Alumni profile - Dr Ibilola Amao
My focus sectors are male-dominated ones such as the Energy, Power, Infrastructure, Oil and Gas Industries. I have challenged the perception that women cannot build successful careers in these male-dominated industries as CEO of my own business, and I mentor and empower future generations of women to do the same.
Why did you study Engineering at Queen Mary? Did you have a particular career path in mind?
Originally, I was supposed to have studied Aeronautical Engineering at Imperial College but my late father convinced me that we would not be designing and building airplanes in my lifetime, so I applied to Queen Mary College, as it was known back then, and they had a space on their Civil and Structural Engineering course. My father had worked as a Civil and Structural Engineer and I had watched him do his work with such passion. He really did inspire me and influence my decision.
What did you enjoy most about studying at Queen Mary and how has your experience and your degree helped you in your working life?
The academic environment and the discipline of spending time after classes in the library or in drawing classes encouraged me to develop my work ethic as well as remain focused on my studies. I enjoyed that my hours of studying each night paid off as I could add value to my next lessons and have proper conversations with my lecturers. My favourite lecturers were Dr J R Williams and Dr. Peter Wormleaton. They were very supportive of me being female and from a minority race - there was only one other lady, Hoh Lim, studying the same engineering course as me from 1982-85. Both lecturers created an inclusive environment for me to learn and they always made time to answer my questions. I believe that they recognised in me a passion and willingness to learn.
My time at Queen Mary acclimatized me to the world of research and this provided me with a solid foundation to build upon during my PhD at the University of Bradford. Although I am a naturally curious person, my final year project in hydraulics, which was supervised by Dr. Peter Wormleaton, took me much deeper into the analytics and thought processes around ‘whys’ in research. This questioning encouraged me to undertake my Ph.D. which then shaped my academic life and career. My innate love of problem-solving was truly stimulated and actualised throug my degree at Queen Mary. This is something that has stayed with me and motivated me throughout my career.
After your PhD, what were the next stepping stones in your career?
After my PhD my father advised me to train to become a Chartered Engineer, so I spent 18 months in the design office and 18 months on site at Babtie, Shaw and Morton Consulting Engineers, Wakefield Westgate. I worked on the Batley Beck Flood Alleviation Scheme as an Assistant Resident Engineer, and gained robust field, research and design office experience. Furthermore, I enjoyed maintaining my questioning of the status quo. This wealth of experience meant I was able to choose what direction I wanted my career to take. I gravitated towards using computer-aided design to solve specific problems as they arose in my home country, Nigeria. I found myself training a lot of engineers and discovered that what I really enjoyed was working with as well as empowering people and solving problems like the skills gaps we have in Nigeria. So, I gravitated more specifically towards the human resources side of engineering in the energy, power, infrastructure, oil and gas industry and I have remained in this industry for 30+ years. It has been quite a journey but my final year project at Queen Mary was a definite turning point in my life where I realised I wanted to spend a lot of time with computers and solve real world problems.
I am conscious that women must be twice as good as their male counterparts - I come from a very cultural background in Africa where the girl child is not naturally preferred to the male child, and where parents would rather invest in their son's professional development as opposed to their daughters. I decided I would go the extra mile to ensure that I was not discriminated against. Now, if employers chose a man above me for a role, they would have to justify why they are discriminating against me.
To have completed your PhD in Computer-Aided Design by the age of 23 is such a remarkable achievement. You are clearly a very driven individual; what motivated you throughout your PhD and what motivates you now?
Throughout my PhD I was an international fee-paying student, so I was conscious of the financial burden on my parents, which is why I was determined to condense my PhD into three years instead of four or five.
In terms of what motivates me in life, I am conscious that women must be twice as good as their male counterparts - I come from a very cultural background in Africa where the girl child is not naturally preferred to the male child, and where parents would rather invest in their son's professional development as opposed to their daughters. In Nigeria, you need to be on top of your game to even get your foot in the door, let alone get a seat at the table in the engineering industry. You need to be very driven, innovative and a stickler for excellence, especially to secure leadership as well as management roles. Employers and clients fear women will put marriage and babies over their careers and seeing as projects in the energy, power, infrastructure, oil and gas industry are long-term projects, people tend to want continuity in expertise and in the human resource they engage.
Fortunately, my late father was quite democratised; he invested in his daughters and for this reason, I honoured my father and continued his legacy by naming my company, Lonadek Consultants, after my maiden name. More recently, in my company and through my various professional roles, we have started establishing women in energy, entrepreneurship and business networks to support the advancement and empowerment of women in these industries. The value of these supportive networks cannot be underestimated; the first thing I learnt from my father was that I had to be professionally qualified and certified in order to be taken seriously. I became a member of the Nigerian Society of Engineers, and I am now a fellow of this society, a Fellow of the Institute of Directors and a Fellow of the Energy Institute. I decided I would go the extra mile to ensure that I was not discriminated against. Now, if employers chose a man above me for a role, they would have to justify why they are discriminating against me.
Currently you juggle many roles such as Principal Consultant and Founder of Lonadek Consultants, an engineering and technology and innovation solutions company; you are also a Fellow of the Energy Institute and a member of its Governing Council, a chartered member of the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE) and a member of the panel of judges for the Royal Academy of Engineering UK Africa Prize. If you had to choose a favourite, which role would you choose and why?
I wouldn’t choose any of these roles over the others because I am not in any of these roles in my mind - they are just tags. First and foremost, I am a problem solver and innovator and I constantly wear the lens of converting issues, problems and challenges into opportunities, projects, and solutions. I work effectively in teams and my antennae are always up trying to identify problems to solve. Ultimately, I am on a mission to create and add value through the work that I do.
What sparked your entrepreneurial journey? And what is your leadership style and how has this developed?
My entrepreneurial journey commenced accidentally. I was on a very short queue to sign up for national service and I noticed a longer queue with a lot more energy and excitement outside the next building. I then asked questions and was informed that the queue was for those who wanted to register new companies, so I immediately decided I had to do something useful with my time and registered a company. I then had to figure out what the company should do based on my experience, expertise and exposure. I knew it had to be Engineering and Technology Solutions based as this was all I had at the time. I then combined my name and surname to honour my late father.
I am a very democratic leader, driven by principles, intuition and a desire to impact lives positively. Over the years, I have moved from a knowledge-based leadership style to a people focused and community-centric leadership style.
In terms of your career so far, have you had any life-changing moments where you’ve realised you’re doing a job that you really love?
I meet people at airports, conferences, and seminars, or I have people book appointments to see me in my office or send me text messages or emails, who tell me how I have touched their lives indirectly or directly, or how training or programmes I have delivered have been defining moments in their lives. People reach out to me from 20-30 years ago and this is truly touching. The fact that I have been able to add value to lives and help people discover something they never thought they could achieve in life is more valuable than any of my achievements and any money I am paid for the projects I am involved in.
I am always thankful to God for the journey of self-discovery he has allowed me and that my DNA is configured to solve problems and create value. I don’t get up every morning to work, engineering and problem solving are simply part of my identity.
I spend a lot of time sharing my knowledge with younger women and trying to get more girls into the talent pool in male-dominated sectors in order to inspire them and bring about change. It is important that women see themselves reflected in positions of power to know that these roles are not off limits to them and to encourage them to dream big, knowing that it is not crazy or abnormal to work in a male-dominated sector. It is also important to challenge the perception that any sector should remain male-dominated.
As a Black woman in STEM, what hurdles have you had to conquer to get where you are today? Have you encountered bias or discrimination along the way?
I spent the first 15 years of my life in Nigeria and then I came to a Quaker boarding school in Saffron Walden, England which was very white and very conservative. It was here, as one of only two girls in a class of 12 and one of very few Black students in the school, where I developed a very thick skin, decided which battles were worth fighting and accepted my identity as a Black woman.
My maths teacher at this school tried to convince me that I was not as smart as his other students because I had just arrived from Nigeria, where we studied traditional maths and that I was wasting his time because I was going to end up back in Nigeria as a housewife. I had won the third best Nigerian mathematician competition before coming to England, so I knew I wasn’t dumb, and I used this as motivation. By the time I came to Queen Mary I was pretty immune to discrimination - the only problem I had was getting accommodation because a lot of landlords at the time thought Africans were noisy people, who would constantly be partying and cooking. In terms of my career, because I am a very indoor-orientated person and very focused on my work and long to medium range projects, I do not really share the same space as people who are biased, especially when it comes to my own company. Fortunately, I have not been exposed to any discrimination in any form in the past 10 years. I work in groups where we are all focused on and united by one shared goal or project so there is no time for discrimination.
Where I have spent so much of my life split between Nigeria and England, I have learnt how to mix and match cultures. I can adjust to the male chauvinistic culture in Nigeria, and I can blend into the culture in England, where the discrimination is more racially driven. In Nigeria I must be the best mum, wife, and employer to achieve my goals and objectives. In England, I spend most of my time in boardrooms and I work with people who understand the value I add so I do not need to justify why I am in the room or why I deserve a seat at the table.
You are an advocate for the empowerment of youth, women and girls in STEM, IT and entrepreneurship. Why do you think it is important for women and girls to study STEM and IT subjects and then pursue careers in these sectors?
I believe that in any industry and especially at decision-making levels, diversity is key. The herd mentality can be very destructive and can halt progress, creativity and innovation. Women and girls are needed in STEM industries to bring fresh perspectives. Most projects in energy, power, infrastructure, oil and gas are huge ticket items worth hundreds and billions of dollars. It is not ideal if men are solely responsible for these capital projects, especially if they look at them purely in terms of return on investment, and do not take into consideration wider society. In communities, women, children and the environment are very important. Women must be at the table to ensure that all perspectives and angles are taken into consideration.
For more women to be seated at the table and in leadership roles, we need to go to schools and get girls involved in STEM from a young age. Women who already exist in these areas need to go the extra mile to mentor these younger generations, to be role models, and to show that it is possible to work and build a home at the same time. We also need to make a case to women starting out in the industry that it is normal to return to work after having children - careers in STEM industries and in any industry don’t have to end when children are born. In recent times especially, we have realised that IT empowers women to be able to work remotely and virtually and balance childcare duties.
Huge congratulations on being recognised as a Forbes Africa Rising Star in 2019; you are an excellent role model for women and girls. Why do you think it is important that women see themselves reflected in positions of power?
I spend a lot of time sharing my knowledge with younger women and trying to get more girls into the talent pool in male-dominated sectors in order to inspire them and bring about change. It is important that women see themselves reflected in positions of power to know that these roles are not off limits to them and to encourage them to dream big, knowing that it is not crazy or abnormal to work in a male-dominated sector. It is also important to challenge the perception that any sector should remain male-dominated. I am trying to encourage those responsible for the branding around energy, power, infrastructure, oil and gas to include graphics of women in hard hats or as professionals in order to normalise seeing women in these roles and in this industry.
Linking to the previous question, are there any women who have inspired you in your life and throughout your career to date?
Doctor Olatokunbo Somolu was the first female Nigerian Civil and Structural Engineer who got a PhD. I sought her out when I returned to Nigeria and she has remained my mentor ever since. My four sisters also inspire me; they challenge and encourage me, and they gave me the support system I required when having children.
I don’t believe as a female engineer that you need to stick to female role models and mentors. I have a lot of male HeForShe colleagues who have encouraged me, and I wouldn’t be where or who I am today had it not been for my late father and certain male colleagues. Male sponsors are just as, and sometimes more, important than female sponsors because they can help women break into new grounds – there is no way a woman will get into a room where women don’t already exist, unless a man invites them.
It is important that women see themselves reflected in positions of power to know that these roles are not off limits to them and to encourage them to dream big, knowing that it is not crazy or abnormal to work in a male-dominated sector. It is also important to challenge the perception that any sector should remain male-dominated.
What does Women’s History Month mean to you and why do you think it is important to celebrate it?
Women’s History Month commemorates the progression of women empowerment. It reminds us to be good role models, strive to improve on the past and bequeath a better legacy to the next generation. Our journey of juggling expectations while working to resolve limitations imposed on us by society is a continuum.
Are there any milestones throughout Women’s History that you feel particularly inspired by?
The movie Hidden Figures resonates with me on many fronts. What the “great three” achieved without computers in a very racist system, where using the same restrooms with their colleagues was not allowed, is quite inspirational and humbling.
The theme for International Women’s Day this year is #ChooseToChallenge. How have you challenged gender inequality in your industry throughout your career?
I #ChooseToChallenge in Engineering Technology and Innovation Solutions. My focus sectors are male-dominated ones such as the Energy, Power, Infrastructure, Oil and Gas Industries. I have challenged the perception that women cannot build successful careers in these male-dominated industries as CEO of my own business, and I mentor and empower future generations of women to do the same.
Finally, what do you do to unwind in your spare time? What makes you happy in life?
I love music, dancing, singing, praying, eating out, travelling, and normally, back home in Nigeria, I am very busy with children as I teach teenagers in Sunday school at church. Due to COVID, this is the longest I have stayed in one country in 40 years so I cannot wait to return to Nigeria!
This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield. If you would like to get in touch with Ibilola or engage her in your work, please contact Nicole at email@example.com.