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Natalie Desty, STEM Returners

Inspirational Female Founder Spotlight: Natalie Desty, STEM returners

Natalie Desty is the Founder and Director of STEM Returners, an award-winning solution to an industry wide problem. After building a progressive career in recruitment, where she was Director of Maritime Engineering at a large recruitment company, Natalie was struck by the apparent lack of progress in diversity and inclusion within STEM industries. She was particularly concerned by the insurmountable barriers that people who have had a career break face, when wanting to return to STEM roles and so set up STEM Returners (in 2017) to work with leading STEM organisations to change the way they view professionals who have a career break.

Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?

I spent 13 years in recruitment until I reached Director level for a large recruitment firm, and during that time I was painfully aware of the insurmountable barriers that people who want to return to work face when they’ve had a career break. In addition, the incredibly slow progress in diversity and inclusion within engineering in particular was obvious to me – in fact, during my whole 13 years in engineering recruitment, the percentage barely changed.

So, I started STEM Returners to work with employers and facilitate a route back to work for candidates after a career break or those struggling through outdated standard recruitment channels.

The programme allows employers to attract candidates from a new talent pool and give candidates a supported route back to their career. Providing employers with talented professionals and helping them to view CV gaps in a different way. 

Alongside the experience gained from the work placement, STEM Returners also provides support for the candidate in advice, career coaching, networking opportunities and mentoring.  All of the candidates going through the programme have the opportunity to restart their career in a permanent position at the end of the programme.

How did the idea come to you for the company?

I attended a conference by the Women’s Engineering Society in 2015 and two particular statistics really stood out to me – that 20,000 females had left engineering and that 40% of 40 year old women fall off professional registration.

I personally knew of the barriers that returners had when being compared with non-career break candidates and also how fixing this issue would positively impact diversity and inclusion so I left my Director level salaried role and decided to take a risk and build a company that made a difference to something I was passionate about.

How did you achieve awareness?

One of our earliest adopters were BAE Systems and Babcock, two hugely successful and respected engineering organisations which gave us a huge boost by believing in what we were doing. Once we started placing returners back into industry, we started sharing their return stories on social media and our following and awareness grew.  Soon we had other engineering companies approaching us to welcome back their own returners and we started gaining partners such as the Women’s Engineering Society as well as gaining the support of the professional engineering institutions. We also started being featured in local and national press which really helped spread the word and we have been awarded two industry awards for increasing diversity and inclusion within engineering – this was a further boost for us. So far, we have returned more than 200 candidates.

How have you been able to gain funding and grow?

We don’t charge returners for our services. We act as a consultancy for our partner clients who we charge to run a programme. Growing is always tricky and bringing people in at the right time when you are busy, but when cash flow is in the right place is hard to navigate, but we are managing it. We have just recently doubled the number of employees in STEM Returners and will keep bringing people in to support our growing number of returners and clients.

What are the key successes?

The best success we can ever hope for is the lives that we have changed. We have now returned 238 returners to STEM, 238 people that were otherwise locked out of standard recruitment processes. With these returners we are also changing the diversity of engineering – our returners have been 46% female (compared to an engineering average of 10%) and 34% from ethnic minority backgrounds (compared to 7% in engineering), 96% of all returners placed on the programme have been retained by the host company.

There are so many life changing stories, but one that stands out to me is a lady that we placed 18 months ago. She was living in a women’s refuge at the time having escaped domestic abuse resulting in a 5-year career break, despite many unsuccessful applications she has all but given up. We placed her on a programme and fast forward to today not only was she given a permanent role after her placement, she has since been promoted and just bought her first flat on her own. Job satisfaction doesn’t get better than that!

What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?

Getting hiring managers to look at returners in a different way, not to compare them to job specs but to see the person behind the CV and the transferrable skills and experience that they have to offer. We have to remind people that this is about saying yes to people that you might normally say no to through those outdated recruitment channels.

What are your plans now/for the future?

We want to keep growing our returner opportunities. We currently have just over 5,000 returners who are registered and looking for a programme, so I want to return as many of those to industry as possible. We also want to continue to be a positive driver for change to help create a genuinely diverse and inclusive sector where everyone can thrive.

What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship journey?

If you have an idea, go for it. You can spend all the time in the world thinking about it and researching it but a start requires a determined step. For me, it was quitting my very comfortable job and creating something that would feel to me like I was making a difference. Once I stepped out of my comfort zone and my salaried job, I had to make it work and that was a big motivator to keep me on track!

Can you share your top tips for entrepreneurial success?

You have to be passionate about your idea to be able to sell it to others. You have to 100% believe in it. Things will go wrong, you will get knocks – people will say no, keep going until you get a yes and then build on that yes.

Who are the 5 people who inspire you the most and why?

My son – he was the key reason that I started this business, and I left my job when I was on maternity leave, I wanted the flexibility of managing my own time so I could be the mum I wanted to be. You can have a fulfilling career and be a great parent – although I won’t pretend that sometimes it doesn’t take a lot of juggling!

Business wise I take inspiration from people who have worked really hard to build something that they are passionate about and then are able to reflect on their journey and mistakes. I love to listen to podcasts (Oprah Winfrey’s Soul Sessions and Steve Bartlett’s Diary of a CEO) and read books. I have been most impacted by:

Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom

Mo Gawdat, Solve for happy

Prof Steve Peters, The Chimp Paradox- I have quite a sizeable chimp that needs to be kept in check

The Gifts of Imperfection: Brene Brown

Lean in, Sheryl Sandberg

What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?

“Believe you can and you’re halfway there” Theodore Roosevelt

“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing”- Walt Disney

What are your Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn social handles and also website links so our readers can connect with you?

Instagram: STEM Returners

Facebook: STEM Returners

Linkedin: Natalie Desty