Profile: Lopa Patel MBE

Materials World magazine
3 Jul 2015

Natalie Daniels speaks to Lopa Patel about education, STEM and her career in the industry.

Lopa Patel is Technology Ambassador for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network (STEMNET), helping to encourage young people to take up STEM career paths, particularly in science and technology. She is also the Founder and CEO of equality and inclusion of a think tank Diversity UK and has recently been awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion, for her outstanding role in promoting the growth of business enterprise and entrepreneurial skills in other people. 

Tell me about your background.

I am a digital entrepreneur with a love of science and technology, and an evangelist for STEM, innovation and bridging the skills gap in business. After obtaining three science A-Levels, I pursued a BTEC in Computer Science, followed by a BSc in Biochemistry at the University of Manchester, Institute of Science and Technology. On graduation, I joined the fast-track graduate scheme of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) Plastics and Petrochemicals division and decided to pursue sales and marketing. I am the founder and CEO of think tank called Diversity UK, which addresses the issues of equality and inclusion in Britain.

Congratulations on winning the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion – can you tell me a bit more about this?

It is an honour to receive this award as it is a validation and acknowledgement of more than a decade of promoting entrepreneurship as a real career prospect for future generations. I feel it is important that young people develop the skills necessary to create, innovate and launch new ideas and innovations, whether that be in science or business. My role over the past decade has been to promote STEM, particularly technology, which I have done by hosting coding workshops, speaking about career paths and business strategy development, talking to graduates and advising young people on the career and education options avaliable to them. 

What I would say is there is no single route to developing a career in STEM – I encourage people to learn, whichever way they feel is best to develop the right skills. The future belongs to those who are highly skilled, whether this is through formal qualifications such as degrees and apprenticeships or by simply making it happen – each person has to learn in their own way. 

What can be done to encourage more young people into STEM careers? 

STEM is critical to the creation of future businesses. I really do believe that we are standing on the verge of the next big scientific wave – whether this is in robotics, artificial intelligence, advanced materials, biotechonology, nanotechology, 3D printing or something else. I encourage more young people into STEM careers by highlighting the paths avaliable in schools in terms of further education. It is easier to go from STEM degrees into other areas like finance, HR and marketing rather than the other way round, so it is important to get young people to choose to study STEM subjects. STEMNET also encourages new role models in industry, particularly for young girls. There also need to be more STEM workshops, internships and work placements available as most people learn best by doing. More opportunities for young people to come into the workplace and actually do a job for a short period would encourage them to take up such careers.

What advice would you give to others looking to go down the same career path? 

There is no single route into entrepreneurship, so people need to focus on developing the relevant skills. As the future is likely to be technological, this means investment in STEM skills is an important part of career development.

What can the Government and industry be doing to bridge the skills gap in STEM?

The Government needs to create an ecosystem that allows science and technology entrepreneurship to flourish. Ultimately, young people will choose to go where there are jobs, so encouraging development, research and a flourishing technology and science sector will attract more young people. The Government must also ensure that the STEM curriculum keeps up with the pace of change and universities do not become solely for the elite. More bursaries and training grants need to be available for those from lower-income families, so they are also able to receive the relevant education. Industry also needs to invest in training too.

Apprenticeships vs study – which would you choose and why?  

This is a really challenging question, as I reflect on my own background and circumstances. If I were leaving school today, my parents would not have been able to afford university tuition fees and they would not want me saddled with student debt. Personally, I feel that I have got further because of my university education – even though my subsequent diplomas in Marketing and Direct Marketing were undertaken while working – so I would say choose the study route. Sadly, apprenticeships are still under-appreciated compared to degrees