Hi Alina. Can you tell us a bit about your teenage years and how you got interested in STEM?
Early on, my mum realised that I was skilled in maths, science and problem solving and encouraged me to develop these skills further. I was also passionate about sustainability and participated in activities, such as a movie-making competition (with help from my dad) where I won first prize with a movie that I made about climate change. So, when it came to decide on a future career, chemical engineering emerged as the best option, as it would allow me to combine three things that I am passionate about: quantitative approaches, problem solving and the environment.
Did you have a role model in your family to follow this career path?
These subjects are not really a trend in my family. Nevertheless, my parents were very supportive, and my mum had a key role in guiding me towards the right choice of career path. I did a Bachelors plus Masters programme in Chemical Engineering at Aston University, with a year work experience in industry. To make the most of the opportunities available, I had applied a few times during my second and third years for internships in companies and was unsuccessful due to the high competition. However, at the end of my third year, my efforts and perseverance paid off and I was accepted to start a one-year internship with Crondall Energy Consultants, an offshore oil and gas consultancy. This was a very useful learning experience and I was offered a bursary to finish my Masters, as well as a job offer once I’d graduated.
In what ways was this a useful learning experience?
The one key lesson that I’ve learnt is that you can’t put all of your eggs in one basket. You don’t know who you are competing against and you may not be aware of what a company is specifically looking for. However, statistically speaking, the more you try, the more you increase your chances. I still live by the same motto today with my own company, for example, when applying for funding.
How was it like to transition to a professional career?
The internship was really valuable to see what life could look like once I’ve graduated. I could see that the approaches used in a work environment are quite different from the ones used at the university. So, there is some catching-up and adaptation to do when you transition from your studies to a professional role. However, it is very important not to be afraid to ask questions. The more you do this, the faster you will learn.
Can you tell us a bit more about your professional path so far?
Looking back at my professional career, I can also say that I didn’t follow a typical path and I wasn’t afraid to embrace change, particularly if I thought that I wasn’t progressing. Within oil and gas, I changed jobs a few times to adapt to the changing circumstances caused by crashes in oil prices. This allowed me to experience working in both small consultancies as well as large organisations such as ThyssenKrupp. Eventually, in one of these roles, I got the opportunity to work on energy from waste. This was the fulfilment of a lifelong aim of working within the sustainability field and it sparked my interest in pursuing further opportunities in this area. Therefore, I joined Bio-bean, a start-up company working on producing biofuels from coffee waste collected from cafes and universities. As it was a start-up, I was given the possibility to re-design the production facility to streamline it and to make it circular by having it run on fuel from coffee waste. This was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, and I am not so sure if I would have been given the same opportunities and responsibility if I was at a bigger company.
In 2018, my husband and I decided to move to Germany, which was a bold move as I was not sure how to approach the job market there as I couldn’t speak German. Nevertheless, I pushed myself to apply the lessons I learnt from my diverse professional background and put those skills towards a cause that I feel passionate about. During my career I have worked with optimising different types of waste, however clothing waste is one issue that I have been really interested in. This is because it doesn’t make sense that we use huge amounts of energy that we invest in growing cotton for fabrics or producing the synthetic fibres, such as polyester, for clothes, shipping them all around the world and then just wear them for 2 years, causing 87% of clothes to be either incinerated or to end up in a landfill. To tackle this issue, I started my own company, Kleiderly, which aims to lower the impact of clothing waste disposal, create a circular economy, reduce the usage of oil based plastics and increase awareness of the impact of fast fashion. I’ve recruited a team of 7 people and we are currently raising funding to provide solutions at a larger scale.
To summarise, it is easy to stay comfortable in a role, but if you want to grow your career, it is important to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. It will be tough and you will face many hurdles but perseverance and resilience are just as important in your career.
And how is that adventure going?
In the process of developing Kleiderly, I have had the opportunity to connect with exceptional start-up funding programmes. In Berlin, I joined the High-Tech SEED Lab, which funds deep technology-based start-ups. This was very useful as I could connect with several investors in Berlin. I was also part of the Female Founder Programme at Google for Start-Ups, where I met 15 amazing women, all starting companies in different fields, and received mentoring over 10 weeks. As part of the programme, I also had a chance to pitch Kleiderly at a start-up event in Helsinki called SLUSH. Additionally, I have also been part of Lafayette’s Plug and Play programme, which connects fashion brands with corporate partners that are part of the programme. This was very useful as it provided the possibility of communicating with the end-customer more directly. Kleiderly is also a finalist at the European Social Innovation Competition and, through their Re-Imagine programme, I have coaching and mentorship opportunities, as well as the possibility of connecting with experts in the field.
Over the last few months, I launched an initiative with Deborah Choi called Tech In Colour, which is supported by Google for start-ups, London and Partner and Silicon Allee in Berlin. This initiative aims to support women of colour from ethnic minority backgrounds in starting their own companies by connecting them with investors. Each founder is matched with 4 different investors and gets one hour of their time through a warm introduction.
It sounds like you have had a diverse set of work experiences. Could you share with us what lessons have stayed with you?
I am grateful that I moved between jobs as I could learn about different styles of working, as well as different team structures, ways of dealing with company issues and transparency. This set of experiences have provided me with a clearer idea of how to run my own company and how to build my team. I really enjoy leading and managing teams, so it is crucial for me to be aware of the different ways to do this.
What do you like the most about your current role?
I am excited about being able to use my skills in something that I care about deeply and which allows me to make the world a better place. I also really appreciate being able to make decisions and execute them quickly, without having to deal with layers of stakeholders. I am passionate about leading and managing a team and I love pitching my mission. I have also learnt so much from all the relationships that I have built along the way with people that have become my mentors.
And what do you find challenging?
Uncertainty is one of the key challenges that I deal with on a daily basis, so it is something that you need to get used to. I deal with it by working hard and pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. I am grateful to the incredible people in my life who help support me.
Have you faced any specific challenges as a younger woman?
Yes. I have been asked to make presentations look pretty, even though I think that should not really be the job of an engineer. People also tend to be surprised when they see me on the factory floor, but I enjoy challenging the stereotype of what a typical engineer should look like. You also develop a thicker skin as you get older and you start becoming more confident in yourself.
On that note, what advice would you give to young women?
Be yourself, find your personal life goals and work hard. Don’t be afraid to reach out and try your best to forge good relationships. Young people are very lucky these days with the online tools available to get the visibility they need to pursue the causes they are passionate about. And, importantly, keep trying even when things don’t go as expected or when you need to take a detour in your path.
Photo Credits: Andrea Heihnsohn
Interview by Carolina Feijão
December 8, 2020