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An article by Enterprise Fellow Dr Yige Sun.

Yige SunWe have multiple identities on this planet, defined by ourselves, or by others. This post from me is as a woman STEM researcher, and an explorer with an enterprise mind (hopefully). I’d like to share some of the things that I’ve observed, explored since being at Oxford and Faraday Institution (FI), and also take a look at why I explore.  I have gained a lot of encouragement, support, and therefore, the freedom and capacity to explore and grow, in Oxford and FI. Hopefully this sharing could be useful.

Introduction

My enterprising exploration journey in Oxford started in 2019, my first autumn in the UK. From participating in RisingWISE, to Mentoring Women for Spinouts Success, to the EMPOWER WOMEN programme, mine was a journey of observing, embracing and exploring.

The first programme I participated in, mainly happens locally. After this, due to the fact that Covid-19 increased digital accessibility and online involvement through 2020 and 2021, the following two programmes I engaged with were expanded to women from various backgrounds across the UK.  I think that now it is a good time to reflect on these experiences, and to note some observations and comparisons. In this post, I will briefly share my experiences from the last three years, how they have affected and are still influencing me, and also some thoughts on what could potentially be done to create a larger positive impact.

What Happened

A pink frogRisingWISE as a programme is unique. It is designed by women, for women and delivered entirely by women. This sends such a strong signal, and for me it was a very attractive prospect. All participants in the programme were early career researchers from Oxford and Cambridge, and were highly involved and invested, from designing their own motto, to attending networking drinks, with external guests invited. It was both challenging and fun, finding our own ‘frog’ to eat (echo to Shirley Jamieson’s talk). The practice session on pitching our own ideas was so inspiring and fun. It was a chance to put my needs, my ideas, and myself on stage, and to welcome different views and feedback. 

Looking back now, I realise that one of the impacts of this programme for me, is that I am able to see a bigger world in Oxford through this window. It turned on the light and wiped the glasses for me (really helpful for anyone joining the university as a new member back then). The message from RisingWISE is be open, don’t be limited, there are more opportunities.

In 2021, I joined the Mentoring Women for Spinouts Success event organized by Oxford Brookes University. The reason that I joined this event, was not to start a spinout, but to discover the gaps, or the top needs for women-led enterprises. The participants were not only from Oxford, but from across the UK. One thing that I observed in this event was that most enterprising communities were local communities. There were enterprise communities mainly interested in London, or mainly focused on Birmingham, or Liverpool. However, for a new spinout, or start-up companies, there might be some opportunities in neighbouring or different communities. This observation led me to two questions: how to bridge the gap between the two and offer more chance for women-led enterprises? And how to make the mentoring for enterprising women more accessible? These would be two of the main topics that I will focus on further exploration/directions. At the end of this programme, a LinkedIn group was established to invite both mentors and mentees who attended from across the UK. I think this is really a very good practice for support beyond the event.

Compared with the above two programmes, the EMPOWER WOMEN programme, created by the Faraday Institution and Skill4, gathered women from an even wider array of disciplines, and at different stages of life and career. It was a brilliant mixture of women who are PhD researchers, early-career and mid-career women from experimental, simulation and law disciplines, and from academic and industry backgrounds. It was amazing to see how this community shared similar experiences, similar challenges and supported each other. Using the modules on assertive communication, building your professional image, and the showcase, I gained more confidence. The messages I took away from EMPOWER WOMEN were: be braver, don’t be afraid, it is OK to say No. After EMPOWER WOMEN, I am definitely more confident about saying no. Some of other impacts of the programme have yet to develop, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they grow as I continue my enterprise and innovation journey.   

What’s next

All three of these programme are designed to support women in different ways, and are all important. It is notable that at the end of each programme, a welcoming and encouraging community was established, and this indicates that there is a strong need for continuous sharing, communication, empathy and encouragement/support.

One of the post-programme challenges however is in maintaining momentum. A vast increase in digital accessibility and online events since 2020 actually could strengthen the connections between individuals who share similar challenges and values, but who are physically apart. As we adjust to the ‘new normal life’ post-pandemic, how much time will we all (not just women) focus on ourselves? How much time will we spend on engaging and developing the community further? Will the impact of what we have built, both before and during this pandemic, expand, merge or fade in the next couple of years?

Personally, I think this could be a chance for lasting change.

  • Geographic boundaries have been diminished, and this in turn increases the diversity of backgrounds, disciplines, stages of life and career.
  • Virtual communities across different cities have been established. These communities are honest, friendly, respectful, supportive, flexible, relaxed and will not occupy a large amount of personal time.
  • The diverse needs of a larger community have been recognised, and responses to meet these needs are emerging
  • The pandemic forced the majority to exist and operate at a similar pace and stage. We share similar challenges and then interests. There are so many to share, and this brings a natural opportunity to exhibit empathy and to connect with one another.
  • For established networks across the UK, such connections can translate to in-person meetings and collaborations as things open up again

Most of the efforts and programmes focused on supporting women that I explored from different dimensions could be applied to support a diversity of any under-represented groups with similar needs.

So, to return to my original question of why I explore: I do so because for me, exploration holds promise. I don’t know what is coming next in life, but I know that exploration is necessary for me to be able to find the answer. 

PS: my exploration journey continues as I joined the BSF (become a science founder), I2I (Ideas 2 Impact) programmes, the Oxford Robotics and Additive Manufacturing Society (OxRAM) and MPLS Innovation Leadership Programme (ILP). Happy to share more next time. Let’s keep exploring, even beyond the Earth (echo to the OxSI (Oxford Space Initiative))!