Olivia Sweeney

Olivia, from Reading, has always been interested in sustainability and wanted to work for a company passionate about the environment.

Working for Lush and sourcing and creating their chemicals in a sustainable way has given Olivia the power to make a difference. Olivia is now an Aroma Chemicals Creative Buyer, sourcing and creating the natural and synthetic chemicals for fragrances of Lush’s soaps, bath bombs, shampoo bars… and everything else! She still gets to travel abroad, across Europe, Brazil and the USA to find the best materials and ingredients.

One of Olivia’s projects is figuring out the best way to process waste banana skins, not only getting the perfect banana smell, but in a sustainable and responsible way. She has helped to created a banana facial cleanser that will now be on shelves worldwide! She looks for ways to save energy and water in the making process while also making sure that the ingredients she works with are ethically sourced and cruelty free. For Olivia, chemical engineering means you can end up creating anything based on your own curiosity. Engineers are part of the modern world and help make dreams become reality with their problem-solving skills.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I am from Reading originally, and after changing school to study my A Levels in Double Maths, Chemistry, English Literature and Music, I attended Edinburgh University to study an integrated in masters in chemical engineering. I have always wanted to work and contribute to the green sector and been interested in science. These two streams came together during my studies from internships when I looked at membrane carbon capture, investigation into the possibility of a production site becoming energy neutrality and researching biofuels for my masters thesis.

Since graduating I have been working at Lush helping to maintain and improve ethical and environmental standards of the aroma chemicals we purchase.

Since 2017 I have been working to increase diversity in Engineering – I was selected to be part of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s This is Engineering campaign, aimed at encouraging young people, from all backgrounds, to consider engineering careers, and since then have had a lot of great opportunities. I have spoken on Woman’s Hour, Radio 5 Live, spoken at UK Black Tech events, and Edinburgh and Nottingham University events, been part of a Make the Future event with Shell and managed an interactive workshop at New Scientist Live. I am hoping to continue this work with the support of the Royal Academy of Engineering and other bodies.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I have never really formally planned my career, I am just starting though, so that might come. University was just something that I was always going to do, it wasn’t really a choice. I knew I wanted to study something in the sciences and something practical to help build a career, and Chemical Engineering fitted with both that as well as my A Level subjects – it was not planned. Again, my first job was not a ‘plan’ – I needed a job after graduating, I have student loans! And after the drudgery of a few graduate scheme interviews I decided that wasn’t for me. I always wanted to do something in the field of sustainability, so looked for companies who were working in that field and found my current job. I think I should try and do a little more planning for my career going forward – I have been given so many opportunities in the last two years and I want to make the most of them.

I would love to be able to strike out on my own one day, and that takes planning!

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

I am relatively fresh into the working world, so haven’t faced too many challenges yet. I think the first hurdle was getting a job, which is always a hard, horrible, stressful time leading up to graduating. I overcame this by taking a little bit of a different approach. I decided not to be funnelled into a graduate scheme. I chose to look for companies that I agreed with and believed in and then find jobs from there, and I ended up with the role I have now.

I think the next challenge I am facing is wanting to run before I can walk. A lot of things come with time and experience, and those are two things that I am currently limited in. I am struggling with itchy feet, having been ‘stationary’ for two years. Throughout my life everything has been done in year chunks, this is first time I have been in the same place for two years, and without a plan dictated to me by academia – it is a funny feeling, and it is hard to know whether it is something to overcome or give in to!

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I developed a banana ingredient from our waste that went into a globally launched facial oil.

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

That is hard to say! I think a passion for my work. I want to be part of building a regenerative future for all. It is an urgent, exciting goal that allows me to be creative and think like an engineer, but also engage with social issues.

I have got to meet people from all over the world who are doing much more amazing work than I could ever dream of so that drives me to keep pushing forward.

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

I think being a little bit stubborn is always a good thing. Hard work is always important, but I think that should be tempered with the pursuit of other passions.

Finding what you are passionate about and pursuing that is a great way to excel in a career, listening and learning from the world and your peers is important, but that doesn’t mean that they are right, or there is not a better way – having the confidence to challenge and build something new and your own is vital to keep progress diverse and representative.

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

I think there are still barriers, they are different for different groups of people and they have changed and moved in the last 20 years. Continued engagement is key to overcoming these. Building confidence and belief in younger generations is one method of attack, but also changing minds of establishments to allow the new wave to have a clear upward trajectory. Ultimately, we need to work to build a society where the childlike belief that anything is possible never disappears. At the moment we are focussed a lot on data and outreach, but that is not where we want to be in five years’ time.

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

I think at the moment a lot of companies are really working to get a diverse group of people in the door. But it is really important to provide effective support within a company to allow women to continue to grow, learn and reach whatever goals they have. If women come in and then leave disheartened this could do more harm than good for encouraging others into the field.

There is currently only 17% 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?

I would create a better support system for women within the industry so they have a better sense of belonging, acceptance and are afforded the best opportunities to grow and develop in conjunction with there personal life to prevent the loss of great talent. And to provide a great image reflected back to younger generations to encourage yet more uptake.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Finding your community, support network, mentors and peers is really important for success.

This is Engineering Day (6th November) was launched by the Royal Academy of Engineering to raise awareness of what an engineer is and showcase the breadth of careers available in the profession. Visit www.thisisengineering.org.uk