INWED 2023: Alexandra Meldrum on Being Curious and Building a Portfolio Career

Article by Orla Douds AMIChemE

Alexandra Meldrum: "I think that challenges are about facing up to things that are quite new, and seeing that both as a bit of an adrenaline rush but also saying it as an opportunity."

FOR this year’s International Women in Engineering Day (INWED), members of the IChemE National Early Careers Committee (NECC) have interviewed inspiring women from the world of chemical engineering. We hope that sharing their interesting and varied career paths will inspire and inform other early career engineers, and ultimately help them see a future for themselves in industry.

We interviewed Alexandra Meldrum, who lives in Sydney in Australia, and is vice president of the IChemE’s Learned Society.

Q: Could you please describe the career path that led to your current role?

A: I've worked in lots of different roles, which has been lots of fun, and what links everything together is that I'm really interested in driving change to make a positive difference in the world. I chose chemical engineering because I liked chemistry, and I did both chemical engineering and chemistry at university. I loved university and was very fortunate to be an inaugural recipient of the chancellor’s scholarship at the University of Sydney. That meant that as I was studying, I was also getting some early career experience working at multiple places before I even graduated.

I started at AGL which was a gas company. I worked at ICI Botany, where we made chemicals, which was interesting stuff. Then for my third year of work experience, I was at Caltex, which is an oil refinery. So, I had some really great experience before I had even left university, thanks to the University of Sydney and that program.

My first role was a typical starting role at Shell where I worked at a refinery in Sydney as a process technologist. I loved economics even at that early stage, so my next job was the refinery economist. I got to blend in my enjoyment of economics at an early stage in my career.

I've since worked in a range of different roles across corporate, including at Nestle in the fast-moving consumer goods sector. At that point I was working in international roles, blending economics with technology and at one point I was the Oceania manager of corporate purchasing for Nestle. So that involved 23 factories, with different types of food, different types of suppliers and lots of different people which was exciting.

I've worked across corporate, education, government and the not-for-profit sector but what links everything together for me is driving change to make a positive difference in the world, and so I want to tell you a very brief story about a crisis support charity called Lifeline. I've been volunteering for them since my university days. I found it was great to be a volunteer and to listen and help individual people, but then I realised I'm only helping one person at a time, and an opportunity came up to be a facilitator at Lifeline. And that was great. I could develop ten other people to help. I could continue being a lifelong counsellor, but by developing others I would have so much more impact and make so much more difference. Then I had an opportunity to be on the advisory board at Lifeline and again, that was an opportunity to have a more powerful impact. I could affect and influence others to have positive roles as well. I went on to do other things, for instance I set up a commercial training business for Lifeline, which again had greater outreach and greater impact. So, I hope that that that little brief story gives you an idea about why the linking theme for my career is about driving change to make a positive difference in the world.

Q: What is your current role?

A: The way I describe it, I'm an engineer, economist and non-executive director. But what I actually call it is a ‘portfolio career’. For anybody who wants to read more on launching a successful portfolio career, I recommend this article from the Harvard Business Review.

What's exciting about a portfolio career is you get to do various things at once. So instead of working in one place full time, after the first eight years or so of my career, I've been portfolio all the way. So you might listen to the list of the things I've done and think I might be over 100, but actually I'm not. What I've been doing lots of things simultaneously as I go.  So to give you an idea of what I’m doing now: I am the elected vice president of IChemE’s Learned Society, which is an international role. I've also been appointed as the chair of the Scientific Board Net Zero Initiative at the University of Sydney. I sit on a couple of boards as a non-executive director; two are based in Australia and are called Sydney Community Services and Community Connect and basically it's making a difference in people's lives.

I think that's where we as engineers have these great thinking skills, problem skills, analytical skills and systems thinking skills. My areas of expertise are things like strategy, governance, risk and sustainability, and that's a really transferable skill set so it really doesn't matter what the industry is. Another part of my current portfolio is I'm lead facilitator and the course designer at the Australian Graduate School of Management at the University of New South Wales. I've been teaching there for 18 years, and I teach strategy and sustainability. Lots of the people who do MBAs are engineers who have worked in their careers for around 10 years. You know, at a certain point people say “I'm learning all these technical things, now how can I make that commercial. Orr how can I deliver strategy. Or how can I contribute more or advance more”. And so I teach them that.

So that’s my portfolio career, I work in about seven jobs at once and it’s a lot of fun. There’s lots of variety and I think that every one of them goes back to my main theme of driving a positive difference in the world.

Q: What do you feel about the gender ratio and diversity in your current sector/role and how has this impacted you as an engineer?

A: I'm not sure if there is much advice about directorships, so why don't we talk about the impact on non-executive roles partly because as I said before, I got some of my early roles before I'd hit 30. Sometimes boards appreciate input from a person in a different, younger generation, especially if they're an organisation that needs to serve people who are younger, which is what Lifeline did.

So, let’s talk about boards, 20 years ago there were less women in them. Data from Women on Boards shows that 20 years ago in Australia, less than 10% of board members were women. Now that’s kind of scary, isn’t it? The first kind of boards that I went into were the engineering boards and I participated in young engineer groups. The young engineer groups did tend to have a couple of women, but we were totally outnumbered by the men. I think that for the first 20 years of my career, I was often the only woman in the room.

Data from Workplace Gender Equality Agency in Australia shows that now about 30% of board members are female, and this data covers any organisation that has more than 100 people working for it in Australia. So we've gone from less than 10 up to 30. It still means you could be sitting in boardrooms where there’s seven men and three women, but it’s not actually like that. We all know some boards have a lot of women and other boards have less, so you might still be on your own. A target that’s often talked about is 40% women and 40% men, which gives a bit of flexibility and helps ensure boards have sufficient diversity. I think we've still got a long way to go and particularly in the engineering sectors, the number of women would probably be much lower than that.

Q: What is the greatest challenge you have faced as an engineer?

A: I actually enjoy trying new things and learning new things, otherwise I wouldn't do what I do, so I'm probably quite adaptable. I tend to bring quite a positive approach to the word ‘challenge’, and I'd often rephrase them as opportunities. But there are still things that really stretch me, for instance, when I left the corporate world and started my own business. That was like stepping off a cliff with nothing underneath it. That was an opportunity. As was sitting on my first boards 30 years ago. I probably wondered if I was deserving to sit in the room. Another challenge was going into the public sector, but I'd already spent a lot of time everywhere and I thought ‘Well, the one sector I haven't tried is government.’ So, I went into the government sector and that was an opportunity with having to deal with a very different culture and ways of working.

I think that challenges are about facing up to things that are quite new, and seeing that both as a bit of an adrenaline rush but also saying it as an opportunity. It’s not like the trepidation goes away. After 20 years in education and trained and lifelong learning, I might still get that nervousness. But thinking about how will I engage this group of new people, I think that gives you the edge and I think that that actually makes you better.

Q: What do you enjoy most about being an engineer?

A I love having autonomy and variety. I love meeting different people. I enjoy learning new things. They say that teachers never want to leave school and just want to keep learning. And I obviously enjoy making a difference. Being an engineer has given me the opportunity to have an impact on what I call the essentials of life, the things we all need: food, water, health, energy, sustainability and economics. And it's the things that we need as communities that chemical engineers often contribute to as part of a multidisciplinary team.

Q: What advice would you give to a recent graduate or early careers chemical engineer who wants to work in your sector/role? 

A: Be curious. Explore things and be open to learning new opportunities. I think that one of the most valuable things that you can have is the openness to carefully try new things. Fundamentally as scientists, we talk about curiosity and being willing to explore the new. I think one of the most important qualities you can bring is that quality of being curious.

Don’t let age hold you back. Don’t be deterred and let your age make your decisions for you.

Value other people. Focus on your networks, your team and all the people you collaborate with, because in our multidisciplinary society, we get everything done by collaborating with others. So really value and respect other people and those relationships.

Q: What advice would you give to female early careers engineers?

A: It’s very similar to the three things I mentioned before: be curious, give things a go, and value your relationships. Getting experience early on is always good, and if you do those three things, I think it’s of value.

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Article by Orla Douds AMIChemE

Vice chair of IChemE's National Early Careers Committee (NECC) and a graduate process engineer at Jacobs

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