Olivia Sweeney has previously told us about her time at Lush. She has now moved into investigating the circular economy to reduce waste and increase recycling.

To celebrate Black History Month, Olivia has shared her journey in engineering. 


Why did you choose to go into engineering?

I did not really understand what engineering was even when I decided to study it. I chose Chemical Engineering as it fitted my A Level choice, and I believed it was the best way to equip myself with the practical skills to make a tangible change in the field of sustainability.


What do you like most about being an engineer?

I love the fact that it leaves me fearless in the face of problems. I know that I can take something apart that is scary and daunting, so I can understand it and come up with a solution. Another thing I love is the people I get to meet and work with. Engineering is a very collaborative/social discipline, so I am always learning and working with amazing, intelligent, passionate people.


Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.

Getting to be interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour as part of the This is Engineering campaign. It is such an iconic radio show, that has such a wide listenership and being able to talk about something I am passionate about was an honour and privilege. To be sat in BBC broadcasting house, round the table with Jenni Murray and other outstanding female engineers was also very surreal!


From ‘fragrance finder’ to ‘sustainable systems expert’, how has your career changed?

I have never known exactly what I wanted to do, I just knew I wanted to do something to help drive forward sustainability and regeneration. I also do not think I am the kind of person who can sit still for too long! Working at Lush was an amazing first job, I had freedom to learn and do lots of things and travel all around the world. During this time, I discovered the circular economy, and began to see waste as more valuable than just rubbish. Which is what drove me to my new role, I am collecting data and first hand research to help drive behaviour change, inform policy, take steps towards and circular economy and allow us to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle better.


How do you think racial parity in engineering can be achieved?

That is a big and hard and multifaceted question. Engineers from ethnic minorities currently working and from history being showcased and celebrated for their successes is one step, visibility is a big part of encouraging a more diverse future workforce. Creating a more inclusive, supportive workspace – large parts of the engineering industry are not designed or accommodating of differences, whatever that maybe, to prevent people leaving the industry this must be addressed. And finally, a better understanding of what engineering is, and how it can benefit you. By only seeing a single type of person within this field of work it is easy to assume that the benefits of this aren’t meant for you, this is not the case, engineers of all forms help build our futures. To make that better for everyone, everyone must be part of it.


Has being a BAME engineer had an impact on your career either positive or negative?

As a mixed race, female engineer I am a minority, but I did not think about that or even realise it until a fair way through my studies. I am determined and stubborn, so nothing was going to stop me achieving what I wanted to, that includes other opinions. I do not work in the traditional engineering sector; however this doesn’t mean I have been part of a diverse work force. I am lucky and have found networks like AFBE UK at the very beginning of my career, so have felt supported and seen the successes of other BAME Engineers. I think it has impacted my career positively so far, a lot of the outreach opportunities I have had are around further BAME engagement, and quite often I am the only ‘other’ voice in the room, this gives me a unique perspective, and the power to influence.


How has the ethnic diversity of the profession changed since you started working in engineering?

I have only been working 3 years, which is not enough time to see substantial change. The environmental sector is one of the least ethnically diverse in the UK, so big change is needed. People want to change and be better, with the recent BLM movement this feels more urgent, but a feeling isn’t action, isn’t policy and isn’t large scale change. I have spoken at events at Nottingham and Edinburgh University since graduation though, and I can say that the faces looking back at me were much more diverse than I was part of during my studies, so this is a positive step.


What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?

Go for it. It is probably not going to be what you expect, or the image that is portrayed to you. It will be better, what you make it, and help build and be part of what you are passionate about.

I have found it rewarding, and I continue to learn within my own field but also be amazed by what engineers continue to do.