Heleen GoorissenAs a biotechnologist by trade, and also as a proud mother of three, I am passionate about making the world a better place for future generations.

Sustainability is at the core of everything I do – not only at my work but also from keeping track of my own footprint and educating my children on ways they can be more sustainable in their daily lives.

I’m always up for a challenge and keen to explore new ways of creating innovative, sustainable technologies. I started as a musician (and I’m actually married to one too) before going into chemistry, so I like to channel that creativity into my work. Over the past 15 years, I’ve been in leadership roles working with research & development (R&D) and technology teams on sustainable solutions. I love working in an innovative team environment and being collaborative. In my current role, I’m working with a small R&D and pilot plant team on Avantium’s FDCA technology demonstration, which has provided me with plenty of opportunities to shape the role for myself.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not at all. I only started planning in the past two years as I’m coming to the stage where I’m having less future time to contribute and realize my goals, and so need to be more strategic about my career path. In my ideal world, I would never retire!

I have always wanted to be in the sustainability space. As a child, I became interested in circularity and regenerative agriculture. A few years into my musical career, I started missing having an academic challenge, so went to get my Ph.D. in biotechnology. The reason why I never formally planned out my career is that it isn’t effective for me to plan so far in advance. You have no idea what opportunities can come up and it is good to be open-minded and welcome new challenges as they come around.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

I did initially struggle with the transition between being a musician and becoming a biotechnologist, as I often felt that there wasn’t a connection between creativity and science. However, as my work became more collaborative and I started to work with different teams, I realised that creativity was needed to come up with different opinions and new ideas.

One of the biggest challenges for me was balancing early family life with my career. I wanted more than one child, so remained in the same job for six years while I concentrated on my family. While it was great to have those personal developments, I felt demotivated professionally. When I finally left that job to take on a new challenge, I got back on track. In hindsight, I perhaps should have just left the job when I wanted to, rather than wait for my family life to be in order. Perhaps I needed that period to figure out what the next step should be. In any event, it is important to be courageous and take risks when faced with challenges.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Some of my biggest achievements to date include creating new and successful innovations. I’m also really proud of the teams that I’ve helped shape and develop. I also made an exhibition on microbes and technology on bioplastics that are currently featured in a museum in Amsterdam. I’m particularly pleased with this as it shatters the illusion that technology or science can’t have a creative element to it.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Taking risks and grabbing opportunities when they appear have both been crucial to achieving milestones in my career. I also owe my success to people who believed in me and gave me challenges even when I thought I wasn’t ready for them. This is why it is important to give people chances to challenge themselves and excel, as well as giving them the support they need to thrive.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

  • Find a coach if you feel stuck or unsure of what your next path is.
  • Do not try to plan for the next 10 years – reality will be completely different. Follow your intuition.
  • Please be honest and kind to yourself.
  • Set your priorities – figure out what is truly important; you don’t want to look back with any regrets.
  • Network – find the right people to support you and help you on your path. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

There are still barriers for women wanting to work in STEM and it often starts at university level. Academic hierarchy, ways of working, and funding have not kept up with the times and need to be more adaptable for women and in general more diverse to enable the needs of todays employees. Also, while it’s great to see companies introducing initiatives that specifically help women with their career path, the pace of change isn’t quick enough. To overcome these challenges, women must fight together for these initiatives and opportunities to grow professionally.

What do you think companies can do to support to progress the careers of women working in technology?

From hosting open days, offering management and leadership schemes, coaching to training, there are many ways that companies can support women’s careers. At Avantium, for example, we host STEM education open days for girls in school, as well as webinars for professional development specifically geared to female employees.

Another important thing where companies can make a significant difference is being more flexible and accommodating towards women with families, particularly those who are returning to work after maternity leave. Of course, this should not be exclusive to women, but to the divers pool of employees who want to combine caretaking or other social responsibilities next to their professional job.

There is currently only 17 percent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

It would be an answer on how to support women and help them feel confident that there will be opportunities to further their careers while starting a family. I try to incorporate this awareness in my own team especially when there are women who have just returned from maternity leave. I take extra care to work with them to figure out their next steps and where they would like to be in their career.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

  • Events – they are helpful for networking opportunities and being more visible.
  • Podcasts – they help with inspiration and education.
  • Coaching – this has changed my life. Investing in a coach can help you understand your strengths, discover areas of development, and enable your growth.

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