Welcome to Empowerment, a brand new interview series featuring BAME leaders in energy, tech and environmentalism.
Empowerment seeks to amplify under-represented voices in these critical sectors – to show the breadth of careers available and the urgent work being done to build a fair energy system for everyone.
Our very first speaker in the Octopus’ offices was Oyin, an Energy and Sustainability Managing consultant and chemical engineer. She helps some of the world's biggest businesses decarbonise their operations to Net Zero. In 2021, Oyin was awarded the Rising Star in Energy and Utilities award by We Are the City. She was also featured in the EMpower Top 100 ethnic minority future leader list in 2020.
I got a chance to sit down with her to discuss her incredible achievements.
Samsam: What drew your interest in energy and engineering?
Oyin: I did a Masters in chemical engineering as I’ve always had a fascination with electricity, growing up in Nigeria with a very inconsistent supply. My first job was in oil and gas. It was an amazing, well-rounded and mind expanding experience but over time I became far more interested in renewable energy and the system of the future.
Samsam: After leaving oil and gas, where did your career take you next?
Oyin: Sure, I first did a renewable energy research project at Columbia University for six months. I focused on electrolyzers and hydrogen and it was a great intro into sustainability. I then got a job working on district energy systems across the UK from the research stage to the actual implementation of the network. So that's everything from hydraulic modelling to pipe sizes and pressures. It learnt a lot about the sustainable energy field and I spent 4 years there soaking up all that knowledge and experience.
Eventually I decided I wanted to get more into consulting so I am currently an energy managing consultant with a company called Guidehouse. Our main aim is to help big companies come up with and implement a strategy to reduce their emissions. It’s been an interesting transition going from working behind the scenes, alongside engineers to meeting with CEO’s consulting them on global strategies.
I now deal with large corporations like Google to Mondelez which owns Oreo and Cadbury, and help them understand and reduce their energy footprint.
Samsam: What is your proudest work/project?
Oyin: I worked with a hugely well-known global food and drinks company who wanted to implement a strategy to get to 100% renewable electricity by 2030. What really made that special was that they operated in many different parts of the world from the UK to Nigeria. We had to adjust our strategy to each individual region as renewable energy is very dependent on the country's capabilities. For example, in the UK there may be limits on how many solar plants you can actually build on site. So, then we enter into a PPA (power purchase agreement) with an offsite supplier that the company can pay to generate green energy for them. In countries like Nigeria, these PPA’s don’t exist so we have to find innovative ways around that. Sometimes this includes paying an off site supplier to generate green energy and even if there is no way for the energy to reach the site - it’s still generated to neutralise any dirty fossil fuels energy generated.
With this company, we were able to come up with a strategy that allowed them to get to 100% renewable electricity on all their sites, which I’m incredibly proud of.
Oyin touring and consulting at one of the largest companies in the UK
Samsam: Why is it so important that we get these big corporations on board in our quest to NetZero?
I think everyone understands now that climate change is real and we need massive change to ensure that we stay within the 1.5 degree scenario. To do that, it’s crucial that these huge companies are committed to achieving Net Zero.
Oyin: It’s easy for these companies and CEO’s to pledge and say they’re committed, but the most important work is creating a viable and effective strategy. Some of these corporations are the biggest users of fossil fuels, and stats show how much just a few countries and companies have the biggest impact on the climate. So, it's very important that these large corporations take responsibility and actually reduce their emissions.
Samsam: Some of these companies are amongst the world’s biggest polluters - do you think that there's a genuine effort and investment from them to go green?
Samsam: That’s largely dependent on who you're working with. I’ve been quite impressed with a lot of the global food and beverage clients; many are actively working on reducing emissions and reaching net zero. However, when it comes to companies that work in oil and gas - it can be hard work convincing them to transition to green energy. So far, I have seen one gas company which is transforming their business into working with renewables and I’m hoping there will be more. Unfortunately, I have come across a few companies that are more interested in optics than meaningful change. So, some will pledge to reduce their carbon emissions on a very limited basis (i.e. within the offices), but will ignore their largest carbon emission as gas and oil companies. This allows them to market themselves as going green, despite making very little actual effort to do so. All in all, some are much better than others.
Samsam: Is there some tech that is going to revolutionalise these industries?
The future still lies within electrification so we need to focus on green electricity as a key pathway.
Oyin: For example, if a standard company in the UK that is using natural gas for their heating wants to go green - they’ll likely go for an electric boiler system. So it's really important that there is investment in renewable electricity to be able to match the increased demand, without a huge cost increase.
One innovative thing that we're looking at a lot now is waste heat, and how you can use that on your site to produce power or connect it to a system to ensure you'll reduce your energy use. Every industry has tons of waste heat which can be used as biofuel or even cycled back into the energy making process. It’s not particularly new but it’s a simple, effective and sustainable method that almost every company can incorporate.
But honestly, there is no magic bullet here. It took many decades to damage our planet and it’s going to take a multi-pronged, methodical approach to fix the damage.
Samsam: What are the hardest and most enjoyable aspects of your work?
Oyin: The range of my work and the clients I deal with is definitely the most enjoyable aspect. I also love the range of locations I get to work with as I’ve always really wanted to work with projects around the world and particularly in Africa. Especially, being African and knowing about the impact of climate change and colonisation - it feels really good to be working on sustainability.
In terms of most challenging, it’s adjusting the strategies for different parts of the world - particularly places where it’s significantly harder to get to zero carbon because there is a lack of electricity/an unstable grid.
Another challenge is finding the balance between decarbonising and losing a company tons of money. Typically, companies only invest in something where there is money to be made but with decarbonization it’s a new way of thinking. In the long-term, companies will hugely benefit from going green but in the meantime, we have to find cost-effective ways of being sustainable.
My work is all about showing businesses how cost-effective it can be to decarbonise
Samsam: Have you noticed a lot of changes in your industry in the past few years?
Oyin: There have been some really significant changes, but I have to say there is still not enough diversity, particularly when it comes to race. I even do talks in colleges and there are very few BAME kids in those engineering classes.
I remember being really nervous when I first decided to wear my Afro to work instead of my straightened hair. I didn’t know if it was going to affect my professional progression or if I would be ‘othered’ for the way I looked. Luckily, I noticed absolutely no changes in the way people treated me so I feel very lucky.
Samsam: Did you experience a big culture shock moving from Nigeria to the UK?
Oyin: I lived in Nigeria until I was 16, and moved to the UK with my family to join the rest of my extended family. I fit right in here as I had spent most of my summers in the UK already. The only culture shock I experienced was going from a society that is almost entirely black to going to a school where only 3/100 were black. I really had to get used to being in an environment where I didn’t look like everyone else.
I also remember everyone being far ahead of me in terms of work experience, so I felt I had to work extra hard to catch up.
I feel quite lucky as I didn’t experience any overt discrimination, and I had a great experience. On reflection, I was quite oblivious and there were lots of little things that I probably didn’t recognise for discrimination at the time.
I remember my 3 year old nephew coming home from school once saying he wanted to change his skin colour because the kids in school had told him his skin looked dirty. So as I was much older by the time I came to the UK I had a strong sense of self, and wasn’t going to allow other people's opinions of me to affect me.
I didn’t grow up being aware of racism, or being less-than as a black woman. Instead I grew up knowing black is beautiful.
Samsam: What’s one way workplaces can make sure they’re gaining and retaining their BAME colleagues?
Oyin: Setting the tone early one and discussing concepts like diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias during training. It’s a great way to teach everyone and also make your BAME staff feel super valued and seen. I’m also a big advocate of work networks for different demographics like the LQBTQ community or a black network that is all about empowering and supporting those people.
Mostly, we need to be able to have difficult but honest and open conversations with each other about the realities of our lived experiences.
Samsam: What advice do you have for people wanting to break into your field?
Oyin: Get experience where you can. Whether that is a summer work experience, University Initiatives or being a really active part of Uni societies. Those are the things that set you apart in a very competitive market.
Watch Oyin's brilliant talk at Octopus below:
Quick Fire Round
Most memorable day in your career?
Winning the Rising Star in Energy and Utilities award, last year.
Do you have any unusual skills or hobbies
I can quote every line from Friends.
Favourite place in the world?
Bermuda, we went for my Dad’s 60th and it was incredible.