Amma Kabeer, CEO, thepastrychef_ng, two weeks ago graduated from Nile University of Nigeria and was conferred with a First class Bachelor of Engineering Degree in Petroleum and Gas Engineering. The Oil and Gas Engineer had a chat with Daily Trust Saturday about how she achieved this educational feat even as an entrepreneur.
As a student of Engineering you combined studies and business, how did you manage these two tasking responsibilities?
Everything in life is about priority, compromise and balance. Studying Engineering and starting a new business can be quite challenging. However, because I have a great passion for these things, I try to balance them, but honestly, I haven’t always been very good at keeping balance.
What inspired you to study Engineering, particularly with specialisation in oil and gas?
I chose to be an engineer because I thought it would be a lot of fun. I wanted to make a difference in the world and learnt that Engineering is the field that solves the most impactful problems in the world. Engineers are constantly changing the world with inventions and solutions that affect everyone’s life by making it better. During a career talk in high school, my mentor said, “The more you expose yourself to the world of engineering, the more opportunities you may have and the better prepared you will be to meet the challenges ahead.”
I developed a keen interest in Petroleum and Gas Engineering during my final year in high school. When almost everyone in my set wanted to study Medicine, I knew I had to be different. With a lot of research and little understanding of what I was getting myself into, I was so sure it was the right thing for me because I loved Chemistry and Mathematics.
Fast forward to studying Petroleum and Gas Engineering, I began to understand and develop more interest during my early years. I knew that if I wanted to be successful in my intended career, I had to bring out the best in myself. And so, every summer holidays, right from my second year, I began to go for internship programmes for two to three months to fully understand the industry I am getting myself into. I also registered as a member of the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE), which served as a medium for me to actively participate in the oil and gas industry activities. During these years, I met so many amazing people who have inspired me to work so hard and always be ahead of myself.
How does it feel to be among the best graduating engineering students with a first-class?
I feel honoured, determined, fulfilled, confident, empowered, happy and successful. Honestly, it’s a rollercoaster of emotions. But I give all glory and praise to God almighty for his endless favours and grace upon my life, especially in the area of my academics. He kept me safe and has given me the enablement to achieve another milestone in my academic career. Also, I feel sincerely grateful to my parents for granting me such opportunity and support.
It must have been quite tasking for you as an Engineering student and entrepreneur. Can you tell us about the tough changes you took as a student and businessman?
I have always had the drive to excel in whatever I do. I have a great passion for baking, as well as engineering. It was quite difficult to handle school work and business at the same time; and I don’t think anyone before me had it easy. There were days I had important classes to attend and orders to deliver by noon. I had tight deadlines, so I had to push myself to work extra hard. These are all part of the challenges. However, what helped me through those days were discipline and passion for what I do; I never procrastinated. I didn’t leave my school work for later, I did it when it was the right time; and the same goes for my business. I believe it’s all about doing the right thing at the right time.
How do you overcome your challenges as a businessman?
Raising funds as a startup was the biggest challenge. In the beginning, I had to do everything myself – looking at the cost of energy, operation, human resource, space and many more. The sheer amount of work I had to put in as a solo founder was another challenge. However, I got so much support from family and friends in terms of patronising the business and making it move every day.
I am still figuring out how to overcome some of these challenges, but one thing that I did was to split up my days and schedule very specifically – time for business and time for school work.
What are some of the highs and lows of your business?
One of the drawbacks of the business was the time I had to give engineering. During my final year, I had to weigh the options and prioritise, which led to the business not being fully active as it should have been. Another thing was the skill needed to run the business, which was not cheap to come by, and with the size of the business, it was a struggle to acquire those skills.
On the high side, I was able to execute what I was passionate about, the patronage from family and friends, the feedback from ever returning customers, the relationship with my customers, which I believe makes the business succeed, etc. Also, creativity and productivity constantly push me to get to the next level and have a strong sense of accomplishment.
There has been a lot of focus on some of the negative issues of studying a male-dominated course; how have you found the engineering sector? What advice do you have for intending female students who are concerned about how they would be treated?
I understand that concern, but I feel it is more about passion. The truth is that it lies more on the woman because we don’t have enough female role models in the industry. However, I believe that all achievements are doable by either male or female because a lot of the activities are rather intellectual than physical. Honestly, there’s a lot to learn in the real world outside academics, and as women I feel there are gaps we need to fill while challenging gender and class inequality simply by succeeding as female engineers. Nevertheless, the stereotype is there, it is not going to be easy to overcome, but surely, we will get there.
Why do you think there are few female Engineering students?
Statistically, there’s a lot of talk about women being broadly underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). But I think it has to do with its stereotype of being physical and male-dominated. I believe there’s a tremendous opportunity for women in the engineering industry. We need to make parents, teachers and guardians aware that engineering is an interesting, rewarding, successful career choice for girls, and that would go a long way towards increasing the intake of girls. But, at the same time, we also have to do things to improve the environment for them when they become engineers. Generally, it is a combined effort, to be honest.
What did you enjoy most about studying Engineering?
For me, the most exciting things are the exposure, experience and networking. It makes you appreciate the world around you. In the engineering industry you get to meet different people from different races, cultures, tribes, beliefs, etc. As a student, I applied myself productively in the industry by creating a network of people through the Society of Petroleum Engineers SPE. I got to attend so many of their conferences and events all over the world. I remember when I was the president of the SPE chapter in my school I organised and led the team that pulled out the 2018 SPE students’ technical conference and exhibition.
In early 2018, I went to Ghana to present a technical paper and I emerged the first position. I represented Africa in the International Student Paper Contest (ISPC) at the SPEs Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition (ATCE) that same year in Dallas, Texas, USA. I was also awarded the first-ever girl in STEM leadership award in recognition for outstanding performance in the area of STEM by SPE’s Women Development Programme (WDP). So, to me, anything outside engineering is just a hobby.
Did you ever think of quitting the course?
As it is with everything in life, there are days you struggle. But I have always loved engineering. I can say there were times I felt exhausted and had to drag myself out of bed to be in school.
Does anybody inspire you in the engineering world?
I get inspired by many people, both men and women, the likes of Ceri Powell, Amy Jadesimi, Beatrice Spaine, Sara Hussein Akbar, Alan Emtage, Emmanuel Egbogah, etc. But truthfully, the women in engineering who fought against outdated perception and gender stereotype to make progress and actualise their dreams inspire me. It is fascinating to see them work hard and help uplift other women. It is commendable.
As a student, did you notice gender bias or imbalance; if yes, did it in any way affect you?
Not really, there were no surprises. It was exactly what I expected. In my class, we had an equal number of males and females. However, generally, in the Faculty of Engineering, there were more males than females. It was more like a 70/30 ratio.
Do you have any advice for younger women who are considering pursuing a career in engineering or as entrepreneurs?
To become a female petroleum engineer and an entrepreneur is quite challenging. As a woman, you have to work hard, strive and believe in yourself to become the best version of you. Do not let self-doubt hold and grip you down because it is the greatest barrier to success.
Becoming an engineer or an entrepreneur does not require adopting a new persona, it means amplifying your true self with focus and discipline. The key is to be authentic and draw from one’s experiences, values and strengths.
Being an engineering student made me aware of my unique character, values, strengths and shortcomings.
So my main piece of advice to those who wish to become engineers or entrepreneurs would be to choose career paths they are passionate about, then figure out where they can shine.