burnout. So we’ve tried to do creative rotations. There are also individuals who we have moved into more high-level leadership and business development roles. I think of two employees who both have kids. They both still want to go into the field and have value-added skillsets, but they can only go for short periods of time, so we’re pairing them with people who can go longer. We’ve been trying to match them up. As a client comes, we make sure the right people are working on the project, obviously based on skillsets, but where they’re at in life as well.
MC: Working remotely is the new normal these days, but how has Orix turned to innovative solutions to provide value to companies right now that may not be able to do field work?
AK: Our real niche has always been extracting value from data. Over the last eight years we have become one of the only geological firms that can take piles of old maps/documents or unorganized digital data dumps and create clean, organized and usable information. In this regard nothing has changed; we are still fully functioning from our remote work environments. What has changed is the way we market our services to make sure that the right clients know we are out there. There are many groups right now looking at these quieter field times as an opportunity to get their data in usable formats so teams can make smarter decisions. We are the group that can help them right now. We focus on front-end work, such as data entry, digitizing, and compilation, this is often tedious and requires a high degree of organization and process, but we’ve refined our services over the years to take on any complex project. We really believe a partnership-based business approach is the way our industry needs to go, for example our front-end data cleanup projects have paired well with engineering, environmental, and AI studies. Our expertise adds value to different companies from junior, mid-tier, to major mining companies, who all have data that has been collected, but is not being used. At the end of the day we want as much information as possible available and understood for teams to use in exploration and mining decisions.
MC: You were in Sudbury a few months ago as part of the panel discussion for the International Day of Women and Girls and Science. How do we continue to get young girls interested in science?
AK: In the long-term we still need more women and girls to be interested in geoscience as a career. I think it is important for women at all stages of their careers in geoscience, to take the opportunity to speak, be interviewed, and participate in panels and share their experiences in science, business, and entrepreneurialism. Hearing the stories of women in a variety of STEM roles can give young girls insight into the variety of careers options available and attract more female talent to the industry. The word ‘scientist’ can be a little intimidating. I never thought I would be a scientist because I didn’t really like math. I thought that if you wanted to be a scientist you had to be great at math but that was just my own perception. Talking with different people about what it is really like to be a scientist can be very exciting and motivating for young people looking to pursue a career in STEM.