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Ifeoma Noelin Okolie talks about her engineering career journey and how Thales is reaching out to improve diversity across the company.
My career journey has taken some interesting twists and turns – at the age of about five, as a young girl growing up in a Nigerian university town, Nsukka, I knew I wanted to be an engineer. I had uncles and family friends who were engineers and I saw fancy pictures of them on offshore platforms, looking like they were doing something really important. That’s where I got my motivation.
At school, I was very good at all the science subjects, such as mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. At the time, there was a strong gender-career bias in Nigeria and it was not common for young women to study engineering. My parents told me that because I was equally good at biological sciences, I might consider a career in medicine, rather than engineering. As academics themselves, they were ambitious for me and wanted me to go to university, but they thought the medical profession might be more accepting of women.
I studied medicine for three years, but I realised it was not for me – it’s a vocation and I just didn’t have the passion for it and hence wasn’t exceling as I was used to. It is so important to be passionate about what you do, and for me, that’s engineering. It’s better to be a happy engineer than a miserable doctor. So, I moved to the UK to study chemical engineering and the rest is history.
After I got my chemical engineering degree – graduating as the best in my class – and a Masters in process business management, I took up an internship with Fish4Dogs, a pet food company. It was my first opportunity to prove myself. I started as a quality engineer and this became a quality manager role. I was able to build a structured quality management system, which was ISO9001 certified within just 10 months of joining the business – my first job was quite daunting, but amazing.
I then worked as a functional safety consultant for Rockwell Automation, a process engineer and process safety champion at GSK, and a senior safety engineer, product owner and lead safety engineer at Elekta, before I started at Thales last year as a project safety and environmental manager. My role at Elekta confirmed for me that I really wanted to pursue a career in safety management and safety engineering. I am now a chartered safety engineer, which is not just a great qualification to have, but it sets an example for others to follow.
My role at Thales involves ensuring the systems we create are safe and meet international safety standards and guidelines, as well as aerospace requirements. Our work covers industries such as aviation and military, so it’s a lot of responsibility. It’s very challenging because there can be serious consequences if there’s a safety incident, so it definitely keeps me on my toes.
As a Black woman, I have found that Thales is a very supportive workplace. The company is aware of the need for diversity and inclusivity – there's a difference between just being aware and taking action and the networks reflect this. We have a network called We in Thales, which gives people from all backgrounds a place to talk about challenges they face in the workplace. Then there is the REACH Network, which focuses on giving Black people and people of ethnic minority heritage a place to share stories and join initiatives to advance career paths within the business.
My colleague Lilly Rickenbach runs WiTh UK, Thales’ gender diversity network, and I am the STEM Initiatives representative. Part of my role with the network is to try and get more women interested in engineering, especially Black women. Women have so much to contribute to all companies, there should always be a place for us to develop our career paths and this is happening every day at Thales.
We are building initiatives to try and change and make people feel more included, as well as offering opportunities to a diverse range of people. Our apprenticeship, practical work experience programmes, sponsorship of PhD students and graduate schemes give young people the opportunity to learn about working in different departments, which helps them decide where they want to focus their careers. Young graduates can also benefit from mentorship programmes with senior engineers.
Outreach to schools is really important too. We spend a lot of time creating awareness of the opportunities within STEM and engineering. Events such as school STEM days, talking to after-school clubs and speed dating-style events are great. I will always happily share my story and let everyone know I’m passionate about people achieving their dreams. If a Black girl at a school can see that someone who looks like her can succeed in engineering, that is so powerful. They will know that they can do it too.
In terms of my own career development, Thales has formed a partnership with Solaris, which provides global executive leadership training for Black women. It is a year-long course and I am about halfway through – it has changed my life. It has enabled me to effect more change at Thales and empowered me as a leader who can help develop Black talent within the business.