International Women in Engineering Day 2021 - Part 2

23 Jun 2021


Giorgia Longobardi

Dr Giorgia Longobardi is the CEO and Founder of Cambridge GaN Devices, a startup on a mission to revolutionise the semi-conductor and electronics industry. Giorgia completed the SME Leaders programme in 2020 and was the recipient of the Academy’s Young Engineer of the Year Award 2019. She has achieved much success, having raised $9.5 million of Series A funding to accelerate the development of their technology.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in engineering?  

I love the challenge behind maths and physics, and I’ve been always fascinated by the possibility to use these and other STEMs disciplines to create something new and to solve a ‘problem’. A degree in engineering taught me the universal ‘language’ of maths and physics and allowed me to achieve a strong mentality to achieve my aim worldwide.

Attitudes towards gender stereotypes are improving. So why do you think the gender disparity in the engineering profession is still so great?

There are still too many stereotypes that are part of our culture which are passed onto the new generations at a very early age. We should revise the school education system in this respect and make concerted and targeted efforts to increase awareness of this issue within and outside of the school education system too. This will be a lengthy process that will require decades in my opinion.

You were first an academic and now you’re an established engineering entrepreneur. Is there anything you wish you had known before you embarked down this route?

I have a very long list of things that I wish I had known before! My background is in engineering, but I had to learn how to run a business whilst running it. Although this can be a challenge, it is also a privilege as I can apply what I’ve learnt in my training courses and workshops in real life. I also wish I had known before how exciting and rewarding this career can be.

The very first thing I had to learn is how important it is to build a team you can trust, as well as a team that trusts you as a leader. It is very important for a leader to be able to delegate tasks, so building trust in individuals to do these tasks for you is essential.

For a first-time leader, who is dealing with several challenges at once, this can be tricky. It involves learning how to listen, accepting different points of view, and acknowledging when you are wrong. This is something I constantly work on as the team grows, since my focus has to move to other parts of the business. I also believe that having empathy is very important in this process and has become one of my strengths as a woman leader.

There are also several other topics I had to learn while running the business. Legals, HR, Finance, Sales and Marketing. I didn’t have a deep (or any in some cases!) knowledge of these topics when I started Cambridge GaN Devices. I believe the key is to be proactive, learn what you do and do not know, do ad-hoc training, hire the right people as leads for key departments and have a good network of mentors and entrepreneur peers. Overall, being an entrepreneur is a beautiful journey.

The theme for this year’s International Women in Engineering Day is all about #EngineeringHeroes. Who is your woman engineering hero?

Every single woman engineer that puts herself out there, to go against stereotypes, who fights for what she believes in, and is committed to make a change for the better is my hero.

As an engineering entrepreneur and scaleup leader, do you have any advice for those considering making the leap from academia to business?

My advice is to focus on why you want to do it and to not to be afraid of taking the first step. If you do not know what the first step is, ask. There are many people that can help you find that answer.

What do you see as the most powerful actions engineering leaders/startups can take to help address the profession’s gender imbalance?

There are a couple of things I think leaders and startups could enforce:

  • Create gender neutral job adverts.
  • Review employees’ salaries to identify possible gender pay gaps.
  • Plan and set-up the facilities needed by women in the working environment before they are needed. I believe leaders should do their best to avoid waiting until a specific issue is raised. It is well known that women often tend not to ask and try to take the problem on themselves.  
  • Introduce company policies that tackle well known issues associated to the challenges of being a woman and having a full-time job and to advertise the policies in the job advert. This also means including the financial resources needed.

Elspeth Finch

Elspeth Finch MBE is the CEO and Founder of IAND, a digital supplier management platform designed for project businesses. In 2013, she won the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Silver Medal Award and has worked closely with the Enterprise Hub, supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs as a mentor for our Hub Members and as a Launchpad Competition as a judge.

While some may see a lack of gender balance as a deterrent, you went against the tide - what motivated you to forge a career in a male-dominated sector?

My aunt was a mathematician, my mother a physicist, my grandfather an engineer, my father a chemist - I have always seen both science and engineering as open for everyone. 

Attitudes towards gender stereotypes are improving. So why do you think there is still such a great gender disparity in the engineering profession?

It surprises me, as engineering surrounds us - from turning on the tap in the morning, grabbing the train to work to catching up on Netflix at night. The one thing I think we can do better is to continue to tell the stories of engineering, for those starting out in their careers to see engineering as something that they can do to shape the world they live in. That for me is exciting for everyone. 

The theme for this year’s International Women in Engineering Day is all about #EngineeringHeroes. Who is your woman engineering hero?

My engineering hero is Charlotte Perriand. She was an architect, a designer and engineer. She believed that better design helps in creating a better society. She was an early proponent of MMC - the ski resorts she designed in Les Arcs in the ’60’s combined prefabrication, standardisation and industrial design - enabling a fast efficient build, something we still grapple with now. Yet for me it was her early work with Corbusier that stands out, the three chairs she designed in the ‘20s built as a “machine for sitting” are icons now, as they remain innovative, functional and beautiful nearly 100 years on. You can see her work here.

As the CEO of a successful tech company, do you have any advice for budding engineering entrepreneurs?

It is an incredible experience having the opportunity to build and shape your own company, something that I have been lucky to have the chance to do a couple of times. There is much I could say, from the need to deeply understand your customers, a reminder that cash is key to the steps to build a high performing team. But what has been most critical for me has been having mentors, who can help me focus with a goal such as raising finance. or help me be better at understanding my strengths (and my weaknesses) so that I can build a world class team. You never stop learning, and having a mentor is probably more important to me now as we scale up IAND and as I start to tackle new challenges I haven’t encountered before.  

What do you see as the most powerful actions engineering leaders/startups can take to help address the profession’s gender imbalance?

There is no shortage of policies, guidance and tools to support improved diversity and inclusion. But we can’t just have great policies, we need to implement these policies, review the data, take an evidence-based approach to assessing progress, and importantly continuing to listen hard. Are all of your team sharing ideas about your business? Does everyone feel they have a voice? How can you as leader make sure everyone is heard?

We are also in a unique position in the UK where new government regulations can act as a strong lever to further support and accelerate the engineering profession in becoming more diverse. We see the Social Value Act and Regulations such as PPN 06/20 something that large organisations can use to support diversity in their supply chain, to track and measure impact. This is something that we include in our supplier analytics and collaboration platform at IAND, as we see Diversity alongside Carbon and Innovation as opportunities for procurement to be used as a lever to unlock change.


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