07 Apr Mareike Schmidt, Innovation Lead, INNOVATE UK
Mareike Schmidt is Innovation Lead at Innovate UK, the UK’s Innovation Agency driving productivity and economic growth by supporting businesses to develop and realise the potential of new ideas. Mareike has had a fascinating career. Starting with a degree in German, French and Psychology, she has gone from leading multi-million-pound local government funding bids, to working in tech start-up and is now playing a leading role in energy innovation for a net zero future. Here she shares her career story, her influences, her passions and her advice.
What job do you do?
As Innovation Lead, I am part of the Prospering from the Energy Revolution Programme, which is investing up to £102.5 million in industry and research to accelerate innovation in smart local energy systems. Matching from the project participants creates a total investment of over £200 million, making it the biggest government-sponsored smart local energy programme in the UK.
Smart local energy systems are increasingly important for decarbonisation and bring other benefits too, including alleviating fuel poverty, providing community income generation, improving network management and costs, and overcoming energy system constraints.
I head the finance, investment, and enterprise stream, which aims to put new financial mechanisms in place to support smart local energy projects. I also lead on the local authority toolkit work with the Energy Systems Catapult, which will help increase expertise and skills at local authority level to scale the projects quickly and efficiently.
There is no day that is the same at Innovate UK. Currently we are particularly interested in developing the strategy for a net zero future. This requires liaising with colleagues from a wide range of organisations, including government departments, on what businesses require to scale up as quickly as possible. I particularly enjoy working on how Innovate UK could position itself in the context of the new National Infrastructure Bank. There is huge potential to join these two organisations up further, with Innovate UK helping businesses to scale via the Bank’s innovative equity and debt financing products. This could overcome current market failures and help us achieve the journey to net zero a lot faster.
I have a lot of autonomy to develop my work streams which is what I enjoy a lot. Creativity and innovation are fostered at all levels of the organisation which is great!
Tell us about your background
I studied German, French and Psychology (Master of Arts) in Germany. After my studies I wanted to work on international projects and spent a couple of months working with EU institutions in Brussels before taking up a role as project manager with the International Team at Leeds City Council.
I moved to Bristol City Council into a similar role and when the opportunity arose to lead on Bristol’s European Green Capital application, I took it. It was a fantastic feeling when Bristol finally won the award for 2015. On the back of the European Commission contacts I made, I subsequently delivered a large £50 million energy efficiency and renewable energy investment programme for the city.
As I do not have an engineering degree, which is usually an essential requirement for some of these roles, I often have to rely on my breadth of skills including good leadership, team management and coaching, as well as creativity and innovation skills.
What has been your personal experience of climbing the career ladder?
A big step for me was to leave the public sector after almost 16 years to join a start-up company in robotics. Rather than encouraging me to take on this exciting job opportunity which was important for widening my experiences and progressing my career, several colleagues and friends questioned whether I would be able to work in such a fast-paced tech environment. Turns out that I loved managing the operational delivery of underfloor insulation with robots!
As I had been innovating within the public sector all my life, it was not too difficult to adjust to a start-up environment. One of the most profound experiences was that I could simply get on with things within agreed parameters rather than having to ask for permission, as is often the case in the public sector.
What kind of support have you found helpful in advancing your career?
I am very fortunate to be able to work with Matt Hastings as my manager at Innovate UK. He always sets the bar very high, simply because he expects me to achieve the best I can do. “The sky is the limit” would probably be his motto. Sometimes this can be challenging but I have benefited a lot from the trust he has in me and his encouragement has spurred me on to do even better. A great experience!
My mentor Richard Jones has been providing tremendous support over the years, particularly on career planning. He has also taught me important Profit & Loss management skills that I needed to succeed at board level as the only female senior leadership team member at Q-Bot.
In 2020, I attended the altMBA programme, an online leadership and management programme developed by one of my heroes, Seth Godin. It not only equipped me with important coaching skills but challenged the way I think about uncertainty, risk and change. I learnt how to take more conscious action for the future, be generous and make an impact with what I do. As Seth says it, playing it safe is sometimes the riskiest thing to do as it does not help with overall progression whether it is in your career or your personal life.
What are your top three tips for aspiring women in the energy sector?
- Know your worth. It’s no secret women earn less than men in the workforce. Even if this seems like a hard thing to do, try and put a value on your work and be confident to ask for the correspondent salary rather than shying away from these conversations.
- Try and acquire expert knowledge. There are huge opportunities in the energy sector to acquire new skills and expertise, particularly when it comes to digitalisation and data, AI and robotics, and smart energy systems. This will help with career outcomes in the longer term as you can stand out in a particular subject.
- Consciously put yourself forward for opportunities. Whether it is leading on a new project, speaking at a conference or organising a corporate event. Doing this means you are more likely to be noticed, and it will give you tangible examples to draw on during job interviews and appraisals, meaning you are more likely to stand out and succeed.
What are your views on gender diversity currently in the UK energy sector?
Within Innovate UK, there are still issues that will need to be addressed. We have a gender pay gap reflective of the wider organisation and society. We have scaled rapidly and that growth brings difficulties to establish a ‘culture’ and a recent National Audit Office report highlighted what we already knew, that there is a lack of women within senior positions within the organisation. This is because equality and diversity policies were not embedded right from the start of the government’s Industrial Strategy programme. This means we do need to catch up on this as quickly as possible.
However, I am particularly proud of several recent initiatives such as the Women in Innovation Awards that foster female entrepreneurship across the UK and were launched by us in 2016. The 2021 winners announced on this year’s International Women’s Day receive £50,000 and a bespoke package of mentoring, coaching and business support. As a result of this initiative, the number of women leading applications to Innovate UK for innovation grants has increased by 70%, which is a wonderful result.