By Sarah de Sainte Croix, Senior Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The semi-public Brazilian energy corporation headquartered in Rio, Petrobras, looks set to welcome their first female CEO in the coming weeks. Maria das Graças Silva Foster has been selected to replace the outgoing José Sérgio Gabrielli at the largest company in Latin America by revenue, which is 54 percent owned by the Brazilian government.

Maria das Graças Foster, selected to be the next head of Petrobras, Brazil News
Maria das Graças Foster, selected to be the next head of Petrobras, photo by Carol Garcia : AGECOM/Flickr Creative Commons License.

According to a report in Jornal do Brasil, Graças Foster, who has been the company’s Gas and Energy director since 2007, was hand-picked for the job by President Dilma Rousseff.

The pair are reported to have become friends while working together at the Ministry for Mines and Energy between 2003 and 2006, where Foster is said to have gained Rousseff’s confidence.

The thrice married, mother-of-two is renowned for her no-nonsense, results based approach. She holds a degree in chemical engineering, a master’s degree in nuclear engineering, and an MBA in economics from the Getulio Vargas Foundation.

But despite the string of letters after her name and the glowing references from the president herself, hers is something of a rags to riches tale.

She was born and raised in the Morro do Adeus favela, now part of the Complexo Alemão, which was until recently one of Rio’s biggest and most dangerous slums. She went to work at the age of eight collecting cardboard, glass bottles and aluminum cans which she sold to raise money to pay for her school books.

In an interview with the Brazilian financial newspaper, Valor Econômico, Foster credits her mother as her biggest motivation. Showing a flash of typical Brazilian affection, at odds with the fearsome figure she cuts in the boardroom, she gushes, “My mother is the most beautiful thing, the cutest thing there is, she’s tiny, she’s my flower.”

Alongside President Rousseff and fellow Brazilian, Gisele Bündchen, (who both made it into Forbes’ “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” list last year), Graças Foster will join a growing group of women who look set to overcome Brazil’s gender disparity over the coming years.

José Sergio Gabrielli, Petrobras, Brazil News
José Sergio Gabrielli, the outgoing CEO of Petrobras, photo by Antonio Cruz/ABr.

According to a study by the Ethos Institute and IBOPE, in 2010 just 13.7 percent of executives in Brazil’s 500 biggest companies were female, and though the figures are trending in a more equal direction (up from six percent in 2001), there is still a long way to go.

Speaking in a Valor video interview, Foster said, “[Women] have to be prepared to go to work in these companies, [we] have to enter into the market. The market is ready … for talent, competence and education.”

Jaques Wagner, State Governer for Bahia, confirmed on Monday that he had invited Petrobras’ outgoing CEO, José Sergio Gabrielli, to join his political team in the north-west of Brazil, stoking rumors that Gabrielli is being primed to succeed him as Governor in 2014.

The country’s Finance Minister and President of Petrobras’ Board of Directors, Guido Mantega, announced Foster’s candidacy for CEO on Friday, adding that the application will be officially presented to the board for approval on February 9th.


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