Dr Ollie Folayan is an experienced process engineer and combustion specialist with experience in the oil and energy industry. He is Principal Process Engineer at Inventive Engineering Solutions Ltd and Chair of AFBE-UK Scotland.
“Bridging that gap by thinking through the process, analysing the data, considering the view of a multi-disciplinary team and eventually solving the problem is what I find most exciting about being an engineer.”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
I use my understanding of the behaviour of fluids and solids to design equipment and physical or chemical processes that provide material and energy used on an everyday basis. To be worthwhile, my design work must be safe, effective, environmentally friendly and cost efficient. Principles from chemistry, physics, mathematics and economics are vital to my job.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
I come from a family of engineers and from a young age was interested in how things work. This made engineering a natural choice for me.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
Problem solving – when you take a project from a concept all the way to commissioning, you almost inevitably find gaps between how it’s supposed to work and what happens in practice. Bridging that gap by thinking through the process, analysing the data, considering the view of a multidisciplinary team, and eventually solving the problem is what I find most exciting about being an engineer.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
Helping to create a movement that addresses the underrepresentation of minorities in engineering. Leading the Scottish arm of AFBE-UK provides me with an opportunity to combine three things that define me: a keen interest in science and engineering, motivating other people towards a common cause, and mentoring. In 2016, it was encouraging to receive recognition for this when AFBE-UK Scotland was presented with the prestigious Chairman’s Award at the Institution of Chemical Engineers’ annual dinner.
How do you think racial parity in engineering can be achieved?
I believe racial disparity begins at the very early stages of education where people from BAME communities have neither the quality of education nor the family support to maximise their potential in STEM subjects. For many, much of the teaching material is not easily relatable. This then results in many BAME people missing out on places in the better-funded universities and eventually lower employment rates with the more reputable companies. When these young people get into employment, often after a longer period of searching than their counterparts, they come into an industry in which they have few role models in positions of influence to look up to or the support networks to help them make good career decisions.
A serious drive to achieve racial parity must therefore involve:
More research into the underrepresentation of BAME people in engineering. One of the key problems is the dearth of data in this area. Such research will help the business case for more investment in this area.
Greater investment into the funding of STEM education in inner city schools and relatively deprived areas where BAME communities often are. This would help to create an enabling environment. It should not just be up to the local council to provide this support.
Addressing the relatively low uptake of BAME students in Russell Group universities. Much is made of the low numbers of BAME students in Oxford and Cambridge but the problem affects other reputable universities as well.
Better integration between industry and schools, and government-led incentives for companies that invest in STEM in their communities.
Greater visibility of engineering role models from BAME communities in culture and society at large.
Greater support for local grassroots initiatives rather than an emphasis on large events. The role of such local groups is underappreciated but these often underfunded groups understand the needs of their communities better than most, and are often better placed to raise the aspirations of young BAME people.
Companies not only being held accountable but being rewarded and recognised for their efforts at achieving diversity and inclusion.
Has being a BAME engineer had an impact on your career that is either positive or negative?
Many engineers from BAME communities thrive in spite of, not because of, their ethnicity and I have certainly found that to be my experience. That said, being from a BAME background in the engineering industry has perhaps made me more adaptable and more willing to strive for excellence in my job. It is also fair to say that most individuals in industry judge you purely on the quality of your work not on race.
How has the ethnic diversity of the profession changed since you started working in engineering?
I now see more people of colour in leadership positions than there were when I was starting out. There are many more engineering companies founded by people of BAME origin than there once was. These entrepreneurs - for example, RAB Microfluidics run by Dr Rotimi Alabi, or Silas Adekunle, who is credited for building the world's first gaming robot - have carved out a niche in the market and are having significant impact.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
If you are academically inclined, find out what subjects you are good at and seek out after-school coaching in the subjects you are struggling with; don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t yet understand. There are now STEM groups that offer free lessons and mentoring (if you cannot afford a private tutor). If you are more practical, consider applying for an engineering graduate apprenticeship, some of the most successful engineers (for example, Jim McColl OBE) did not go to university straight away. So, in the words of Nike (not my sister), just do it!