Named as one of the 50 Top Women in Engineering (WE50): Returners and Transferrers 2018 founder of HellyHolly, Lisa Matthews, talks about her career path and her experiences of being a female engineer. Hers is a story which covers many of the equality issues affecting women in engineering and technology.
After returning from maternity leave, her employer, Arup, supported her to start up and grow a local business, so she could work nearer home – offering design and build services and she grew it into a multi-disciplinary practice. Supported by Arup, she won the accolade because she brings her skills from the technology industry back into their Corporate Venturing where Arup provides funding, coaching, resources and flexibility for employees to develop technical solutions into commercial propositions.
What were your earliest interests and which subjects did you study?
Growing up in Surrey, I had a typical suburban childhood with my sister and my parents. They always said ‘do what makes you happy, what you’re interested in and do your best’ so we were never driven by academic outcomes. I did a bit of sport and was Head Girl at my all-girls school – where I was more of the mindset we didn’t need feminism any more because we could do anything we wanted – I hadn’t experienced any gender-related difficulties. For my A-levels, I was going to do music, business and geography, but ended up doing French, Maths, Physics and Art. I only did Physics because it was timetabled where I wanted to drop Music and it’s the one most relevant to what I went on to do.
How did your academic experience influence your career?
Thinking I wanted to study architecture, I went round all the open days for University and found myself asking questions like, “when do we find out how this works” because I was more interested in the constraints of a problem and how you find a solution. They told me I’d got the wrong subject, to go down the hall and talk to engineering. The University of Bath has a joint department, so I studied Civil and Architectural Engineering, where we worked closely with the architecture students, so it was good to solve problems together.
I did two sandwich placements during my course. The first I worked for the main contractor on the M5 Avonmouth bridge strengthening work back in the late 1990’s – where I was responsible for directing some of the work groups, resurfacing the approach spans, and laying new comms cables and drainage. The only other women on the site were secretaries in the site hut, out of 250 people. I was the only engineering and construction-based female. I was 19 working with these much older, male teams. It was all about getting to know people; if you wanted someone to take you seriously, the best thing was to sit with them in the van, chat to them and have lunch with them to build a relationship. Still, one of the gangs ignored me completely to my face, standing in front of a digger, explaining they needed to change what was happening. My second placement was much more multi-nationally diverse, working in a design company in Paris, where French was the language in the office. It was a great experience to go and live abroad, to get out and get to know a new city.
After finishing my degree, I did a PhD in Computational Fluid Dynamics and that was because I had done some programming work over the holidays for a particular professor and we found some funding to put together a project. The hardest part was getting the question right in the first place to establish what problem we wanted to solve. I wrote new algorithms modelling how fluids and flexible structures interact – for example, sails, flags or anything stretchy, like our blood vessel membranes. I published a couple of my research papers and went to speak at conferences.
Which steps led you to start HellyHolly, the business you have today?
After finishing, I joined Arup in the advanced technology group – an in-house specialist R&D and analysis team in Solihull. I spent five or six years moving round the business doing building engineering and analysis, managing all sorts of different projects, one was an electric vehicle demonstrator programme and I worked over in Dubai for a bit. I was designing all sorts of different buildings – skyscrapers in London, an engineering college in Leicester, an opera house in Taiwan, a lifeboat station in the UK – a whole range!
When I went on mat leave, I had been working on design integration in the façade engineering team in London for a massive new airport in Kuwait. But after I returned, I didn’t want to commute into London every day – so I spoke to the local office leadership about starting a new business for Arup. I spent about five years growing a local engineering and design service – nobody was pursuing local projects in the patch from Swindon, Guildford, down to Brighton so I started and we gradually grew out the various disciplines. I took the business from zero to £1.5m, working four days a week and during that period I had my second child. I was leaving early and getting back late to travel to clients. But in the summer about two years ago, it hit me hard. The business was doing really well, but I was finding it hard to prioritise my time and energy, to make decisions or do the right things; I nearly burned out. I talked to Arup and they let me take a sabbatical.
During that time, I did an open access course with “The Happy Startup” to find out more about what I wanted. We had increasingly been struggling with everything, two kids, working and managing the burden of getting everyone to right place, with the right kit – and it was incredibly stressful when we dropped the ball. We thought it was worth exploring whether it was just us, whether other people have this problem, between working parents, kids and how they handle all the stuff – school letters, events, and coordinating who was doing what. I spent some time doing some customer research where I came to the conclusion that other people did feel like this and yes, they would like some help. So I wanted to look at making a solution and see whether we could make a business out of it. I talked to Arup and extended my sabbatical for another year. That’s what led to HellyHolly – we picked it for the company name after my daughter came up with that for her band name when she was four!
What steps did you take to bring Our Canary to life?
I met my co-founders, after hearing Joe talk about cognitive overload and user experience – and he introduced me to Michael. We had done enough research to know other people were experiencing pain – it impacts your stress levels, how good you feel at your job, your relationships and how much guilt you’re trying to live with. One of the problems which relates to Joe’s work is that everyone is distracted all the time. We quickly saw that parents didn’t want us to create yet another tool. What we needed to offer is something that links all the tools you already use, in the places where you already communicate – email, messenger, WhatsApp – which is clever enough to deal with all the data you already have and act as a backup. I started building a prototype and tested a concierge service with a group of families, to see whether people liked it, and what problems they needed us to handle over a period of 8 weeks. Fast forward a bit and now we’re about to launch our private beta.
How has Arup continued to support you?
In January 2018 I returned to Arup because they created a role for me to come back part-time, alongside working on HellyHolly part-time. Their approach was innovative – I had left the firm, been to work in a completely new sector and learned the skills of how to research, prototype and build a technology solution – and they wanted to bring those skills back in. My role is in their Corporate Venturing team, looking at dashboards, digital tools and products our staff have developed to solve their challenges and take them through a validation process to see which Arup can support further and bring to market. It aligns really well with HellyHolly, because of the way our working world is changing. It’s all putting pressure on us doing more than one job, coordinating across a family, and companies also have to take an innovative approach to develop people and their skills sets. As an employee-owned company, Arup has strong people-based values. That focus on people’s needs is why they allowed me to take the sabbatical in the first place – and now they’ve created a way for me to return and contribute to the company again. It’s testament to what a great employer they are and proves it’s good for business to enable flexibility, because I’m now helping them drive innovation and change in areas where they want to grow.
What advice would you give to encourage women who want to get into innovation or technology?
There’s definitely selection bias affecting what’s written about in the headlines. I struggled with feeling like there’s only one way to define success and be successful, whereas in the real world, there are a range of ways and a lot of people doing things differently. If you want to help people and solve problems, and you think technology can help, there’ll be a way to do it. You’ll need the team to be diverse, because if you don’t have the skills to build a prototype or an MVP yourself, you’ll have to find or fund technical support. Rely on your beliefs and gut instincts, instead of trusting the established eco-system which is sometimes not very diverse.
What changes would you suggest businesses make to encourage diversity?
It wasn’t until I got out into the world of work that I had my eyes opened that things weren’t as equal as they should be, even though in law, they should be. And when I had kids, that’s when it really came home. But I see diversity more broadly, even though there is a gender part of it – it’s ethnicity and skill sets and more. Companies can check, do we have a narrow band of voices who all look or sound similar? Can we do something about the diversity of our own experiences? How do we become more attractive to different people? It’s chicken and egg, diversity attracts diversity. My suggestion is to look inwardly first, fix the culture and write job descriptions that support it. I get frustrated, some companies take the approach of ticking the ‘women’ box, so let’s bring in mentoring. When what’s really needed is real change where flexibility is for everyone, with proper shared parental leave and an understanding that family models are different – companies need to support the person holistically.
Written by Debra Penrice. See more of her work at 27 Marketing