Shifting Gears: An accomplished chemical engineer looks towards social innovation
It was moving to the Netherlands in 2003 to do her MSc at the University of Twente that saw Christy Aikhorin’s passion for sustainability first take root. And it was while working in Nigeria, the country of her birth, that she absorbed how important it is to actively steer your working life into the future that you desire. These days, Aikhorin incorporates both these guiding principles into UnikBlends, the Netherlands-based business she started in late 2015, that promotes sustainable fashion and design, using unique, colourful fabrics. Still in its infancy, Aikhorin is passionately building UnikBlends into a fully-fledged business while still working as a Senior Project Engineer in the New Technologies department of TechnipFMC, a global energy industry company. We spoke to her about the challenges she’s overcome in her working life, why she’s making the shift into being a social innovation entrepreneur and what changes she’d like to see in the world.
Encouragement from woman professor to undertake Masters overseas
Did you ever imagine yourself combining chemical engineering and running a social innovation business, based around sustainability?
I definitely didn’t imagine my life like this, but I have absolutely no regrets. I lived in Nigeria until I was 16 and then we moved to South Africa, which is where I did my BSc in Chemical Engineering at the University of Witwatersrand. When I graduated in 2002, the (then) only woman professor in the Department, Diane Hildebrandt, encouraged me to apply for the Masters programme at Twente in the Netherlands. Being with students from all over Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Japan and India, sharing our very different cultures while studying the same degree, was really a great experience. After my internship I felt a strong urge to move back to Nigeria. At that time the idea of sustainability was not uppermost in my mind, although when I first came to the Netherlands, I was just amazed at how working with nature is so much part of Dutch society - and I quickly grew to love the green spaces and nature that you find in every part of the country and that’s played a big role in my passion for sustainability now.
What has been the highlight of a ten-year career at TechnipFMC, which started when you returned to the Netherlands in 2008?
I had applied to other companies, but I knew it was a sign that this was the place for me when I saw that getting to the offices entailed walking over Nelson Mandelabrug. I’ve changed roles quite a lot during the decade, starting with nearly five years as a Process Engineer and then moving into a Project Engineer role in 2012. At the time, I was the only woman to be promoted from a technical role into project management, from inside the company. I had really loved chemistry at school, but I actually found that I also love the idea of coordinating and bringing people together. When we succeed on a project as a team, I really like the fact that, at the end, I can say ‘look what we’ve achieved together’. As my awareness of the need for renewable energy has grown, I’m proud that my current role includes helping transform innovative ideas into sustainable Engineering, Procurement and Construction Projects. I am also really proud of having been a member of the Gender Diversity Committee for two-and-a-half years. It really made me aware of the lack of diversity, not just within the company but in the engineering industry. I initiated a Gender Diversity Intelligence seminar during that time, which is when I encountered the work of ECWO and Professor Dianne Bevelander. Although I wish more was accomplished through the committee but, as Dianne said, we got the conversation going and that was important.
Recovering from health challenge created space for new ideas
What promoted you to start UnikBlends and what helped you get started?
A ruptured appendix! In retrospect I can see it was brought on by a really challenging and stressful project at work, but my recovery gave me the space for new ideas to come in and I knew I wanted to do something completely different. My husband is also an engineer and is very interested in renewable energy and so I used my recovering time to really explore the idea of sustainability – first in my field and then in doing something that reflected my love for nature here in the Netherlands, and my love for the colour that’s reflected in the indigenous fabrics of Nigeria and other parts of Africa. I was also inspired by a friend of mine who had started a small company whilst working and raising kids. I thought if she can do it so can I. I sought the help of a mentor, Ebere Akadiri, who is Nigerian and has a successful business in the Netherlands. She gave me some important tools, especially to use whatever limited time I had to focus and plan very well.
You’ve been studying over the recent years – doing online courses in business sustainability and renewable energy and leadership. Why’s that important?
For most of my career, I have done external professional courses in areas I find relevant to building my work. These recent courses are definitely helping me to contribute towards developing the roadmap for my department at work and for UnikBlends. They enable me to satisfy my deep-seated openness to learning and research, while discovering ways to have impact. It’s why I have made several functional changes in 10 years, which is also driven by my need for adventure and challenge.
A creative social entrepreneurial project that’s for women, by women
What role does UnikBlends play in the changes that you want to see in the world?
I get restless and always need to express myself in new ways so when I started, it was really about giving myself a creative project that would bring colour and happiness into the world through sustainable fashion. But since then, it has become very focused on being “for women, by women”. I remember Prof. Dianne Bevelander emphasising how women need to work with other strong women, and I do that as much as possible - with collaborative partners I have in Africa, Europe and even Australia, who help reinvent fashion as well as inspire by sharing ‘Real Stories that Matter’. It’s also connecting me back to my roots, and, in turn, my children. Because of UnikBlends, I’m starting to give talks on sustainability – in fashion, in society and our lives – which I am enjoying. Turning a social entrepreneurship business into one that makes a profit is challenging, but I am passionate about this part of my life.