But Seriously, What is Engineering?

Dreaming big to drive diversity in engineering

September 03, 2020 EAIT Marketing Season 1 Episode 4
But Seriously, What is Engineering?
Dreaming big to drive diversity in engineering
But Seriously, What is Engineering?
Dreaming big to drive diversity in engineering
Sep 03, 2020 Season 1 Episode 4
EAIT Marketing

It was the declining number of women enrolled in Jessica Kahl’s university engineering courses that sparked her big business idea.

Jessica saw the impact she could make on school students and was inspired to create more opportunities for young people to experience the exciting reality of the science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) field first-hand. And so, her business Dream Big Australia was born.

Now a civil engineer herself, Jessica is inspiring a new generation of future engineers to consider a career in STEAM while driving gender balance in the engineering industry and championing innovation.

Her engineering journey will leave you inspired.

To learn more about studying engineering at UQ visit the Future Students website.

Show Notes Transcript

It was the declining number of women enrolled in Jessica Kahl’s university engineering courses that sparked her big business idea.

Jessica saw the impact she could make on school students and was inspired to create more opportunities for young people to experience the exciting reality of the science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) field first-hand. And so, her business Dream Big Australia was born.

Now a civil engineer herself, Jessica is inspiring a new generation of future engineers to consider a career in STEAM while driving gender balance in the engineering industry and championing innovation.

Her engineering journey will leave you inspired.

To learn more about studying engineering at UQ visit the Future Students website.

1. [Music plays]

2. Kartikee   
Welcome. You’re listening to But Seriously What is Engineering with me, Kartikee Gupta. This is a podcast series from The University of Queensland that explores all corners of engineering. A civil engineer and entrepreneur and a gender equality advocate who is renowned in the industry for supporting women’s development in engineering. Today we talk to Jessica Kahl. Welcome, Jessica.  

2. Jessica     
Thank you, Kartikee.

3. Kartikee   
Jessica, I’m keen to hear from you why engineering and how you chose this career path?

4. Jessica     
Engineering is such a rewarding career, it’s all about problem solving and creative thinking but also combining I guess the project management in order to get a positive delivery outcome for society cause it’s all about built infrastructure and assets. When I was in school I actually wanted to be a forensic scientist and a fashion designer initially and I went down to the Melbourne Institute of Fashion and I did this course and I really enjoyed it but it was missing that maths and science that I liked at school and so I looked into forensic science which was also a really great degree to pursue but upon doing a Start Uni Now course I essentially didn’t like the first year of the Batchelor when I was in year 11, I found out that there wasn’t many job prospects for that type of career pathway and so I was like well, okay, let’s look at what we’ve got and I was in math class one day with one of my friend’s and she was doing an equation with me and we got this algebra solution and I was so excited that I got this done and she turns to me and she goes, ‘why don’t you be an engineer?’ and I was like, ‘I have no idea what engineering is’. And so, from this point forward I started looking into open days and what the definition was and like different career pathways and it was just a fluke that I went along the thought process going fashion design, design, engineering, that makes sense, I’m good at management, I’m great with people and this is a really good foundation to start a career and achieve many different things.

5. Kartikee   
Jessica, do you have any engineers in the family?

6. Jessica     
No. I don’t. So I’d be one of the first ones within my immediate family.

7. Kartikee   
Wow. So you did have to do a lot of research work to understand what an engineering degree entails?

8. Jessica     
Yeah. And I think it came with a few challenges initially cause I grew up in a regional area in Rockhampton, you know diversity wasn’t a big thing back there so there was a lot of resilience of getting over the stereotypes of what an engineer is and so there were a few people at my school, like my career advisor, I spoke to her about doing engineering after I had this situation in my math class, she advised against it because I hadn’t done maths C, physics or graphics which are the prerequisite subjects for doing engineering and similarly with my family, I think at that point they were quite a bit worried that I was just like oh, fashion design to engineering, they’re like oh, that’s quite a big step. I think that I’d gone out of my way to go to all the open days and I went to the engineering link which Greg runs, Greg McMillan and it was essentially all these practical activities about what you can do in terms of like the 3D printing and looking at different structures, you know working in teams to develop solutions which impacts society in a really positive way, I saw that as a really great thing and I was really inspired to take on that pathway because it just showed that you could make a difference so easily just by  doing an engineering degree.  

9. Kartikee   
How did you have that conversation with your parents to try and convince them that engineering was the career for you?

10. Jessica     
It wasn’t really a conversation, I just kind of decided that this is what I was going to do and so I guess they just had to accept that I was going to be an engineer and similarly like when I got into engineering I, I think being the only female in my engineering cohort when I graduated was also quite significant because there are quite a lot of challenges of being in a regional area and going through where you are the only female and it’s not so prominent anymore but at the time that I did it that’s what happened. I think that’s why I can go to site and I can have quite a good culture with the team that I’m working with but I can also be, you know a lady in the office and wear heels and blazers and, and still have that authority and inclusive culture in both scenarios.

11. Kartikee   
Tell us about your exciting and wonderful venture, Dream Big Australia?

12. Jessica           
This is very exciting. When I was at university and I was in first year I was just blown away by what you could experience at university cause when you go from school to university you realise that people want to be at  university in those courses, like that is what they want to do and they’re very dedicated to it generally and so I found that from you know, the lecturer’s that I was engaging with that they were very inspirational in the way that they taught these subjects because  they were so passionate about it and then I was working with peers that I had a lot of common ground with, we wanted to achieve the same things and we motivated each other and then the things that we were learning was also very inspiring. And so I guess it was the combination of all of this and the opportunity that I got, cause I was studying in CQ University at the time to become a student ambassador and as a student ambassador you get to go around to different schools and speak to students about what you’re doing at university and I was going above and beyond to share videos about what my first year course was like and all the students that I spoke to were like this is amazing, we want to hear more about this and we would actually love to do some of these activities. 

And so, it was this thought process and a combination of different experiences where I went you know, there’s, there’s demand for particularly young women that don’t have access to understanding what engineering is but also having the opportunity and support to step into this pathway. And so at the time I approached my university and I said hey, I really want to run a one day event so that we can expose young women to these different options in engineering but also like link them and connect them to leaders, professional leaders who were succeeding in their career pathways and so that’s how Dream Big project started and the Dream Big project has now transformed into a fully-fledged not for profit and we’ve changed our name so it’s now called Dream Big Australia and we’ve been running it for about five years, you know we ran the first event in Rockhampton and it went exceptionally well, we got a really positive feedback response from our survey, I think it was like 87 per cent of the students that came saw the benefit in having this experience and that linking to pursuing a career in engineering and so we got a lot of support from that point to expand other campuses like Rockhampton, Gladstone, Bundaberg, Mackay, Townsville and, and now Brisbane, it’s been quite a journey, that’s for sure. 

13. Kartikee   
That’s such a great initiative, Jessica and I mean we’ve worked together before and it’s all about educating high-school students to pursue a career in engineering.  I’m keen to hear your thoughts on why it is so important to educate students at that age of high-school?

14. Jessica     
I think education at any level is important. I reckon I’m going to be an 80 year old and still want to be able to learn but especially in your younger years you need to have the combination of education and being empowered in your support networks to have meaning in your life and I think particularly in the years that we were targeting for our events it was year 10 to 12 students, they were in a position where, you know they had QTAC preferences and they were looking at post-school options and they were motivated about planning their career pathways and so I thought that that was the best way to provide those stepping stones to students who were in a position similar to what I was. I didn’t do maths C, physics or graphics and so I wanted those students to be aware that you didn’t have to have those prerequisite subjects to make that step. I recognised that, that is just one approach to it and there’s a lot of other really important initiatives that are running at the moment which target different age groups and I think it is a collaborative effort, we’re all doing things which support women and getting them empowered to go into pathways that they find rewarding.

15. Kartikee   
Can you share a story with us where you’ve been to a high-school and the students have really been wowed by one of your stories?

16. Jessica     
A lady, she’s a lady now cause she’s finished school, I met her in Mackay and she came along to our, I think it was our second or third event that we ran and she loved the, the 3D printing and the trebuchet component because we looked at tension, compression and structures, you know there’s always one, one girl at these events that come up to you and you’re like oh my god, this changed my life and, and she was that girl at this event. I’ve kept in touch with her through Instagram and she sent a message to me one day and she said I have now gone back to school, I’ve actually changed schools and I’m now doing this engineering design course as part of like my senior year subjects and there’s no other girls in my course and you know, I’m getting bullied but you know what, that doesn’t matter because I’ve come along to an event and I’ve seen these role models and I’ve been supported by women and I know that this is the career pathway that I want to choose and so you know, reading that message and hearing that we’ve been able to create a moment for her where she’s gone yes, that is exactly what I want to do, that’s very rewarding and I’m very pleased that a lot of the experiences we’ve provided has enabled that engagement and the increase of ability for the young women in Queensland.

17. Kartikee   
You mentioned Dream Big Australia, it’s been quite a journey for you over the last few years and the success of Dream Big has skyrocketed in the last few years, do you have any plans to expand it nationwide or even globally?

18. Jessica           
Absolutely. I think Dream Big, the name in itself just signifies that it is something that’s going got be very big and yes, it has definitely been a challenge. I think going from university and graduating and then stepping into the industry and trying to keep this going along with my professional job as an engineer has been challenging in itself but I also didn’t do a business degree and starting a not for profit is very business-orientated as I found out so you’ve got to know how to do governance and accounting, financials and recruit talent and, and grow the business and develop value propositions. So, all of these things have taught me how to run a not for profit and I think we’re on a very good trajectory now, we’ve got Sharon Skyren who is a general manager at Energy Queensland and she comes from an organisation and a background where she’s seen the challenges that women can have but also the value that diversity brings to the workplace. When I was starting the transition for a not for profit I also asked my mentor, John Sales, who is a managing principal at Aurecon in asset management to come onboard because he came from a background in masculine industry so predominantly Rio Tinto and he saw how initiatives which got rolled out in that very male dominated culture become a very pivotal thing for performance and so they saw a lot of innovation come out of certain things that they did around diversity and inclusion. 

So, both of them bring a very rich perspective around the value that diversity has in organisations and for a workplace. And now, recently we have recruited Darren Stanley who is the ex-CEO of Citadel which is a large IT company and so Darren brings the, the strategy perspective, along with Daren we’ve also got Marion Lorry who specialises in stakeholder engagement, so our dream team as we call ourselves, we’re now going through a process of looking at different value propositions and how we have a new offering coming to market which I can’t announce just yet but it’s all about supporting women getting work experience and the right skills which not only make them more employable but make them high potential so when they’re entering the job market that’s what separates them.

19. Kartikee   
That would be so awesome for women who want to enter the engineering workforce getting that, I’m guessing yeah a bit of a mentoring sort of relationship from you guys so that’s, that’s a great initiative. You just mentioned in fact that starting this non for profit organisation you have an engineering degree but it required a lot of business acumen skills which you learnt on the side, tell us a bit about that?

20. Jessica     
I think the commercial skills combined with the engineering is a very rich experience to have and I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to get it outside of work and in a very practical setting with Dream Big Australia and I know it’s also important for the people to do the, the combined degree so you get like the Bachelor of Commerce with the Bachelor of Engineering and that, and that does help your employability. I think the business piece adds to not just what I do at Dream Big Australia but in my professional role at Aurecon as a civil engineer there’s a lot of different complexities that you deal with within the workplace and being able to draw upon different knowledge and experiences means that you are able to deliver well-rounded outcomes for your clients and for your team and for the organisation that you work for. The business piece is just one, build the momentum and the experience to create an impact, but I feel that in addition to business there’s also leadership, there’s also your technical expertise and how all of these integrate in your professional role.

21. Kartikee   
Yeah. Wow, that’s a lot to learn especially when you have a day job as an engineer, you’re literally kind of working two jobs, right?

22. Jessica     

23. Kartikee   
So interested to hear from you why civil engineering?

24. Jessica     
Great question, because I have a wonderful quote about this, my quote goes civil engineers design things that don’t move, mechanical engineers design things that move and electrical engineers design things that you can’t see so therefore they don’t exist and we like to joke about it. Civil engineering in particular when I was looking at the different disciplines that engineering has I found that civil engineering was essentially the foundation of the society, like if you look around everything you touch has been in some way designed by an engineer and I felt that civil engineering was predominantly a degree where I could integrate the project management component because I’m someone that loves to have not just like that advanced technical knowledge but also the generalist piece because I feel that the way that you interact with your colleagues and the way that you run meetings is as important as what you deliver because I think it’s the combination of all these different skills and outcomes which add value.

25. Kartikee   
Rewinding back eight years when you were a high-school student what are some of the things you wish you had known about engineering?

26. Jessica     
I think first of all the diverse opportunities that it could bring. I think it’s very hard, especially in a regional area, to understand that there are so many, like global travel opportunities, the different types of roles that you can step into, it’s not necessarily going to be hardcore engineering all the time, there’s like innovation and digital pieces that come with it as well. The people that you get to interact with and experience I’ve been very fortunate in my career, cause I worked at Calibre for three years and I’ve now been at Aurecon for four years that I’ve been surrounded by people who create a very good culture and I think in school I didn’t realise the opportunities that come about by having strong networks and people that influence you because it’s the behaviours that you learn early on in your career that set you up for success early, like later on in the track and I think in a regional area this might not seem as obvious until you change your environment, it’s a bit like you know, you have a goldfish in like a tank and then you put the goldfish in a bigger tank and they’re like oh my god, I can grow and so it’s just being able to find new opportunities and saying yes to these different things so that you can take the steps to grow.

27. Kartikee   
Yeah. I completely agree. The people around you if you, if you are surrounded by passionate people that kind of, their behaviour passes on to you as well and I mean a team of passionate people is completely set-up for success isn’t it?

28. Jessica     
Mm hm.

29. Kartikee   
Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?

30. Jessica     
I was actually doing a scholarship application for an MBA and they asked me about this but it was actually for 30 years which is a harder question than 10 years.

31. Kartikee   

32. Jessica     
I answered the question by initially stating that I’m very passionate about what I do at work because it has the impact on society and I’m very passionate about the diversity space because of Dream Big Australia and I think at some point I would love to combine these together if whether it be in an asset intensive firm where I’m in charge of creating teams and building cultures where we have operational excellence and we deliver because we have those behaviours which instil that feeling of empowerment to not only do well for the organisation but for each other because when you help each other everyone gets essentially like a, a benefit out of that.

33. Kartikee   
Yeah. Fantastic. So you mention an MBA, why an MBA?

34. Jessica     
I think an MBA is very important for deploying your strong analytical skills in combination with your ability to lead and manage well and I think I’m at a point in my career where I would really benefit from having, having an experience where I delve deeper into certain techniques and frameworks and then take that back and apply it in, you know the various mechanisms that I’ve got in my life.

35. Kartikee   
An MBA really gave me those opportunities and networking skills that I probably wouldn’t have gained had I not done it and I guess it also adds to the skills that you already have from your engineering career and with you from your business acumen skills as well so. Well we’ve reached the end of the episode but before we go we’re going to get to know you a little bit better so are you ready for some fast facts? 

36. Jessica     
Absolutely. Let’s do it.

37. Kartikee   
What is one thing that listeners won’t know about you?

38. Jessica     
I paint a lot. I have commissioned art, I’m an acrylic painter and I have lots of art work in my house.

39. Kartikee   
Oh wow, that’s a hidden talent I wouldn’t have guessed. Fantastic.  Snow or sand?

40. Jessica     
Sand. I’m...

41. Kartikee   

42. Jessica     
...definitely a beach girl.

43. Kartikee   
Yep, yep. Is that from your, where you were brought up?

44. Jessica     
Absolutely. So I went holidaying quite a lot in regional Queensland when I was younger so most of the islands along the coast I’ve been to with my family .

45. Kartikee   
And a coffee or tea?

46. Jessica     
Oh, I like both, I like coffee for both the taste and the socialising but tea is more of a wind-down one but if I had to choose right now, coffee.

47. Kartikee   
Yep. Same. And finally what’s one piece of music that bests describes you?

48. Jessica     
This will shock you too, I think I’m a bit of a, a James Blunt and Shania Twain fan and I was actually listening to too much James Blunt for about five weeks in a row and it told me I was on the top one per cent of Spotify listeners, shocked, shocked even me, you know. Having music that you are able to relate to is very empowering because you want music that pumps you up and gets you in the right frame of mind to do the things that you want to do.  

49. Kartikee   
Well thank you so much for coming, Jessica. It was really nice to have you and great to hear from you and your stories.

50. Jessica           
Stoked to be here. Thank you so much.

51. [Music plays]

52. Kartikee   
If you’re enjoying this podcast make sure you like and subscribe wherever you get your podcast and don’t forget to leave a review, it’ll help others to find the series.  My name is Kartikee Gupta.