Interview: Karyn Georges, Managing Director - Isle UK  

We spoke to CIWEM Fellow Karyn Georges of Isle UK about life at a leading innovation and technology consultancy, and what steps women can take to level the field within the technological side of the water and environmental sector.

Karyn Georges is Managing Director for the UK & Ireland arm of Isle, a global innovation and technology consultancy, with engineers, scientists, business analysts and regulatory experts, with a common drive to make a positive social, economic, and environmental impact through the advancement of innovative technologies and related practices.

Could you tell us a little bit more about your current role and responsibilities?

On a day-to-day basis, I lead a team to identify, evaluate and support new technologies, especially those in the water space. We work with innovators who want to understand what the water sector needs and how to build a business case that meets the challenges; we work with investors to help them understand the market need for their target technology and whether or not the technology will do what it says it does; and we work with end users such as water companies to help them identify what novel solutions there are to solve their challenges, such as what other utilities across the world are doing to address the same problem, and how companies outside of the water sector are innovating to make an impact.

We also help trials of technologies get off the ground and innovation to get implemented within an organisation.

As well as managing the business day to day, I get involved in projects that relate to wastewater and bioresources. I've worked for many years in this field, in particular chemicals in wastewater and biosolids, and on stormwater discharges, and still get excited when there is a thorny problem to solve about how we best balance the different demands in the water sector.

Here at CIWEM, we are passionate about inclusion. What does inclusion mean to you?

Inclusion for me means creating an environment where everyone, regardless of their background or circumstances, can thrive. It means valuing the contributions that everyone in a team makes and providing space for all voices to be heard. Leading with compassion can help foster an inclusive environment; every employee needs to actively participate in supporting inclusion.

As a leader, not only do I think about compassion, but I think about representation, allyship, working environment and accountability. I work across the global team in Isle which means we have many different cultures and backgrounds, something that it is important to be sensitive to.

How important has CIWEM been to your career progression - and can you tell us more about Wastewater & Biosolids panel you work with?

I've been a member of CIWEM for over 20 years. When I first joined, what I most valued was having a clear framework to help me progress in my career - keeping track of my progress against the competencies, and being able to identify where i needed more experience in different areas was very helpful not only in getting chartered, but in demonstrating to my employer why I should be promoted.

I've always enjoyed reading The Environment - it is still a great way to easily find out about a wide range of news stories within my field and keep up to date with the key policy changes or implications.

The Planet Possible podcast is also a brilliant way to discover the nuances behind the most pressing issues of the day.

I can trust what CIWEM puts out, thanks to the hard work and expertise of the team - it's a reliable source of information, which presents the facts with curiosity and balance. With all the misinformation in the news and on social media today, this is extremely important.

But probably what I value most is the opportunity to meet a wide range of professionals working in the water and environmental fields through conferences and events, and in the last few years through being part of a CIWEM panel and now as a Trustee.

The wastewater and biosolids panel comes together on a quarterly cycle to discuss policy and technical issues that have arisen. We produce policy position statements, respond to requests from CIWEM for comments on consultations or requests for information from members, and share knowledge on any latest innovations or projects in our field. Its been a great way to meet people who work across the sector, and to hear views from people with different background.

And finally, being a Trustee means that I can use the leadership skills that I've developed over the years to help support CIWEM continue in its mission and ensure we have a bright future full of passionate people working in water and the environment.

Can you give some examples of inclusive initiatives at Isle and in the wider sector that you are involved with?

Within Isle, we have a flexible working policy where staff are trusted to make decisions on where and when to work, and to deliver the work that is required. "Assume positive intent" is one of our values this encourages inclusivity because it is routed in compassion. Understand the individual, and if they approach things differently to you, be curious as to why rather than assuming anything negative.

I'm fortunate to work for a company where there are many females in senior leadership roles; across the globe over 50% of our regional MDs are women for example. I believe that seeing women in these positions makes it easier for others to see what their career progression could be within Isle.

Within Isle we regularly review our policies and make changes where it is needed. One example is where we recognised that having a good maternity pay policy wasn't enough, and that those returning to work following the leave need support from those who have experienced the issues that any new parent returning to work experiences. Providing open lines of communication, mentoring and flexible working all help the transition back to work.

As an industry, we can do better though and I'm keen to have a conversation on how we can foster an inclusive environment that draws a diverse range of people to work in what is an exciting and rewarding field. There have been discussions for many years, but what I'm interested in now is action to drive the way forward.

What initially drew you to work more closely with technology in the environmental sector?

I draw energy from being outside in nature, and when I was a child, I would spend hours exploring the local woodland and mucking about in the river with friends. This drew me to studying environmental science at university and my love of trying to minimise the impact humans have on the planet. I love finding out how things work and seeing how we can improve them.

After working for a few years, I did an MSc in Environmental Technology at Imperial College. This really opened my eyes to the wider world of technology in its broadest sense, so not just widgets and gadgets, but ideas, approaches and different ways of doing things.

Technology in the environmental sector encompasses so many things, but it is all about problem solving and collaboration. Technology isn't always the answer, but it does cover a fantastic span of different solutions and approaches. Almost any problem you can think of, someone somewhere across the globe has come up with a way of solving it. It might not be elegant or perfectly formed, but it's those nuggets of genius that bring people together to spark ideas off each other and create something great, that helps me feel optimistic about the future and our environment.

I feel lucky that I get to speak to these enthusiastic, bright people on a weekly basis. Cross- sector collaboration is really exciting in terms of exploring how can we utilise the ideas, experience and technology from other areas and bring it to solve environmental challenges.

This is why I work in technology, especially on the emerging solutions side and innovation. Its a great bringer together of people and is all about problem solving.

It is very easy to feel overwhelmed by the climate and ecological crisis we are in, but stepping back into nature and taking a deep breath calms me again. I want the next generations to be able to do the same. If working in technology in the environmental sector can play a small part in ensuring this can happen, I will be very glad.

What more can be done in the wider sector to highlight inspiring women in technology?

Representation in terms of making sure panels, boards, and projects have diversity (and this doesn't just apply to women).

Allyship is important. Be the person who mentions an inspiring woman when in a room full of opportunities, and puts forward women for panels/as chairs etc, and invites women to these meetings (be it someone early career to observe the meeting or a more senior person to actively participate). It’s about giving the same opportunities to women as to men and questioning when you see a panel at a conference which doesn't have good representation.

In terms of projects or innovative solutions, which are you most proud of?

The Trial Reservoir is something that Isle launched in 2021 and is headed up by Dr. Jo Burgess. Lots of technology companies were struggling to get past rounds of trials within end users (such was water utilities), and the end users themselves were struggling to embed a technology once they had trialled it. The Trial Reservoir is a way to derisk trials and enable end users to adopt the technology with minimal financial risk. It's funded by Isle and a set of sponsors who are similarly motivated to accelerate the implementation of innovation. I'm proud to work for a company that puts its money where its mouth is, and which takes a risk to make a step change in the sector.

Other projects that I have been directly involved in include one for UKWIR on PFAS and wastewater treatment. It was a few years ago and it involved collating research on the forever chemicals to turn what is a very complex topic into a clear message that could be understood by a wide range of stakeholders within the water sector. Key within this project was identifying what role existing and emerging technology will play in removing and destroying the compounds. It involved speaking to experts across the globe, and the innovators involved in developing the technologies to understand where they saw the market value of their solution being, and what this might mean within the UK and Ireland.

Another project was one on Biochar for Scottish Water and SEPA. The team at Isle pulled together research on what technologies produce biochar and what the resulting properties of it are based on different potential input streams, and I facilitated a workshop with experts from across the globe which addressed stakeholder questions and fostered in-depth discussions on key issues. Together we identified 9 different uses of biochar, from as a soil amendment to an additive in anaerobic digestion to as a pigment, and provided the state of knowledge on their potential. This work has since been quoted in reports for UKWIR and more widely, demonstrating the need for good technology reviews within the sector.

I feel proud of how the team handled a challenging problem and addressed it in a way that meant we could communicate the key messages clearly and increase understanding on the important topic.

What future challenges in your area require more innovation to solve?

I feel that the world has the technology and capability to solve just about everything out there. However, there is resistance to the implementation of these solutions and to change. The challenge is how we navigate the environmental transition into a more sustainable future addressing climate change impacts, biodiversity loss, resource depletion and pollution. We need innovation to overcome this resistance to going through this transition.

What has your experience been like as a woman in this field?

Women's collective experience includes lack of representation in panels and boards, and the pay and progression gap. I've had both extremely positive experiences and some less great ones.

Within Isle, I have allies who have empowered me to become a leader, and a supportive network that allow me to ask questions without judgement so that I can grow and ensure my team grows too.

Within the sector, we do need to be talking about the barriers to inclusion. For me this question really needs to turn to the future how do we build a roadmap to address the gender disparity that is still seen?

What advice would you give to other women seeking a similar career trajectory?

Be determined. Dont be closed to opportunities.

Say yes even when you feel a bit out of your depth I've learnt over time that the chances are everyone else feels slightly out of their depth. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Don't try and do it all delegate, reprioritise if you need to. Don't try and be a superwoman.

Getting Chartered is a great way to demonstrate your capabilities in a structured way and is something that I'd recommend to anyone. Building a wide network is important as the connections you make when you start out in your career will be the decision makers and leaders of the future, so foster those relationships from the start.

We are fortunate to work in a field where most people do the work because they are passionate about the environment so you will always have something in common with those you meet along the way.

Joining a panel, getting involved in your local CIWEM branch and attending conferences can expand that network.

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