Interview with Kerrine Bryan, chartered electrical engineer and founder of Butterfly Books

Kerrine Bryan is an award-winning chartered electrical engineer. She scooped the Precious award for Outstanding Woman In STEM and was one of Management Today’s 35 Under 35 most notable businesswomen in the UK.

Find out why Kerrine founded publishing house Butterfly Books to communicate to children a positive message about professions, especially STEM jobs, that are suffering skill gaps and diversity issues.

Have you always wanted to be an engineer?

As a child, I don’t think there were any specific indications that I would have enjoyed engineering later in life. I enjoyed maths and science but also loved playing with magic sets and Barbie dolls. Engineering is actually very creative but it’s also about problem solving so maybe these interests made sense.

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There are actually many misconceptions about the profession that starts from a really early age. So many people – parents, teachers, and therefore children – are not aware of what the job really involves but it is often thought of as a hands-on, manually difficult and dirty job for older white men.

I quickly came to realise that if youngsters don’t see people who look like them doing a certain job, then they are less likely to go for it. That might seem like a crude simplification of a larger problem, but it’s certainly a contributing factor to the engineering sector’s diversity issue.

When did you become interested in engineering?

When I started A Levels, I was sure I wanted to pursue accountancy. Honestly? I wasn’t really aware of any other jobs that I could do or would want to do. I think more can be done to drive links between education and industry.

So many times I’ve heard children say, “I don’t know why I have to learn this, I won’t need it when I’m older”.  If only they knew exactly how particular subjects relate directly to specific industries (and why they need to learn it), then I’m sure it would improve interest and concentration at school.

Personally, I don’t think I ever gave much thought at school to how and what I was learning would eventually be relevant to a job or profession I’d pursue in the outside world.

It was my maths teacher who suggested I try out an engineering residential at Glamorgan University (Headstart Scheme), which is now run by the Engineering Trust. I enjoyed it so much that, after a year’s experience in the industry, I shelved any plans I had for becoming an accountant in order to pursue a degree in engineering.

When was your big break?

My career started nearly 15 years ago at a large oil and gas contractor on a graduate scheme directly after finishing my four-year Masters degree in electronic and electrical engineering with language.

I love what I do. Seeing a project from initial design through to the end product is a great feeling. Sometimes when flying over Kent on a good day, I can see the LNG import terminal, and I remember when it all existed as just an idea on paper a few years back.

What was the attitude of some of your male peers at work? Were they encouraging and supportive, or did you encounter many problems?

Although there were very few women engineers around, I think I was quite “lucky”. It feels a bit awkward to say that, but it’s a prime indicator of the times we are currently living in; that, despite all the social progresses that’s been made in the last hundred years – in terms of equality, diversity and acceptance of people from all walks of life and persuasions – there is still a lot of work to be done to stamp out bias and prejudice in the workplace.

My male peers and colleagues were very supportive and encouraging of me being part of the engineering team. Many of them in fact had commented on how they really respected professional female engineers morefor making it through all of the barriers that existed, and still do exist, for women going into STEM careers. It was only during a placement at a manufacturing company when I was 18 that I had an uncomfortable situation where my manager and mentor said that I looked ”sexy in overalls”.

Where did the idea for your venture come from?

Remembering the misconceptions and lack of knowledge about engineering as a profession when I was at school, I decided to volunteer doing talks about my job across the country to children.

It was then that I got the idea to develop a range of children’s books that could tackle some of these inherent misconceptions. I saw it as a good way of communicating to children a positive message about all kinds of professions, especially STEM careers that are suffering skill gaps and diversity issues.

It’s important both children and parents understand that these jobs are available and accessible to them – no matter what gender they are or what background they come from – and that the opportunity is there for the taking if they apply themselves, work hard and want it enough. The world is their oyster.

How did you move from idea to writing the books?

I didn’t start the books for a while after having the initial idea. It was when a close friend lost her battle with cancer that I thought, “I have to do this thing. I’ve wanted to do this for years. No more excuses.”

With my younger brother Jason supporting me, we set up Butterfly Books. The butterfly is a symbol of transformation and enterprise, and we felt that it perfectly encapsulated the venture’s core purpose.

The ultimate vision is to create books that cover all careers that are suffering skills gaps, gender (and any other) bias issues and perception issues. So far we have created three books: My Mummy Is A Scientist, My Mummy Is An Engineerand My Mummy Is A Plumber.

The fourth book in the series, My Mummy Is A Farmer, will be released in July 2018. There are, of course, plans to do similar books featuring dads in female-dominated jobs.

I hope that these books will eventually be used as a teaching resource in multiple schools so that as many children as possible are exposed to the books, showing them the opportunities available to them and eventually helping to close skills gaps and reduce gender bias in professions.

How has your family life and background has shaped you as the person, professional and entrepreneur you are today?

My grandparents moved to England from Jamaica in the 50’s – part of the Windrush Generation.  They settled here, worked hard and had seven children – including my mother. I was born and bred in Birmingham.

Being one of very few black children in school, my mother always told me that I would need to work twice as hard to get half the success of my friends. This thought has been with me throughout my entire life and has pushed me to always give a little bit extra at school and at work, and to be the best that I can be.

How do you balance your work with your family?

Running a business alongside a demanding career has immense challenges, especially as you have to work on the venture outside of normal business hours. But with technology, it’s possible – and I learnt that we normally have more time to devote to our passions than we realise.

Our first book, My Mummy is an Engineer, is dedicated to my friend Satori. She lived life to the max and did the things she wanted to do. As her father said, “It’s about quality of life, not quantity”.

How has being a mother changed you as a person and as an entrepreneur?

I became a mother to a little girl last year. It has really enhanced my sense of purpose in wanting to leave a positive and lasting legacy, not just for her – but also for all children of her generation and for future generations to come.

By the time she enters the working world, I am confident that industries currently lacking diversity on every level, will be fewer than today.

Progress is being made, but I don’t think the job will ever be finished. It takes a persistent combination of education and experience to bring down barriers and dismantle antiquated systems of working that cause inequality and bias.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

Never think that you know everything. When you accept that, you give yourself the ability to remain open minded to new ideas and to always learn.

What kind of advice would you give to someone aspiring to have the same job as you one day?

My advice to children, young people and especially young girls looking to get into a STEM career like engineering is to expose yourself to as much as you can to all that’s related to your field of interest. Immerse yourself. Attend courses and placements, open days and talks.

Call companies that you’re interested in and ask if they do tours and visits of the workplace. The Institution Of Engineering & Technology (IET) has many events throughout the year, which are worth checking out, and you can join the organisation as a student member too.

Most importantly, never give up. There will, of course, be setbacks. But so long as you stay strong-willed and learn from these quickly, you’ll be able to take positive steps forward to succeed in an exciting career that can solve genuine human problems, innovate and change the world for the better.

My Mummy Is A Farmer (Butterfly Books), RRP £6.99, is available to buy from July 2018 and complements the existing books in the range: My Mummy Is A Scientist, My Mummy Is An Engineer and My Mummy Is A Plumber.