Yewande AkinolaYewande is a chartered engineer, innovator and speaker. Her engineering experience includes the design and construction, innovation and manufacture of buildings and systems in the built environment.

She has worked on projects in the UK, Africa, the Middle East and East Asia and has been named the UK Young Woman Engineer of the Year by the Institution of Engineering & Technology. She has also been awarded the Exceptional Achiever Award from the Association for BAME Engineers and the Association of Consultancy and Engineering, U.K. (ACE). She is a Visiting Professor at the University of Westminster. She is passionate about STEM communication and has presented Engineering programmes for Television. In the 2020 New Year Honours list, Yewande was awarded an MBE for services to engineering innovation and diversity in STEM.

She has recently been appointed the UK’s Innovation agency (Innovate UK) Ambassador for Clean Growth and Infrastructure.

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

I am a chartered engineer, innovator and speaker. I am passionate about the role of innovation, creativity and engineering in our world today. My engineering experience includes the design and construction, innovation and manufacture of buildings and systems in the built environment. I have worked on projects in the UK, Africa, the Middle East and East Asia and have been named the UK Young Woman Engineer of the Year by the Institution of Engineering & Technology. I have also been awarded the Exceptional Achiever Award from the Association for BAME Engineers and the Association of Consultancy and Engineering, U.K. (ACE). I am a Visiting Professor at the University of Westminster. I’m passionate about STEM communication and have presented Engineering programmes for Television. In the 2020 New Year Honours list, I was awarded an MBE for services to engineering innovation and diversity in STEM. I have recently been appointed the UK’s Innovation agency (Innovate UK) Ambassador for Clean Growth and Infrastructure.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Growing up in Ibadan, Nigeria, I spent my time building models of my ideal home with whatever materials I could find. But it wasn’t until my mother, an artist, made a suggestion about my university studies that I considered pursuing a career in engineering over one in architecture. Also crucial in my decision was finding an engineering degree at Warwick University in the U.K. that focused on developing countries—using little resources and lots of creativity. As I soon discovered, engineering is indeed the practical tool for creating a better world.

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

As I have progressed in my career, it has sometimes been a challenge being black and female, but I have found ways of navigating it. I’ve learned to feel comfortable as myself and stay true to who I am. It’s a work in progress.

What is more frustrating for me is seeing other young people like myself come up against these same challenges – challenges of not finding as many opportunities in the industry; not progressing up through the ranks as quickly as they should because of issues around unconscious bias. It’s a shame that when young people speak to me, it’s one of their worries. I wish for them that they could just enjoy being engineers.

As a result, the industry has lost out on a lot of talent, whether gender or diversity based.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I have had some amazing opportunities in my career so far. I still feel there is a very long way to go still but I am very, very excited about the future. The highlights range from the design of iconic buildings in London to the design of a huge hotel and waterpark resort in Asia. The last couple of years have been very humbling. Winning the IET’s Young Woman Engineer of the year, AFBE’s Exceptional Achiever Award and Management Today’s 35 under 35 awards have inspired me to continue to ‘raise the game’. Daring to dream, having tons of fun and challenging myself help keep my engineering interests alive. So whether it is a primary school in the countryside or a 300m tower in East Asia or water supply scheme for a remote village, it is always my hope that my contributions have a positive inspiring impact.

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

I believe in huge possibilities, and I’ve discovered that there is no lack of possibilities and opportunities out there. Yes, whatever challenge you’re faced with may seem difficult, impossible even, but remember that, as the saying goes, “difficult does not mean impossible”. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that the very fact it is not impossible is all you need in terms of a mandate to be able to solve it. It’s a question of taking the challenge to bits and then dividing it up into manageable chunks.

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

First, I tell my mentees to focus on learning as much as they possibly can. I want them to enjoy their experience in industry. I don’t want their early years in this profession to be scarred by challenges of being in a minority.

I think they should find ways to enjoy and learn, be creative, meet new people, express oneself and obtain the global perspective that engineering offers. One should never compromise on what is good for others.

How do we encourage more diversity in engineering and STEM?

There is nothing more terrible than feeling as though you are only there because you ticked boxes. Having the knowledge and qualification to back yourself up immediately puts you in a strong position with everybody around the table.

Engineering is collaborative, so it is essential to have fair representation of the people you’re designing for. Bringing expertise, experience and learning to the drawing board inevitably leads to better solutions.

The next generation of engineers will be change-makers. They will want to create progress. They will want a better, more sustainable planet, where we consume less energy, live better, eat more nutritiously and generate less waste. To them I say, continue to stay true to that dream and passion.

It’s my hope that organisations see the role they also need to play in a more sustainable planet, and they give these change-makers the support they need.

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

University – business collaboration is very important. There are lot of things that seemingly get in the way of such collaborations. Organisations are sometimes worried about the financial implications and as such unwilling to take on ‘risks’. Businesses are however in the advantageous position of making long term potentially very profitable investments by attracting females into STEM courses. Schemes such as shadowing experiences, sponsorships, internships go a long way. They help sow the seed of STEM courses in students and help them see the practical day to day aspects of STEM professions. We live in an extremely visual age where real time interactions go a long way.

There is currently only 17 per cent of women working in STEM, 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?

Organisations – educational through to industry – need to fully support and empower the next generation of female engineers. These engineers will want a better, more sustainable planet, where we consume less energy, live better, eat more nutritiously and generate less waste. To them I say, continue to stay true to that dream and passion. It’s my hope that organisations see the role they also need to play in a more sustainable planet, and they give these change-makers the support they need.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I go wherever there are inspiring Women. I follow Dame Stephanie Shirely on instagram and she is a wonderful source of inspiration. Some of my favourite ‘go to places’ are the Women Tech Charge Podcast- hosted by Anne- Marie Imafidon, How to Own the Room Podcast by Viv Groskop, and Create the Future Podcast- hosted by Sue Nelson. I feel very fortunate to be able to look up to some brilliant women-a few of whom are Dame Anne Richards, Hayaatun Sillem CBE, Dervilla Mitchell CBE. It is super important to find someone you can be inspired by. I would also recommend AccelerateHER! They run absolutely fantastic events!

Instagram: yewande.akinola

Twitter: Yewandae 

Yewandeakinola.co.uk

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