Women in innovation - Diane Gilpin

Leigh Jenkins
Marketing Manager - Innovation | Enterprise Europe Network
8th March 2017

The second in a three part series of interviews with South West female entrepreneurs, sharing their experience and advice to women in innovation.

Diane Gilpin designed and leads the Smart Green Shipping Alliance, SGSA. It is a collaborative industry initiative created to build technically, commercially and environmentally superior systems solutions for the shipping sector.

It accelerates projects through co-creation, transferring technology and knowledge from offshore yacht racing, F1, renewable energy, aviation and defence to complement deep commercial maritime expertise.

What is a typical working day for you? 

Whatever the weather, I have my horses and chickens to take care of every morning and evening. Being in nature is grounding and there’s nothing like shovelling manure to keep you humble. Most mornings I take a run or a brisk walk to clear my head and plan my day.

Right now I’m at my desk at home, writing investment proposals, liaising with HMRC, reviewing financial projections and risk registers and refining our market analysis. 

I spend a lot of time with members of the Alliance. We’re developing technical, analysis and financial tools to accelerate the uptake of maritime renewables. Alliance members are all experts in their fields and my job is to learn from them and weave new solutions for our particular challenge of decarbonising the particular segment of shipping where renewables will work best. 

I also speak at a lot of events and conferences. Sustainable innovation is very provocative in the world of shipping, it’s good to be able to promote my vision for the future and be instrumental in the first wave of change.

What do you enjoy most about your job? 

Learning about the shipping industry and building relationships. Shipping is the lifeblood of global trade. It is complex and fascinating and filled with interesting people. 90% of everything we consume comes by sea. Making it future-proof is like playing 3D chess, there are so many different aspects. 

The most important and most underestimated part of any business is how people work together. I learned during my time in Formula 1 and yacht racing that understanding the dynamics between people, nurturing the differences and enabling a dynamic team is critical to success.

It is our collective vision to deliver a 100% renewable powered ship within five years that keeps our alliance motivated. It’s like F1 and the America’s Cup combined and on steroids, and we’re racing against the ticking clock of climate change. Never has it been so important to win. 

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

Knowing where best to spend my money, time, and energy. I get invited to attend and contribute to a lot of industry and government consultations, seminars and working parties. I find I can easily get distracted by other people’s agendas. I find it difficult assessing the cost-benefits, having to consider the potential short and long term value of covering exorbitant train fares and all the other costs -  out of my savings - so I can contribute at thought leadership events to influence well paid corporate and government executives to recognise the financial opportunities arising from decarbonising shipping….which seems blindingly obvious to me!

What are the challenges facing women in innovation?

Innovation is hard. That’s OK, it’s meant to be. But it’s become a bit of a ‘thing’ and consequently process driven. This, it seems to me, is a paradox. It’s not possible to predict how or where the best innovations will come from. Mainstream business and academics, in my experience, can be quite disparaging portraying innovators as ‘mad men in sheds’. The thing about true innovation is it does look different! Women are often working in new and unfamiliar ways – motivated by wider societal goals and innovating through conversations, synchronicity, creativity, intuition and the weaving together of different ideas from across an interconnected world. These feminine attributes, inherently less structured, are often considered a bit “bonkers” in the rigid, structured and logical masculine world in which we operate. We need to find ways to integrate both approaches to create more balanced and sustainable solutions.

What are 3 key things you think are important to succeed as a woman in business?

Credibility - building an Alliance has given everyone comfort on this risky journey. We gain strength from each other. My job is catalysing the vision and through the Alliance I’m standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Lloyd’s Register, TATA Steel, Rolls-Royce. 

Networks – The SGSA feels like we’re nurturing a living thing. We connect on a human level and that contributes to both my personal resilience and that of the business. We’ve forged deep connections, we have fun and great friendships have been borne out of taking on this global challenge.

Belief - tenacity and commitment to the project : they can’t beat you if you won’t give up!

What's the best piece of business advice you've ever been given?

I’m not sure that it’s business advice but the book, ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho is a lesson in trusting the flow. Awful things happen to the main character, that in the end lead to exactly what he wanted. This theme recurs all through the novel, "When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realise their dream."

Why did you choose a career in science?

I’d say innovation rather than science. And I didn’t choose it, I fell in to it (see The Alchemist!) In my life I’ve been given fantastic opportunities and I’ve always grasped them with both hands but with no clear long term agenda. But looking back now every single thing I’ve been privileged enough to do – be part of launching the first cellular phone network, flying the world with F1 world champions, racing a great horse – has all contributed to me having everything I need right now to deliver the ‘Flagship of the Future’ as a global symbol of change. It’s a thrilling career. 

Do you have any tips for people looking to progress their career in innovation?

Be human - develop your emotional intelligence, be authentic and courageous. Walk through open doors.

What women inspire you and why?

I am honoured to be mentored by Dianne Dillon Ridgely, the US environmentalist, human rights activist and adviser to 3 US Presidents. We met when she was the keynote speaker at the Tomorrow’s Natural Business Conference and I was a panelist. As the granddaughter of African American slaves her unique perspective on potential and possibilities is absolutely inspiring. She speaks of embracing five generations and knows no limits to what woman will achieve, nor will she allow me to accept any limits. As a Director at Interface Inc, she was a global pioneer of commercial sustainability and now she has generously offered to mentor me. I feel humbled, but she would likely give me a ticking off for that! 

What are the biggest challenges for the future generation of women in innovation?

We have created a very masculine world where drive, assertiveness and goal-focus is leading our species towards ecological catastrophe. This is not to say that these qualities are not desirable in addressing the great upheavals we face but that they must be balanced with feminine strengths like intuition, compassion and spontaneity. As women we have to be courageous in nurturing ourselves and, although it’s a much over-used phrase, recognising our authentic purpose. Women in innovation have to develop new things and model new ways of being.

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