Interview with Yewande Akinola: Inventer & Design Engineer

“There are lots of people who still think women are not as capable in engineering. We need to get the story right for future generations.”

Yewande Akinola is a Design Engineer with engineering consultancy ARUP. Yewande’s engineering experience and responsibilities include the design of sustainable water supply systems and the engineering design coordination of large projects in the built environment. She has worked on projects in the U.K., Africa, Middle East and in East Asia. Yewande has won several awards including the UK 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.) Her professional specialties are water, energy, project engineering and innovation management.

You are an inventor! Congratulations. How did the Rainwater Harvesting System patent come about and why did you focus on rainwater harvesting?

I had been working on sustainable water systems and rainwater harvesting was right at the heart of my work. I worked in a team of extremely enthused engineers and we were determined to improve the typical design responses to rainwater harvesting systems. The main purpose of harvesting rainwater is to save water and save energy. We saw a bit of an imbalance in typical systems; yes we save water but then a lot more energy was used in the ‘’delivery/distribution’’ of the water. Saving the energy rainwater harvesting systems use was our opportunity to improve design.

Your day job however, is as a design engineer; what does a design engineer do day to day? 

A Design Engineer is a problem solver and an innovator. When our clients come to us with ideas and dreams for new projects- buildings…bridges….airports- you name it ha!, we help bring those ideas/dreams to life…using engineering principles and experience. That process starts with really understanding what the design brief is and getting a first-hand feel of what the inspiration was/is. The Design Engineer then starts to develop the idea by using engineering principles ranging from simple concepts like gravity to more complex concepts like material behavior.

You are also an expert in appropriate technology and innovation. What distinction do you make between innovation and creativity?

Innovation, in my view, is the end product… the finish line where an idea has been translated to an actual product, system or service that has a positive impact on lifestyle and well-being. Creativity has a role in the ‘journey’- in the process of transforming the idea to ‘the innovation’. Creativity is the fuel and can be defined as all the steps in that journey- all the thinking that one goes through when they are working on a new idea i.e. research, brainstorming sessions, asking questions, joining dots, market research and more.
If someone wanted advice on how to be more innovative (whatever their industry) what would you say?

One tip that usually helps is to ask questions; Can this be improved? How does this meet the changing demand? Is this right for our planet? Is this right for our customers?’ We can never ask too many questions.
You’ve won many Awards; consistently since 2009 including the UK Young Woman Engineer of the Year. What does it take to be recognized as an achiever by so many different organizations?

I am super grateful for all the recognition I have received to date. So so grateful. They have been wonderful reminders that I need to keep on working hard and as best as possible keep inspiring others when and where I can. The last couple of years have been all about stepping outside my comfort zone- trying new things, working hard, challenging myself… and I guess the awards are much appreciated proof that consistent little successes always come together to create something truly special.
You are one of the presenters of the ‘’Rebuilding the Titanic’’ TV series. What are you learning from the series about the Titanic that one wouldn’t know simply by watching the film ‘’Titanic’’?

I really had no clue what I was getting myself into when I auditioned. I am very glad I did though! It was an amazing insight into the working lives of the men and women who built the Titanic. Before I did the series, I knew about the lives of the passengers but not the ship builders! The series helped me walk in the footsteps of the men that built the great liner. It helped me appreciate the many hours of bending hot metal, of hammering in bolts and very hot rivets, the risk involved in working in the conditions they had to work in. I learnt the role women played in creating the opulence that the liner was known for. They made beautiful fabric and brought that ‘‘wealthy feel’’ to Titanic.
Your current role involves giving clients advice on how to save energy. What are some of the more vexing challenges you see in energy conservation and what strategies do you think need to be considered?

One of my main challenges is helping people understand that energy issues go hand in hand with day to day life activities and saving energy can very easily become part of their normal exciting lifestyle…….as against the current conception of it being a hindrance to interesting/exciting living. The engineering design industry also has a big task on their hands- we need to continue to communicate this and show people how to make saving energy an exciting part of their day to day activities.

You are clearly a role model both as an engineer and to much younger women. What do you believe is important that you show these younger ones about the possibilities that exist for them?

I was inspired by so many people and so thing things as a child. All of the ‘’blocks of inspiration’’ have helped me stay excited and passionate about my work and the future. It is very important to share those stories with young women and men. In their hearts and minds, they are asking the same questions I asked, growing up. What will I be? Where will I go? What shall I do? It is important that I help them know that they have wonderful innate abilities and qualities as they start to see the answers to those questions unfold. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is very creative! and we need to help more ladies see through the misconceptions that suggest it is boring and not creative.

What are the pressures you face as a young woman achiever in a male dominated area and how do you handle them?

I have been very fortunate to work in relaxed environments- with much less gender related pressures as is typical. But every so often I have to ‘’raise my game’’ to prove my capabilities and skill set. There are lots of people who still think women are not as capable in Engineering as they are in other fields. I take that very personally and love an opportunity to enlighten them. We also need to get the story right for future generations. I have spent the last…nearly 3 years now, working out of the Arup Shanghai office. There is a 50-50 split in the office -as many women as there as men and it is absolutely fantastic to be able to say that women are designing the skylines of many cities in China and shaping China’s future.
What kind of woman leader do you admire and what more could women leaders do that would help more women pursue influential roles?

I have three wonderful professional female mentors- who are right at the top of their game and wonderful leaders. I look up to them in many many ways. They are kind, humble, firm, hardworking and wired to deliver 100%+ on anything they set out to do. They do exactly what I would like to see more women leaders do – they mentor, share their stories, offer support. It goes a very very very long way.
For more information on Vera Ng’oma’s work and resources in leadership, personal and career development and excellence building, click here.

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