To mark International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, Found + Flourish partnered with Plus X to curate a month-long series of events. Trailblazing Women celebrates the women in our business community that are innovating for social, environmental, and political good – in Brighton and beyond. Part of Spring Forward Festival 2021.
In this lunchtime panel discussion, we heard from three women that are blazing a trail within the innovation and technology space – sharing their own experiences of challenging the norm, how they came to work in their chosen fields, and what advice they would give to fellow women aspiring to innovate or create for the benefit of both people & planet.
It’s taken a global pandemic to highlight the efficacy of female leadership, with many arguing that it’s no coincidence that countries with women at the helm have had fewer infections and deaths.
In fact, studies have proven that women not only make better leaders, but also have a natural tendency to prioritise innovating for good. According to Harvard Business School, ‘women are both conducting business in new ways, and ensuring that more and more businesses have a positive impact on people and the environment.’ [Source: Impakter]
However, at the forefront of innovation is technology, where women are still grossly underrepresented:
- 3% of females say a career in technology is their first choice
- 78% of students can’t name a famous female working in technology
- 5% of leadership positions in the technology sector are held by women
In this feature, we’re focusing on Lucy Hughes. She is the founder of Marina Tex, a new material made from fish waste and red algae. It’s designed as a planet-conscious alternative to plastic film. Before being an entrepreneur, some of her other labels included being a product designer and a diver.
Lara: What’s your story and did you have a lightbulb moment for kickstarting your career?
Lucy: My story’s starting point was when I had an identity crisis in my final year of my Product Design degree. I realised through marine conservation that products had become the problem, and my career was going to be adding to that. However, I quickly realised that being a designer puts you in a great place to change that.
I knew I wanted to make a difference but sadly it’s not that easy, especially when you’ve got the ticking clock of uni deadlines going on at the same time. I got halfway through my final year project and did a U-turn. I was initially looking into future food and eating insects, but my research showed that it’s not sustainable and it didn’t align with my values, so I had a chat with my mum. That was my lightbulb moment. I said to her, “Look, I’d rather go to an employer with a research book that’s filled with really good research that followed my values than going to them with a finished shiny product that I don’t believe in.”
I had that fire in my belly – and it wasn’t heartburn -, I followed it and it was telling me that I wanted to work with waste.
L: How did you go from having your brilliant idea to turning it into a reality? Perhaps you could share some initial challenges you came up against?
L: Yeah, so as it was my undergraduate final year project, I was meant to have a year to do it. But because of my U-turn in the middle, I had six months. It started off by following the research, so I went to a waste-processing plant. I looked at their waste and I saw that by holding the fish skins and scales in my hand that there was potential there. It was a case of letting the research guide my journey.
Some of my challenges being an undergraduate were mainly the risk I was taking. I was developing a material in a product design degree, and obviously some of my lecturers were torn by that. My model wasn’t computer designed, it was a rectangular sheet. I was trying to challenge design as it’s known, to move towards the intersection between design and science and move away from the traditional way of using manmade materials. That’s a new thing, so me as an undergrad saying that to my lecturers definitely split them. The ones who stuck by me were, actually, all women and they were really positive.
After all of that, I won the International James Dyson Award. That gave me a lot of encouragement and funds to keep going, but also a lot of attention very early on. I didn’t want to turn it down because of the opportunities it presented, but it added a weight on my shoulders. I’m an introvert and it felt like I was on a pedestal. Even going to pitch events and being the only woman in the room – it made me stick out like a sore thumb. Maybe it’s a good thing, but it felt like extra stress.
L: Why should we be investing more time and money into things like sustainable energy, social impact projects and tech for the greater good?
L: The quick answer is that it will make all our lives better. Ultimately, we have one planet which has a finite number of resources. If everyone on the planet lived like we do in the UK, we would need 2.63 earths, which, spoiler alert, we don’t have. To me, only sustainable and socially inclusive businesses need to be funded. And that’s not because I’m biased, I say that as a resident of earth rather than a founder of a sustainable business.
I think it could be achieved by rebranding sustainability. The word has become a “nice to have extra”. It needs to be something more like “future-proof”. If I was an investor, it would be foolish of me to invest in anything that wasn’t going to keep thriving.
We need to place Earth as a stakeholder, to place everyone as a stakeholder, rather than just your shareholders or customers. All these businesses and ventures don’t exist in a vacuum, they exist on Earth and it’d be foolish to ignore that.
L: Best advice you can give to someone starting out or wanting to build a business for the greater good?
L: First, immerse yourself in the wider community of your purpose in order to find your tribe. I think that’s the best way to be exposed to people that will give you invaluable insights and keep you motivated – especially in the early days.
Then reframe failure, that’s what I did when I had the conversation with my mum. Instead of seeing my U-turn as a failure, or instead of thinking that not having the top grades would be a failure, I reframed it so that what I wanted out of it was something that I could show the right employer. I became okay with the outcome, even if before I might have seen that as failure.
Audience: What’s the best way to launch a sustainable product?
L: There are a lot of sustainable circles you can join and go to events, which are happening online as well. Get involved with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Circular Economy Club, they’re quite London-centric. But there’ll be online things if you follow the trail of sustainability and get talking to people. Be clear about your passion, that’s when you’ll connect with people. If you find people that have the same end goal, they will be generous with their time.
Audience: What’s your feminine superpower?
L: There’s a couple that help. Being able to read between the lines of a room and make connections quite easily. Sticking out like a sore thumb, because you can own it and use it as fuel.
About your author
Natalia is a writer and branding creative specialising in graphic design. Originally from Mexico City, she has now made her home in London. After completing an MA in Screenwriting, she founded her own creative studio, Ataraxia. She is also the Co-Founder of UK-based clothing brand MEXI.Clothing and the host of The Avocado Social Club podcast, where she covers topics that matter to the young generations, from politics to popular culture.
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