Women in innovation - Dr Becky Sage

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

Good ideas for innovation can come from anyone. Yet, women are half as likely to start a new business and the ratio of UK women in entrepreneurial activity is almost half the number of men. Boosting female entrepreneurship could deliver approximately £60 billion extra to the UK economy.

Whilst women continue to make inspiring and valuable contributions in the field of innovation they have to fight harder and face a number of barriers – fewer opportunities to study, recognition for their work and the single biggest challenge in securing funding.

In 2016 Innovate UK launched their infocus campaign, which seeks to encourage gender diversity in innovation and address the challenges women face. This includes access to relevant role models, and because women are less likely to seek external sources of finance, increase awareness of how simple it is to apply for game-changing funding. So far, Innovate UK have presented 15 awards with winners receiving a monetary prize and tailored business support package.

So what is it like for women in innovation in the South West? Here is the first in a series of interviews with Innovate UK award winners, sharing their experience and advice to women in innovation.

Dr Becky Sage - CEO Interactive Scientific Ltd (iSci)

As CEO at Interactive Scientific Ltd (iSci) my focus is the development of Nano Simbox (NSB), an immersive digital platform that brings to life the wiggling and jiggling atoms and molecules that underpin our natural world. Solving many 21st century global challenges will rely on a populous who can combine scientific skills with a broader range of skills and we need the learning and education tools to enable the development of such skills. 

Our goal is for NSB to become a community driven, molecular portal which enables anyone to push the limits of the molecular world in a safe environment, growing curiosity and expanding the frontiers of science. 

I believe that we need to have tools to connect the full scientific ecosystem, from learners in school, to cutting edge research, to the innovations of the future, to the societal challenges that are underpinned by science research and developing a more diverse work force with the scientific skills, confidence and intuition to build a healthy, sustainable future. 

We have won several awards for innovation, I was a WISE 2016 finalist and winner in the Women in Innovation In Focus award 2016.  We have generated over £0.8 million to seed the development of Nano Simbox, and as CEO my responsibilities include: business planning, pitching and funding; strategy development; running events and marketing activity; leading product development and design; presenting; brand development; team and resource management; running the board; establishing process. We are pre-commercial so we are building the leads list and for this I do a lot of interacting with the market. 

What is a typical working day for you? 

There isn’t one! I use 7 until 9 am to get things done - it’s my headspace time, I write or get on top of my emails. I quickly see the effects if I miss a morning.

On the days that I head into the office, it’s to collaborate with the team - we work together on design, development, a storyboard or mock-up. There aren’t many days which don’t involve a sheet of A3 paper, some post-its and Sharpies; creativity is a large part of my work. We take  teachers and get student feedback to create new products and solve design challenges.

I am frequently off-site at events or exhibiting and pitching therefore a lot of my job is handing over responsibility to my colleagues, making sure that they have the information they need and understand expectations to get the best possible outcome.

On a regular day I try to switch off by 7:15pm and go training – if I work past this time I find it hard to have the space to process because between 7am and 7pm there doesn’t tend to be much time to stop and take stock. When I don’t stop in the evening I find it difficult to sleep - and getting enough sleep is very important to me.

What do you enjoy most about your job? 

Ahhh…. Those moments when everything comes together. The fruition of months of hard work, having prioritised communication in all directions, working collectively, that moment when we as a team emerge from the chaos and jointly arrive at our destination. I think it’s essential to take a moment and acknowledge progress, just like a runner who looks back at how far they’ve come for motivation, so celebrating our successes whatever they are, brings us together and spurs us on to keep going.

I never fail to be excited by the fact that we’re co-creating with an extended family of educators and students working in their natural environment to create a vision for the future of education. A sixth former can grab a pen and scribble on a white board proclaiming, ‘This is how I would teach a year 7 photosynthesis’ and we can make their idea a reality. Question and answer sessions with students illustrate the impact we have on them and that brings me joy.

We’re creating spaces where students feel valued whereas my experience in science from being the only girl at A level physics was one of isolation. I’m not sure that we’ve left those days behind yet, and I will continue to persevere to ensure that no one feels isolated as a science learner or within their career.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

Prioritising - so much to do and so little time in which to do it. I feel as if I can never win, I am continually prioritising. Fortunately, I am surrounded by the most amazing team, diverse and strong. When we’re all on board and going in the same direction we’re unstoppable.

What are the challenges facing women in innovation?

I have often felt as if I’m continually being scrutinised and being judged on a narrow subset of rules, it may just be my own insecurities but I do feel like people are expecting me to fail, or not expecting anything of me at all, the challenge is to block that out and continue towards my own goals. 

I have spent a lot of time and effort establishing my profile, having a PhD has helped enormously, in terms of garnering respect from people. The feeling of isolation has been prevalent throughout my career and at times I’ve felt as if I’ve had to turn off my personality, self-censoring what I wear, what I say and how I say it, how I behave. I’m sure that I’m not the only woman in science who’s been hired because they needed a woman on the team, only to be made to feel disrespected and unsupported once I have started doing a job – fortunately I am no longer in this position. There is a very long way to go to make the industry realise that the problems are with the established status-quo and until working practices improve in the STEM industry, diversity in gender and ethnicity cannot markedly change. I watched the film Hidden Figures recently and it upset me because some scenarios that women of colour faced in the 1950’s were very reminiscent of my experiences in the 2000’s. We are not talking about individuals but about systematic change that is required to eradicate micro-aggressions. 

Knowing who to trust when I need to ask for help has led to some interesting moments and misunderstandings in the past, I have had many moments that I would call inappropriate because people haven’t known how to talk to a woman in a science or engineering environment – how is this still the case in 2017!

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

Tenacity - so many times I could have given up but my perseverance has been rewarded. Once your foundation is strong, you can build high and go far. Each time I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone and accepted an offer to speak, good things have happened.

Authenticity - having the confidence to be myself. Being honest with myself and others means that I know my boundaries, what serves me and when to say no.

Collaboration - I’ve always found it to be the answer, reaching out to either offer or ask for help, surround yourself with good people. I’m always looking to improve my personal skills, I’ve worked with a coach for a few years who taught me the value of active listening, not just with my colleagues but also our customers and consumers. It’s made a huge difference to the business.

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

Have fun! Find the enjoyment in what you are doing as you’re always going to be up against it and feel exhausted.

Why did you choose a career in science?

I actually don’t think of myself as having a career in science as my day-to-day life doesn’t involve doing research, although I guess I do, as we are a company that creates science learning and research tools and it is important for me to bring a passion and understanding of science into my role. I was trained in science through my degree and PhD and I use science amongst many things in my role as CEO in Interactive Scientific. Science is a methodology and a training in critical thinking which, alongside the science content we use in our products, aids me to be a good innovator, that is why I think it is a good route to go down and why it serves me now. 

For me, choosing science was the easy option. In my teens, I was a serious gymnast competing regularly. When it came to choosing my A level subjects my training was my priority. I chose the least demanding subjects in time and effort so that I could focus on winning those medals. I don’t advise this as a career development strategy – it is just my reality and it has led me to a very interesting and varied career. 

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

These are exciting times, we’re at an intersection of great social and technological change which is where innovation occurs. Anybody can be part of it, identify what’s important to you and find a way to align with it. Be on the lookout to upskill, if you don’t feel that you’ve got what you need, sign up to online courses, adopt a growth mindset, give yourself time and make the changes you want to see.

What women inspire you and why?

I have never needed inspiration to work hard and to push forward in my field, I am innately driven to succeed far more than anyone could ever externally push me. 

I have required inspiration to be considerate about the health of myself and the world around me, to understand my values and to try to be a person who can be successful in all senses of the word. To be a successful human not just successful in my career, although I believe these things are completely entwined. 

I read Maya Angelou’s 5 book autobiography when I was 15 and it inspired me, although I don’t think I had seen enough of the world to truly understand it and apply it to me. I re-read it the year she died and it meant so much more. She had to do what she had to do, regardless of what people might think of her – she was fearless. I try to be a bit more fearless every day.

Ava DuVernay – Have you seen 13th? Using storytelling to inspire change and empower others to make a change. I have been trying to learn a lot about the challenges facing different races as it helps me to understand segregation and discrimination without being clouded by my own experiences. Also with this in mind I think that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s essay – we should all be feminists - is the best, most articulate description of feminism.

Emma Watson – She is still so young and yet she has so much class and articulation in her message. She has been criticised for championing feminism from the position of a white, privileged female – but which other position can she come from – I think that it is admirable that she uses her platform for a number of causes. She is an avid reader and I wish I read more as I love it and it gives my thoughts space, so I use her to encourage me to read more, books are a major source of inspiration to me. She also combines her work on feminism with being a Disney princess – that is a good measure of success if you ask me, being pretty and playful and girlie is NOT counter to being serious, intelligent and driven. 

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

On a widescale level, I think that the biggest challenge is keeping up with the speed of change and solving problems for which the goal posts are constantly changing – this is an opportunity too. 

On an individual level the challenge is finding your purpose and not wavering, seeing things through to fruition when it feels difficult. Women have all the capability and passion to do anything, and though it may be hard the doors are all open now (or at least ajar). The biggest challenge is to decide on the most important change or the change where you feel that you can make the biggest impact, this will help you to override the day to day challenges. And don’t forget to do it in an inclusive way – getting more women in innovation is not about segregation it is about integration – find the best in everyone around you. 

More info at: www.nanosimbox.com

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