Hear my story: Oyin Talabi
Oyin Talabi, an energy engineer based in our London office recently spoke to Vercida about being a role model for the UK BAME engineering community to celebrate Black History Month
Be brave and be part of the change. If you are successful in your field remember to give back and tell the younger generation about your journey.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey
I grew up in Nigeria and then moved to the UK just over nine years ago. I joined a school in Essex, which was a bit of a culture shock. I’d moved from an African country which is predominantly black, to a mostly white community; with only four black people in my year. It was a big change for me, but I settled in and completed Sixth form there. On completion of my A Levels, I went on to Loughborough University to study chemical engineering. During my studies, I took a year out to work in a refinery. I also undertook a placement at Columbia University which stemmed my interested in renewable energy. Upon graduating, I decided to work in a sustainable energy field, so I now work in London as an Energy Engineer at BuroHappold.
Was this path to becoming an engineer a clear journey for you?
It was relatively straight forward, at least at the point I decided I wanted to be an engineer. I didn’t get the best support from everyone when I decided on engineering. At this point I was still in Nigeria and there was a definite bias towards males taking up these kind of roles. I was pushed to consider other subjects which were more ‘female-friendly’ by teachers and relatives. This push-back and gender bias had the opposite effect on me to what was intended. Instead of being discouraged I became more determined to do it. Sadly I’m aware that this isn’t the case for many other girls and young women, and I know of people who have been dissuaded in following their aspirations. With this in mind, I am keen to be a role model to others to show them that they can get into the field and make it their own. Gender and race doesn’t and shouldn’t determine your career path.
Did you feel the impetus was solely towards gender bias or was it a race issue also?
In Nigeria, it was definitely gender bias, yet having said that ever since I started looking for black female role models in the UK, I don’t feel there is a healthy pool to choose from – or a clear presence. This is especially affecting young black girls who are interested in pursuing a Science, Technology, Engineering and/or Mathematics (STEM) career. Growing up and looking at inspirational figures from within the industry now – I have found myself mainly seeing white males, not that that is wrong in itself – I’d just like to see more diversity and to see BAME and female role models in the field.
Were you able to find any role models who were a reflection of you as you pursued your career?
The biggest impact came from a recent movie, which is also one of my favourite films. 2016’s Hidden Figures is an incredible work, telling the stories of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson; all women of colour working in the STEM field. The film showed their struggle with racial prejudice and gender bias. It showed how history buries stories, and how often important figures from Black History can be lost or forgotten. Movies like this are important ways of getting these inspirational people into the mainstream. This has had an impact on me, and others like me, looking to forge a career in engineering or the extended STEM industries.
What do you think can be done to improve the representation of BAME people, especially BAME women, within the STEM industries?
I think companies have an obligation to publicise and represent minorities in a public facing way. At BuroHappold, where I work, we often have spotlight social media posts on various employees including a minority figure in the company. This is a good way to encourage young or aspiring minorities to enter into a STEM role. This aside, I think there is an obligation for people like myself, people from a minority background, to go back into schools. It is important we give up some time to tell young people that it doesn’t matter what gender, race, ability or sexual orientation you are – if you work and study hard there is a place for you in the industry. It’s not good enough just to do what’s right for yourself, you need to put back into the community. I’d advise others in a similar position as I am, in any industry, to seek the many initiatives out there for mentoring the younger generation. This is usually beneficial to both the mentor and mentee. You can give as little as an hour a month, but this could make a huge difference to a young person who feels alone in their pursuit of happiness and fulfilment.
Can you give more detail on what you have done in terms of mentoring?
I visit different schools and educational institutions speaking to a wide range of age groups, on average, two times a month. Recently, I spoke at UCL’s Chemical Engineering Widening Participation summer school about a degree in chemical engineering. This brings students (year 12 and 13) of different socio-economic backgrounds together to gain an insight into university life. Some of these students are the first ones in their family to go to university and may be short on role models like themselves. This summer school gives them a chance to understand what a career in engineering could entail and to meet professionals in the field. Seeing someone who has stuck through university, graduated and is now working in their chosen field is incredibly important. I also recently spoke at Christ the King Sixth Form College in Lewisham. This session was aimed towards girls . The session looked at ‘what do I want to be?’, ‘what challenges might I face?’ and ‘how can I achieve that?’. The girls wrote these ideas as a letter to their future selves and we looked at real life examples, like my own story, and the challenges and wins along the way. Also, if you want to do this, I would highly recommend it as it is interesting and enriching for you as an individual as well.
Can you tell us what Black History Month Means to you?
Personally I see it as a month to recognise the challenges that black people have faced throughout history, and the BAME community as a whole. It’s a chance to celebrate those who have fought to get us where we are, those who have pushed for freedom and equality. Although I don’t think that one month is enough, it is all we have to highlight things at the moment – at least on a national scale like this. I see it as a good time to reflect and to revisit our history and see where we are now. One of the things I think we should focus on is: where we are now and how do we move forward? This will serve as a good record which we can look back on over the coming decades as an accurate record of change.
Any contemporary BAME figures who inspire you?
There are a few people who stand out for me, these include Trevor Noah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Oprah and Michelle Obama. One thing all of these people have in common is the fact that they’ve used the platform they have to raise awareness about the issues they’ve faced, whether it’s in comedy, writing or using the world political stage. As positive role models for the younger generation, I think they’re doing a great job.
What advice would you give to someone trying to get into a career in the STEM industries?
Don’t let your background stop you. Sadly I know quite a few people from a minority background, who were studying engineering and decided to go into a different career as they felt under represented in the world of engineering. If you make this decision things will never change. Be brave and be part of the change. If you do go into the STEM field, remember to give back and tell the younger generation about your journey.
What advice would you give to employers and recruiters?
First of all, don’t make excuses. When challenged with issues such as the lack of diversity in leadership roles, most engineering employers are quick to refer to the past, saying ‘you should have seen it 20 years ago!’. I understand that if the people aren’t there, there’s little you can do that minute. However, it’s about what you can do now and in the future to address this. Don’t make excuses relative to the past. Offer work experiences to children from minority or economically poor backgrounds, get into schools and showcase the diversity in your organisation. Look for talent beyond the bubbles of limited recruitment pools you may currently have. Reach out to girls and young women; I still only see a handful of women in the workplace in STEM roles, especially in engineering. Diversity isn’t just about representing race and gender, opportunities should be there for everyone, including people of varying physical and mental abilities, different ages, sexual orientation and religious backgrounds.