'Engineering is the practical tool for creating a better world': Yewande Akinola

Professional Engineering

'One of my most rewarding decisions was to work hard at redefining and expanding the image of the 'engineer'': Yewande Akinola
'One of my most rewarding decisions was to work hard at redefining and expanding the image of the 'engineer'': Yewande Akinola

Innovator, engineer, visiting professor and TV presenter Yewande Akinola on her career, creating a better world, and expanding the image of the 'engineer'.

I wasn’t planning on being an engineer, I was planning on being an architect.

It seemed an obvious route as from a young age I’d always been interested in buildings and could often be found creating models of my own building designs. But when I was applying to universities, my mother suggested engineering as a possibility because as an engineer I’d have more opportunity to express my ambition of creating inspiring spaces and could also contribute towards water, energy and transport design. 


I found the ideal bachelor’s degree programme at Warwick University in engineering design and appropriate technology.

With its massive bias towards developing countries, it was also relevant for my context, having grown up in Nigeria. I applied and have never looked back. As I soon discovered, engineering is indeed the practical tool for creating a better world.


Landing my first job at Arup straight out of university was a dream come true.

I grew up fascinated with this company whose projects I’d interacted with, especially in West Africa, and so I was obviously so chuffed to be employed as a design engineer to work on water supplies and water management systems. Those first few years at Arup really influenced and shaped my career. I was involved in some amazing projects but more so I had an amazing boss who acted as a mentor. He helped me understand that problem solving was not just about slapping on an engineering solution to a problem, I had to dig deep and find the creativity to solve the problem, and particularly by using a sustainable perspective. 


My engineering journey took me from Arup to principal engineer at construction company Laing O’Rourke where I worked on projects around the world, some with values of up to £500m.

I believe in huge possibilities and I’ve discovered that there is no lack of possibilities and opportunities out there. Yes, whatever challenge you’re faced with may seem difficult, impossible even, but remember that, as the saying goes, “difficult does not mean impossible”. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that the very fact it is not impossible is all you need in terms of a mandate to be able to solve it. It’s a question of taking the challenge to bits and then dividing it up into manageable chunks. 


I also believe that kindness rocks.

Construction is unfortunately not known for being the most diverse or inclusive industry to work in, and I’m often asked how I’ve navigated it. Admittedly it has been hard at times but I’ve always stayed true to the principle of kindness. By being myself with no airs and no graces fosters an environment where people feel they can be their real selves too, they can be creative around you and that creativity equals business profitability. 


One of my most rewarding decisions was to work hard at redefining and expanding the image of the ‘engineer’.

I’ve overcome fears of gender imbalance and a lack of capability by “making engineering my own”. Confidence has been a huge factor in this. I’ve learned that we owe ourselves as individuals to be confident in who we are as nobody’s going to do it for us. There will be times when people don’t have confidence in you, but the worst thing is to not have confidence in yourself. 


Engineering is an amazing career that spans across industries and offers up so much variety.

It’s certainly kept me interested and, while I learn something new every day in my various roles, I’ve also sought out educational opportunities. I did a masters in innovation and design for sustainability at Cranfield University at the start of my career and last year I enrolled on an innovation leadership programme at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was tough but very rewarding as I feel it’s so important that we always keep learning.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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