Of all the engineers to graduate from University of Toronto’s Lassonde Mineral Engineering program, Natasha Vaz (MinE 0T2), is one of the most successful and distinguished. She’s the Chief Operating Officer at Kirkland Lake Gold and, since last fall, Chair of the Ontario Mining Association (OMA).
Vaz paid her dues and honed her craft at mining sites of Sudbury, Ont. and Red Lake, Ont. She quickly earned the admiration and respect of her colleagues across the industry, rising through the ranks of top mining firms to become the influential executive and visionary she is today.
Her journey began in the engineering classrooms on U of T’s St. George Campus, where she ignited her passion for work, and where she met the love of her life. It’s also the place where Vaz forged phenomenal friendships and connections with fellow alumni, whom she still calls on today for support, both professional and personal.
She recently sat down with CivMin to reflect on her Skule™ Ddays, her professional accomplishments and the future of mining. She also offers some advice for young engineering students and grads who might feel trepidation about the long road ahead.
Midway through high school, Vaz already wanted to pursue a career in engineering, having spent a summer working alongside at an architectural firm in Toronto., but it was a U of T Engineering Day that sealed the deal.
“I walked in there and they had someone from every discipline: Civil, Electrical, Chemical. Then I walked into the [Mineral Engineering] presentation and one of the presenters was talking about tunneling and boring for subway lines and the other presenter went into investment banking – branching out into two very different fields. That piqued my interest, because it opened so many doors. I liked the idea you don’t have to be locked into a specific field or in a specific mine. I realized I could branch out and seize different opportunities.”
Armed with a newfound sense of direction, and a scholarship courtesy of Pierre Lassonde, Vaz started commuting into Toronto from Pickering, Ont. every day for class.
“First-year university was a really good experience. I can tell you there were some very long days…but the best part of U of T was not just the courses, but the friends and peers I made beyond the classroom,” Vaz recalls. Further recounting how much she loved the sense of belonging to a close-knit community that was diverse, inclusive and supportive, all while helping her expand her knowledge base both professionally and socially.
“The classes started big and more generalized, but once I went into third and fourth year the learning became more specialized. I also had more of the adjunct professors, which I found very useful, because you have that practical side of things and the theory behind it too. I could pick their brains on the industry itself.”
Reminiscing about her time at Skule™, Vaz can’t help but recall the countless hours she spent with classmates studying and socializing in the Rock Lounge or the Sanford Fleming building at the gathering spot known as “The Pit”.
“When we weren’t studying, or trying to finish up in assignment, we would go to the atrium. There was always somebody there. I spent a lot of time there in first year and it’s where I developed a lot of friendships with people in different disciplines. The education was important but building a social network was just as important and that is the network I draw upon still, today.”
Vaz also developed another relationship in a strange twist of fate, meeting her future husband in a second year mining lab.
“I missed the GO Train that morning and he was late for class too. It was a day where we had to partner up for the class, so we ended up working together for the whole course. He became my closest friend and still is to this day.”
After graduation, armed with her degree and iron ring, Vaz went to Sudbury, working 12-to-14-hour days.
“I was able to sink my first shaft there. I learned how to work hard, but I also had a lot of fun. There was a lot of new things I was exposed to – they threw me into projects right away and I was appointed project engineer for a different number of jobs.”
Vaz’s next stop was Red Lake, Ont. at Goldcorp. It was here she took advantage of an engineering-in-training (EIT) program, exposing her to different disciplines of engineering such as ground control and ventilation.
“Red Lake Gold Mine was the highest-grade gold mine in the world at the time. You went into one of these development headings and the face just glittered; they called it ‘The Jewelry Box’. Not very many people were able to experience this, so I thought I found myself very fortunate.”
While she continued to excel in the field, Vaz also continued to rack up academic credentials. She earned an Executive MBA from York University’s Schulich School of Business and attended Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.
Vaz worked at Lake Shore Gold Corp for over a decade, working her way up from Project Engineer to Vice-president, Technical Services. Then she jumped to Kirkland Lake Gold as VP, Technical Services before moving into her current role as Chief Operating Officer.
Breaking New Ground
Last summer, Vaz was tapped to receive another honour after being named the first woman to serve as chair of the Ontario Mining Association.
“I was excited, but nervous, because it’s a daunting task, but I’m going to work my hardest to move the industry forward. I follow a remarkable line of chairs, each of whom have made important and lasting contributions to the industry and the OMA.”
Reflecting on the successes of her career, Vaz doesn’t believe that her gender ever put her at a disadvantage.
“I’ve been surrounded by exceptional people willing to take a chance on me, but I never want to diminish the struggles, past or present, that anyone may be facing. But I never let those past perceptions and stereotypes hold me back and the best thing I can do is just prove them wrong.”
Vaz says she was always inspired by the fact that a third of her mineral engineering class at U of T was female, and that was 20 years ago.
“I think the next generation of women definitely should see opportunities and possibilities that are limitless in this industry. We just need to attract and support them as well as, help build their confidence and get them involved in STEM type programs before they even get to university.”
As OMA chair, Vaz has several initiatives planned to promote safety and sustainability along with a more unified voice on matters of public policy.
“I want to help raise public awareness, not just over the value that mining brings to our economy, but also on the evolution of this industry. We are definitely not as archaic as some people may think.”
Touting many mining companies’ goal of meeting a net- zero mandate by 2050, Vaz explains the mining industry is utilizing electrification in many ways, such as battery powered vehicles and trolley-assist systems. The goal being not only to reduce carbon emissions for the sake of the planet, but to make the air cleaner for everyone on site.
Reminiscing about her Skule™ days, Vaz recalls feeling overwhelmed in first year, and if she can offer any advice to new Engineering undergrads, it’s this:
“The most important thing I learned in university is how to learn. Yes, you’re learning calculus and thermodynamics and rock mechanics and geological structures, but the most important thing is to teach yourself how to learn and discover what makes you successful.”
“Don’t be afraid to venture outside of your comfort zone. It’s OK to be afraid of an opportunity, but at least try it and if anything, it will help build up your confidence. And don’t worry too much about the details of your future. Good work ethic and your passion for the job speaks for itself and leads to success in ways you never imagined.”
Natasha Vaz is a Professional Engineer with 20 years of operational and technical experience in the mining industry. She currently serves as Chief Operating Officer, at Kirkland Lake Gold. Natasha is a proven mining industry executive with extensive operational experience and significant knowledge of the company’s assets. In her earlier role she served as Senior Vice President Technical Services, Technology and Innovation at Kirkland Lake Gord and prior to that, as Vice President, Technical Services for Tahoe Resources Inc., focusing on the Company’s Canadian assets. Prior to that assignment, she spent over 10 years at Lake Shore Gold Corp., serving in several operational and technical services roles, including Director, Technical Services and Project Evaluations; and Vice President, Technical Services. Ms. Vaz holds a Bachelor of Applied Sciences, Mineral Engineering from the University of Toronto and an Executive MBA from the Kellogg-Schulich School of Management.
By David Goldberg
Connect With Natasha on LinkedIn or through the Agnico Eagle website