Rising from humble circumstances requires grit and determination. In Naty Figueroa’s case, it also required a willingness to take some atypical paths.
“Both of my parents were born in Puerto Rico,” says the vice president of refining and products trading Americas at bp. “They came to the United States in their teens and were factory workers. At the time, neither of them had completed high school, but they insisted that I would go to college, and that I could be anything I wanted to be.”
She did well in high school, but the specter of college tuition haunted the family. “I was pretty naïve,” she recalls. “I could have applied for scholarships but didn’t and I also didn’t want to go into debt.”
Her solution? An eight-year stint with the Illinois National Guard. “The Guard paid for my college education, which I wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise,” she says. Her service commitment was relatively smooth. After enlistment and training, Figueroa was called up for brief periods each year. “My longest stretch was serving in Germany, which was an amazing experience. The military has values similar to bp’s as far as respect, being courageous and speaking up, striving for excellence in what you do, and realizing you have leaders who lead, but it’s the whole team that wins,” she says.
Her exposure to military life benefitted her in other ways, like teaching her to think things through, encouraging her to overcome adversity, and inspiring her to develop a sense of courage and integrity. “I also saw different types of leadership, which helped influence my own style,” she says.
Figueroa earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Northern Illinois University and landed an internship with a prominent accounting firm. She joined the oil and gas company in 2002 as a crude settlement and inventory analyst. But she saw numerous opportunities to apply her accounting background in different areas of the company and went after them.
Over the next twenty years, she secured roles in accounting, credit, inventory reconciliation (the scheduling and movement of bp’s products all over the world, including West Africa, Latin America, Europe, and the US) as well as roles focused on trading strategies, marketing and origination, and organizational and financial analysis activities. She also earned her master’s degree in accounting and financial management from the Keller Graduate School of Management and became a certified public accountant.
In her current role, the VP is responsible for regional commercial performance and risks for bp’s oil and refined products (gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, etc.) within Canada, Latin America, and the US, including all regulatory and compliance issues. Her scope also includes an operations team, a marketing and origination team, and various indirect reports from supporting functions.
Figueroa and her team are also a key player in the company’s new ambition to be a net-zero company by 2050 or sooner, and to help the world get to net-zero. In a prior role as global biogas senior manager, she was involved in efforts mitigating company’s carbon footprint. “We were given a blank page,” she says, “and the chance to develop emission-reduction tactics.”
But in 2020, the company announced its ambition to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and not only in the products it sells: it aims to be net-zero on an absolute basis across its entire operations and in its upstream oil and gas production—even lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions—by that year.
That represents an enormous opportunity. As Figueroa explains, the company will work closely with customers to support their own decarbonization goals. Pointing to her experience in biogas as an example, she says, “We might work with a city to take methane gas emitted by its landfills and process it into a renewable source of natural gas, eventually building a portfolio of low-carbon products.”
Figueroa is a strong advocate for diversity in the workplace, particularly when it comes to women, Latinxs, and military veterans. “I’d love to see my trading floor be more diverse,” she says, “so that it better reflects the community in which we live and work. We’re not there yet, but we’re making progress. The early careers team recruits heavily at major schools, but I often remind them to also check out the talent in our own backyard.”
She’s also supportive of bp’s commitment to working with community and educational partners to encourage students and underrepresented minorities to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The company provides digital resources from science experiments to college and career guides. “Engineering is obviously important to our business,” she says, “but science, technology, and math also play key roles in our development and progress.”
The company’s support of STEM parallels Figueroa’s own professional life. “Early in my career, I learned that it’s important to work hard—but just as important to build a network of people you can count on. Someone who will always pull you along when you need it. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t had that kind of support,” she says.
“I always want to be mindful of underrepresented people,” she adds, “whether in terms of gender, ethnicity, or military status. I’m always eager to give advice to anyone who asks for it.”
Figueroa advises potential leaders to build solid networks. “If you want success, you must meet with different kinds of people,” she says. “Show them who you are and what you know because if they don’t know you, they won’t be able to help support you in career progression.
“Be ready to make a little noise about your accomplishments,” she continues. “I’m an introvert, so I know that can be difficult, but you need to get out of your comfort zone.”
And don’t be afraid of failure. “Everyone has fears, and everyone fails—but that’s when you learn the most. We always put pressure on ourselves, and that kind of vulnerability can really work against you.”