Yewande Akinola is an Inventor and Engineer who has won a number of awards including Young Woman Engineer of the year (Institute of Engineering and Technology 2012), UK 35 Under 35 (Management Today’s 35 Women Under 35 2013) and UK Outstanding Woman in STEM (PRECIOUS Award 2014). She talks to NNC about her passion to bridge the gap between developed and developing countries and how she plans to develop the skills of people in developing countries.
How did you get into engineering?
From a young age I was very interested in buildings. Growing up in Nigeria, I always looked out for ‘nice’ buildings; buildings that I thought would be nice for us to live in. That was the start of my interest in infrastructure and buildings. In my teen years I was almost a 100% sure I was going to study architecture. I wanted to be able to design comfortable living spaces for people around me and I hoped that I would one day be able to help bridge the gap between developing countries like Nigeria and the developed world.
Just before I started applying to universities my mum came into my room one day and said something along the lines of ‘Wande I know that you are interested in architecture but if you studied engineering you would be able to design a whole host of things; you’ll be able to design electrical systems, design water supply systems. I wasn’t a 100% convinced so I applied to Four (4) universities out of six (6) to study Architecture and the other two (2) to study engineering.
I then got a place at Warwick University on a degree programme that had a fantastic bias towards developing countries. It was titled ‘Engineering, Design and Appropriate technology. It just seemed the perfect degree for me to learn lots more than what a building looked like on the outside. A combination Warwick‘s impressive ranking and the degree on offer and the fact that there was potential to achieve my dream of contributing to Africa’s development made it an obvious choice.
What is your role as a design engineer; what does it consist of?
I’ve recently changed jobs. I now work with a construction company. Prior to Laing O’Rourke, I worked with ARUP –an international Design consultancy. So if you kind of imagine, on a building project, the client has an ambition for a building- a commercial building with offices or a residential building or even a hotel. An architect would design how the building would look on the exterior and then the design engineer helps bring the idea to life; they would design the mechanical, electrical and water systems (the heating, the cooling and the lighting) as well as engineer the structure. My role as a design engineer in the UK mainly covered the water supply- designing sustainable water solutions and systems for commercial buildings, schools, residential buildings and more. I recently moved back from Shanghai, where I spent just under three years designing high rise buildings and my role there as a Design engineer/Technical Coordinator was to make sure that all the different parts of the design came together seamlessly.
How was your time in Shanghai and why did you move from design engineering to construction engineering?
Shanghai was amazing! I felt such a connection with the City and its people. The amazing thing about China is that there is an amazing desire for people to develop themselves, it is incredible. Shanghai is probably one of the best cities I’ve been to; if you talk about the fastest passenger train, it’s in Shanghai; if you talk about the second tallest building in the world it in Shanghai. There is such a massive thirst for development which is matched with hard work and culture
Living in China also helped me grow as a person; if you put yourself in your most challenging situation yet and get through it, you have that renewed confidence that you are able to overcome whatever challenges you are faced with.
ARUP is an amazing company. They have designed ionic buildings all over the world, including Nigeria. I absolutely loved my time with ARUP and would always be grateful for it.
I however wanted to delve deeper into the world of construction, as it goes hand in hand with design. Design is doing the calculation and the drawings, but then I wanted to spend more time being part of how it all comes together on site. Being able to be part of project from its design stage right up to its construction stage is pretty exciting and fulfilling.
You mentioned that you wanted to study something that would help you bridge the gap between the developed, and developing world. How are you doing that now or do you have plans to do so?
Every time I get asked that question I’m almost immediately apologetic. I know I haven’t done near enough. Before Shanghai, I’ve worked on projects in Mozambique and Ghana to help with water supply. Clean water is such a basic need in developing countries. My work on the projects helped develop systems designed to ensure that communities have clean water noting that the maintenance of the infrastructure is as important as the initial provision of the infrastructure.
One thing that frustrates me is the quest to provide clean water for struggling communities, going by the adverts and pleas for donations that I see, seems to be on the rise as against the opposite. It feels like a bit of a vicious cycle. I would argue that charity work needs to operate based on a model that ensures self-growth and self-multiplication.
I am very interested in contributing to the development of the skills set of young people. A couple of years ago I gave talks in Lagos to groups of young people. It was so clear how blessed the nation is in terms of intelligence and capability but sadly glaring the massive lack of the support for young people develop engineering skills. It is my hope to contribute as best as I can to supporting the development of the required skills the country needs, with specific targets laid over the next 5 years.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
Ha! Lots of things but I will try to keep it to two or three things! There’s that satisfaction that comes from having an idea and then seeing that idea develop into something useful and practical. Something one can actually touch/feel, something that interacts and has a positive impact on people’s lives. I’ve designed schools and it’s so beautiful to go back into the schools to see the students learning and interacting with the spaces.
There’s also the fact that engineering skills are applicable any and everywhere in the world- in the most developed parts of the world and in the developing parts of the world. The fact that engineering solutions are so visible is a great reason for young people to consider careers in engineering.
And is that why you give a lot of talks to young people?
I think about growing up as a child, and all the things that inspired me – I was inspired by people around me; by things I watched on TV. Those inspiring experiences and images stuck with me right from childhood into my adulthood. I know the importance of the images kids see. And it is my hope and dream to be a source of that positive impression that goes a long way in shaping their ambitions.
Being a black female in a male dominated role, what pressures or challenges have you faced and how have you handled them?
My early years as an engineer were ‘pressure-free’. But as I started to get a bit more experience, visible and vocal, I very quickly realised there were some ‘image’ issues I would have to overcome in my career. One of the issues – the fact that there are very few women (and much lesser black women) in engineering (in comparison to men). A black female is not the first image one would attach to ‘an Engineer’. People associate messages with images and when the image doesn’t really align with the message it’s more difficult to accept it.
It soon occurred to me that I could get through the seeming challenge, by carving out my own career, my own person and my own approach. I made the conscious effort not to try to fit into the ’expected images’ and worked hard at redefining and expanding the image of the ‘engineer’. It has been one of my most rewarding decisions because even though I am constantly working at improving an engineer’s image, I have had the freedom to do and be lots of things that are not ‘typical’; I have been able to explore the world of TV presenting and have worked in countries where I did not speak the language. It’s that carving out of one’s own career as such that I think helps. There’s no doubt, we need more black female engineers and I always tell other black female engineers that the responsibilities lie in our hands- to encourage others to come in, to support them when they are in and then to elevate them.
What advice would you give to a young black woman aspiring for a career in engineering?
I’ll say ‘go for it!’ Engineering is about creativity and black women are very creative! If you have that creativity, then you are in a good place to become an engineer. All that needs to happen is, to learn the principles of engineering, apply it to the creativity and you are excellent at your work. My recommendation would be to look at the various engineering degrees that are available, then study hard to get onto those courses, reach out and network. If the ambition, the idea and the motive is right, 9.9 out of 10 times, a black female engineer will be successful.
What would you say has been your most memorable experience in your career?
My experience in Shanghai definitely sits at the top of my recent most memorable experiences. I spent most of my time designing super high rise structures – a great learning experience. In the role of a Technical Coordinator, I designed a hotel that sits on a 62 hectare resort site. I was part of the Mechanical, Electrical and Water Team. The 40 storey hotel and its beautiful water park, with Dolphins bays and water rides, will one day be my holiday designation. I look forward to taking my children one day and being able to say ‘Mummy designed this!’
In terms of recognition, I would say winning the title of the UK’s ‘Young Woman Engineer of the Year’ really helped me grow as a person and an engineer. It was a great confidence boost.
How does it feel to be recognised by various organisations?
There is a saying: ‘to whom much is given, much is expected’. I owe it to myself and others to use the awards I have received to inspire others and to leave a legacy of excellence everywhere I go. The work must always continue. It also feels wonderful to make my amazing mother proud. She worked incredibly hard and sacrificed so much for my sister and I. The awards are also a reflection of her hard work, humility and commitment.
What would be your advice for young people to be high achievers regardless of their field?
There is always that temptation to rest on our oars but recognition comes for a reason; to spur us on to do greater things. Keep on raising your own personal standards and even when your receive recognition, shift the gear a few more notches up.
We have to be careful not to live for ourselves but set ourselves up to live for generations to come. Most parts of the developed world, like the UK, are still enjoying the benefits of the hard work of their great grandfathers.
(Laughs) It’s not always about popping that champagne bottle or showing off but working towards, and celebrating in moderation, developing that legacy for our children’s children. We have to raise those bars so that generations to come can also benefit!
You mentioned where you would like to see yourself in terms of passing on skills but are there other things you would like to do next?
I would like to be a game changer in the construction/built environment industry and help improve the way we currently do things. But going back to my connection to the developing world, it would be such a blessing to contribute to the development of skills. A plan is emerging but I need to work harder at it. It is really important that we change (for better) the perception young people have of themselves and inspire, support and sow the right seeds in their minds. We need to ensure that they have access to the right tools, workshops, technology hubs and creative spaces.
A lot of young Nigerians abroad are starting to get in touch with our culture, what do you think about this and what do you think can further be done to keep them in touch?
I think that is a good thing and I think some of that has come from the hardwork of the Nigerian music industry. We are really proud of our music now. Same with our fashion industry and that needs to carry on. ‘Buy Nigeria, Grow Nigeria’ is currently trending. Whilst there is a huge amount that needs to happen to make that a reality- in terms of infrastructure, transport networks, energy supply, water supply, agricultural technologies etc., this is the right type of encouragement that is needed to get people interested in the Nigerian culture. I think what is happening in the music and fashion industry needs to move over to other parts of our culture too.
Nigerians like yourself help create a positive image of the people in diaspora. How do you think Nigerians abroad can positively promote the country?
Nigerians are doing AMAZING things all over the world. Name the field, name the country – in academia and in industry. We need to share our stories with the world; with other ethnic groups, other countries. We also need to work hard at ensuring that we make the headlines, only for the right reasons. There is so much at stake and at this point we cannot afford to make the headlines for the wrong reasons.
How do you think a community like ours can help change this negative image?
The main word will have to be ‘engagement’, how about we continue to open up within the communities we live in and other communities? Let’s help organise community after school events, let’s form support groups for those that need support. Every Nigerian can be an amazing blessing to another Nigerian and a non-Nigerian.