Brittany Harris is the CEO of Qflow and a deep tech founder on EXPLORE 2.0, which visited Silicon Valley in February 2023. Her journey with the Enterprise Hub began when she joined Launchpad programme in 2018. That same year, she founded Qflow in order to ‘leave the world in a better place than we found it.’
Qflow’s mission to bring construction sites in line with a net zero future, started with environmental factors and specialised in material and waste management. As a female CEO in a traditionally male-dominated sector of engineering, we asked Brittany about the challenges she’s faced, and any insight that may have come from being an ‘outlier’ in the industry.
Qflow was founded to achieve my vision of a construction industry that uses only the resources it needs in the most efficient way possible. Construction is responsible for more than 11% of global carbon emissions (nearly double that of aviation) and contributes to at least 40% of landfill waste.
Industry regulation and investment is pushing contractors and developers to decarbonise, but doing so across a highly fragmented and under-digitised supply chain is near impossible.
Current approaches rely on manual data entry that is time consuming and error prone, resulting in poor quality data and insufficient information to make decisions on how to help their supply chain cut carbon and waste. $1.93 trillion EXTRA dollars are spent globally every year in the construction industry due to bad data, poor decision making and the resulting avoidable rework. This is a huge problem, and a massive opportunity. If we are to tackle global climate change, we must find a way to turn our linear way of operating into a circular one. There are many pieces to this puzzle and one key piece is good foundational data on the materials we have available for reuse.
When we founded Qflow we originally focused on tracking all environmental impacts of construction, including waste, materials, water, air quality and noise. As we worked with more and more clients, we found that the challenges and impact of water air quality and noise were primarily experienced by large scale projects in high density areas, and that these did not carry the same economic imperative to fix. However, the pain of waste and materials management was felt by all sites and carried a significant financial penalty if done wrong. To focus our effort and accelerate our impact, we pivoted to focus just on material and waste management. This feeds into multiple parts of the construction process, from cost and quality control all the way up to carbon and ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance). This meant we could support multiple teams and increase the value and impact of Qflow across the construction industry.
For women in entrepreneurship, it’s death by a thousand cuts. There is no one single massive barrier to overcome, and all the little ones come from all angles. From the bottom up, there’s a lack of role models for women to look up to and see themselves in, creating the idea that it is possible to be there and do that. From the top down, investors, employees, and even clients do not believe (mostly subconsciously) that a woman-led business will be successful and won’t take the bet to join them on the journey. And even from the side-lines, society does not offer sufficient support for working mums or stay-at-home dads to create the space for women to take on these high-intensity careers. We need more equality of opportunity in this sector of engineering, where women only make up 16% of the workforce.
One of the greatest barriers to women feeling welcome in construction is the perceived machismo culture. I think women are perfectly aware that they are emotionally and intellectually capable of being highly successful in construction, but they fear (often rightly so) the culture will not enable them to thrive in this industry. This culture doesn’t just inhibit women, it also does men a great disservice. A change in culture could go a long way to supporting everyone in this industry to thrive. Many companies succeed in delivering an inclusive and supportive culture, and they often find themselves with a more diverse and healthy workforce. This transformation will not only help to attract more women, but it will also help to support more men, and ultimately improve creativity and resilience across the industry.
None of these barriers are insurmountable, as we’ve found. But so many amazing female engineers and founders do stumble, and the relentless grit and determination it takes to keep getting up and pushing through can be exhausting. Male founders face hurdles too, but possibly not as many, and not with such insidious persistence as those experienced by female founders.
Without these three things, I wouldn’t be where I am, but the journey had certainly made me hone and reinforce these traits. There are countless times when people will tell you you’re wrong, you messed up, you can’t do this. You must pick yourself up when you fall, back yourself, and be able to continue to listen openly to those that may disagree with you. I also think a certain amount of naivete, and bloody mindedness don’t go a miss either!
With the right team and company culture, it is an amazingly fun and incredibly rewarding career to be a CEO in this industry. I never planned on becoming an ‘entrepreneur’ I just wanted to solve a problem, and this seemed like the best way to go about it. The Enterprise Hub opened the first door into that world, and here we are. Qflow was somewhat formed in the basement of the Royal Academy of Engineering at the Taylor Centre, and nurtured by the Enterprise Hub. Now we hope to continue our mission of building a more sustainable, more inclusive future.
Qflow was co-founded by Brittany Harris, a civil engineer, to enable construction teams to eliminate hundreds of hours of work, and £100,000s of wasted materials, while cutting carbon and waste from the construction process. Follow Qflow on Twitter and LinkedIn to learn more about their products and services.
The Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub supports the UK’s brightest technology and engineering entrepreneurs to realise their potential.
We run four programmes for entrepreneurial engineers at different career stages. Each one offers equity-free funding, an extended programme of mentorship and coaching, and a lifetime of support through connection to an exceptional community of engineers and innovators.
The Enterprise Hub focuses on supporting individuals and fostering their potential in the long term, taking nothing in return. This sets us apart from the usual ‘accelerator’ model. The Enterprise Hub’s programmes last between 6 and 12 months, and all programmes give entrepreneurs lifelong access to an unrivalled community of mentors and alumni.
Our goal is to encourage creativity and innovation in engineering for the benefit of all. By fostering lasting, exceptional connections between talent and expertise, we aim to create a virtuous cycle of innovation that can deliver on this ambition.
The Enterprise Hub was formally launched in April 2013. Since then, we have supported over 300 researchers, recent graduates and SME leaders to start up and scale up businesses that can give practical application to their inventions. We’ve awarded over £11 million in grant funding, and our Hub Members have gone on to raise over £1.2 billion in additional funding.