Women Lead: Engineer turned entrepreneur
We are always fascinated by other people’s stories. It’s how we connect, grow and learn from each other. Until very recently I always felt like I didn’t have a story to tell. Who would be interested in what I do? And then I read somewhere – your ‘ordinary’ is someone else’s extraordinary.
This is my story of how I transitioned from chemical engineering to become an entrepreneur in a whole new industry.
At the beginning of my career, I studied chemical engineering and worked in the energy industry for over 18 years. For me, chemical engineering is very much about taking a holistic systems thinking approach to how we meet some of society’s biggest challenges including energy, clean water, access to medicines and food. My career has allowed me to live a very comfortable life and not have to worry about paying the bills or to choose between heating or eating in the way that my mum had too when me and my five siblings were growing up.
There are a lot of challenges in the energy industry for females and unconscious bias that holds back our career progression. I cannot pretend to have all the answers or understand why we still have these deep-rooted societal challenges. But what I can say is that in my experience they are real and they most definitely have had a negative impact on my career.
My experience left me feeling powerless. For all my expertise and all that I had accomplished, every time I tried to make it further up the ladder there were roadblocks and men around me who were less competent, but more confident, that could almost stride on past me as if different rules somehow applied to them.
So, what did I do? I worked harder, but by 2017 I was entering burnout territory. I don’t know if many people know this, but one of the key factors in burnout is lack of control. You can work at a high output level for a time, and sometimes even enjoy it, as long as you feel in control over what you are doing and believe that it has meaning. The current wellbeing culture is that a mindfulness exercise or a workshop on resilience can counteract burnout, when fundamentally what you need is a more manageable workload, to feel your work has purpose and to feel psychologically safe.
Then in 2018, I got the opportunity to join a programme being run by national gender equality agency Equate Scotland for females in STEM that were looking at advancing into leadership positions. The idea was that through the group coaching we would be able to go back into our organisations clear on what we wanted, how to ask for it and how to make changes happen. The course was amazing and gave me a rich insight into my strengths, as well as space to really think about what it was I wanted.
And that’s when it hit me. I needed to make space, so I quit. I’m pretty sure my colleagues thought I was having a nervous breakdown. Especially when I said I didn’t have another job to go to, but I just knew that I needed to really see what else I was capable of.
In the months that followed I decided to take on a part time consulting role to help pay the bills. My husband Thomas had been made redundant in 2016 and since then had been tinkering with modifications to our home, adding in smart home tech – and I had suggested that it would make a good business idea.
Thomas is an amazing electronic and electrical engineer, with a classic problem-solving mind, but when it came to turning his talents into a profitable venture he was struggling to get it off the ground. In my previous job, as well as engineering and project management, I was responsible for a large part of the organisation’s business development activities, and as it turns out, a lot of my consulting skills have come in very handy in setting up and running TL Smart.
We love seeing the difference that tech can make in people’s lives, particularly those who are older and living on their own. The Covid-19 pandemic caused us to change the way that we deliver our services, but at the same time highlighted opportunities for us to diversify. If someone would have said at the start of 2020 that we’d have a voice application in the Amazon store before the end of the year, I would have thought they were crazy.
We created Kindspace – a holistic wellbeing voice app for Amazon Alexa – as a way of helping people with loneliness and anxiety during the pandemic, and now I couldn’t see myself not working in the voice tech space. Kindspace brings together lived experiences and makes wellbeing information accessible.
I am by nature a very reserved person. Follow the rules, stick to the path, keep the peace around me and never draw attention to myself. Doesn’t sound like an entrepreneur, does it? But that’s just it, anyone can be an entrepreneur. Fundamentally, it’s about being inquisitive and solving problems that customers are willing to pay you for in return.
So I have few key takeaway points from my own experience. The first is your personal “brand” is way more important than your company brand. This can take a long time to get comfortable with and as an introvert something I constantly struggle with. Then, I like to say ‘done’ is better than perfect, don’t hold yourself back because of fear of failure, you can always learn from any experience and keep moving forward. I describe myself as a recovering perfectionist. But biggest learning point is the huge value in building strong networks to open up collaboration opportunities. Many of our projects have come about through networking and from us sharing our knowledge.
Caroline Laurenson is the managing director of Aberdeen smart home solutions company TL Tech