Yewande Akinola

Back story: Yewande Akinola, ‘Engineering is very practical’

Image credit: Rankin Studios

Dr Shini Somara talks to award-winning innovator and engineer Yewande Akinola MBE about her passion for engineering and how she continues to inspire the next generation.


Shini Somara: How would you describe your profession?

Yewande Akinola: I work in the built environment, specifically the construction industry, where I create spaces for us to live to our fullest potential. I studied maths, physics and technical training at school, then went on to do an engineering degree in Engineering, Design and Appropriate Technology with a bias towards developing countries. After that, I did a Masters in Innovation and Design for Sustainability.

SS: What does engineering mean to you?

YA: Engineering is about interpreting design, finding solutions to existing problems and creating the future. It is really all underpinned by creativity. I’ve loved every moment of dreaming up solutions for human beings, real people whose lives are affected by what engineers do.

I love the universal language of engineering and have been able to work on projects from all over the world. I’ve also loved meeting an incredible range of people who share the same passion and who want to ensure our world is a much better place for everybody.

Engineering is very practical. You can see the immediate impact it has on our environment. I’ve come to appreciate that engineering brings people together, it solves big problems and is often a tangible legacy. Engineering is physical, we experience it.

SS: What has it been like being in a minority in engineering?

YA: 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.

SS: What advice do you give as a mentor?

YA: 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.

SS: What makes a good mentor for you?

YA: I’ve come across incredible older white males who are brilliant mentors. I can name a few in my life who have really supported me. I trust I can pick up the phone to any of them when I have challenges. There needs to be more mentors like them.

All of them demonstrate they have nothing to lose by being supportive, especially towards the end of their careers. They can leave a legacy, particularly through individuals from minority groups, who are keen to make something of themselves and their careers.

All my mentors have a global perspective – they’ve travelled, seen the world, met people from different cultures and are open to the intrigue and learning that comes with diverse teams.

SS: Why is diversity and inclusion so important?

YA: 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.

SS: Finally, what’s your hope for future generations of engineers?

YA: 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.

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