Yewande Akinola is a chartered engineer who specialises in sustainable water supplies. She works as principal engineer for Laing O'Rourke and has hosted television shows about engineering for Channel 4 and National Geographic. Yewande has won the Institution for Engineering and Technology’s Young Woman Engineer of the Year Award and AFBE’s Exceptional Achiever Award.
Yewande featured in the Year of Engineering campaign Engineering Superheroes.
“There’s a 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.”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
I work with a construction company called Laing O’Rourke. On, for example, a commercial building with offices, a residential building or even a hotel, an architect would design how the building would look and then the design engineer helps design the mechanical, electrical and water systems (the heating, the cooling and lighting), as well as engineer the structure, while the construction company builds the building. I help ensure that we are building to meet the client’s and designer’s requirements as well as using innovative methods to manufacture and deliver parts of the building.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
From a young age, I was very interested in buildings. I was almost 100% sure that I was going to study architecture. I wanted to be able to design comfortable living spaces for people around me. Just before I started applying to universities, my mum came into my room 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'. I wasn’t 100% convinced, so I applied to four universities to study architecture and two to study engineering. I then got a place at the University of Warwick on a fantastic degree programme studying engineering, design and appropriate technology. I have never looked back.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
Lots of things! There’s a 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. On school projects, it is always great 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 and the developing parts. The fact that engineering solutions are so visible is a great reason for young people to consider careers in the profession.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
There are tons of amazing experiences that have helped me grow in my career as an engineer. I worked on huge projects when I lived in the Far East, where I spent most of my time designing super-high-rise structures, which was a great learning experience. In the role of technical coordinator, I designed a hotel that sits on a 62-hectare resort site as part of the mechanical, electrical and water team. The 40-storey hotel and its beautiful water park, with dolphin bays and water rides, will one day be my holiday destination.
How do you think racial parity in engineering can be achieved?
It is so important to continue to encourage young people from diverse backgrounds to consider engineering. We need to help them see that they are more than capable of being great engineers. It is also as important to ensure that they have the same opportunities available to them and can get on internship programmes that equip them for industry.
Has being a BAME engineer had an impact on your career that is either positive or negative?
Early on in my career, I realised there were some ‘image’ issues that I would have to overcome in my career. One of the issues being that there are very few women (and even fewer black women) in engineering in comparison to men. A black woman 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 this 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.
How has the ethnic diversity of the profession changed since you started working in engineering ?
I have seen some slight increase in numbers, but I still get very excited when I come across a team with great ethnic diversity. It is still a novelty.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
I’d say go for it! Engineering is about creativity. If you have that creativity, then you are in a good place to become an engineer. All you need to do is to learn the principles of engineering, apply them creatively 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 times out of 10, the engineer will be successful.