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The UNSW Canberra ‘Business in Focus’ series highlights some of our inspiring alumni who have started their own businesses, movements and organisations.
Ruth “Rocket Woman” Harrison is a UNSW Canberra alumna who is passionate about diversity in STEM fields, particularly engineering. In 2019, Ruth founded Rocket Woman, an organisation focused on addressing the gender imbalance in STEM fields by providing opportunities and support for women to return to STEM careers.
Ruth shares Rocket Woman's origin story, achievements and future aspirations, as well as some advice on starting your own business.
Tell us about your business and what you do.
I am creating a program to help women and minorities return to STEM careers after a career break. There are many reasons people leave STEM careers or take a break from them and it can be very challenging to return. I help them by providing a 16-week returnship program, with an employer that is keen to help accelerate diversity within STEM careers. This not only gives them an opportunity to gain recent experience, but it also helps them build their confidence and develop an idea of what their areas of interest are.
There’s a massive shortage of STEM-qualified professionals across many areas of Australian industry and we need to explore all areas of the potential talent pool. It is also very important that we attract and retain more diverse voices within STEM careers as we need to hear from people with all kinds of experiences to ensure we build a world that is accessible for everyone.
What did you study at UNSW Canberra and what skills did you gain here that helped you build your career?
Last year I undertook a Graduate Certificate in Space Operations. I have since moved on to the Masters of Space Operations as I enjoyed it so much. I had wanted to further my study for a number of years but wasn’t sure what direction to take. The global COVID situation gave me an opportunity and when the course was shared with me, I decided that it not only aligned with my goals, but it also aligned with my interests.
I already had a BEng (Hons) Aerospace and one of my interests whilst doing that had been space technology. I am a big fan of the space shuttle, so I took the opportunity to get on the course remotely. It has been a great learning opportunity for me and has led to me taking on a role with spaceaustralia.com as a writer. It has also helped me to understand the challenges that the growing Australian space industry is facing, as well as connecting me with industry.
Even though I studied remotely, it hasn’t felt like it, partly as everyone has been in the same situation, but also because the course has been very inclusive and like a community. I have gained not only knowledge but also friendships, even though I haven’t actually met many of the people I studies with. It also gave me an idea to start a spin off, Rocket Women, which is a project to promote women in space.
What were you doing before you started your business?
I spent the last 12 years working in technical recruitment, working with organisations within the defence, aerospace, aviation and engineering sectors. This gave me an in-depth understanding of the challenges of attracting and retaining diverse people within STEM.
There are many people that struggle to find that first role after a career break, so much so that they leak out of the industry. This is just compounding the skills shortage within STEM, but in particular within engineering. There are some great women doing some amazing things to change that and I have had the privilege to work with and learn from them, not least UNSW Canberra’s own Dr Bianca Capra who is a previous Superstar of STEM and co-chair of the UNSW Canberra Young Women in Engineering (YoWIE) program.
What are you most proud of about your business?
That I took a leap of faith. It isn’t easy to leave the comfort of a steady career but sometimes you just have to take a chance. I am proud I am still here after a fairly challenging year. I am driven to create a better world and I feel the best way to do that is to make sure we ask the right questions. To do that we need more diverse voices at the table and having more diverse voices in STEM will help to achieve that. Doing the grad cert and now the masters have given me the tools to ask more questions and to understand an industry that is right at the beginning of its journey here in Australia. Space is very inspiring and is a great medium to promote STEM and I am proud to be a very small part of it.
What advice would you give to other aspiring entrepreneurs?
You don’t know until you try. You don’t have to have all the answers before you have a go. Every entrepreneur I have spoken to has just had an idea and run with it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but every time you try something different you learn something. Also be open to the fact that what you thought might be your business might not be where the business goes and listen to what people are telling you. You don’t have to do what they say but be open to what they say.
Also, do something you are passionate about. Going out on your own is tough– it’s great – but it is tough, so you need to be passionate about it. Whatever you do there needs to be a reason to do it. For me, I am driven to create a more equitable world and I am using the skills and knowledge I have to do that. There are other ways to achieve that but for more, right now, this is where I am at. It might change and I might find a better way. I am open to that, which is important. Finally, talk to people about your idea, about what drives you and what you want to achieve. Talk to as many people as you can, from all walks of life, you never know where that little snippet that could really help you will come from.
What’s next for you and your business?
Now I am looking for people seeking to return a career in STEM. There are many reasons people leave STEM careers and I want them to know that they have an opportunity to return if they want to. We have experienced STEM professionals working in all kinds of roles not related to their area of study because they have migrated from another country and don’t have local experience or have been raising children for a number of years or any other number of reasons. There are also those who have become disillusioned, and I want them to know that industry is changing and there are companies out there that are supportive and keen to help them return to the industry they are passionate about. I am also looking for companies that are keen to support a more diverse STEM workforce and looking for a direct way to do this.