Felicity Furey is a young engineer and entrepreneur in a hurry. She was named one of the Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence and Boss magazine’s Young Executive of the Year. Felicity has helped over 13,500 students learn about engineering. She’s also passionate about developing the next generation of engineers.
“I thought to be a leader, you had to be someone with grey hair and wrinkles and decades of experience,” says Felicity, who started WeAspire to develop emerging leaders in the STEM field. “In engineering, technical experience is very important because of the kind of work we do but the projects we work on as engineers are complex and complicated, and we need multidisciplinary teams.”
Today’s leaders “don’t need to be the most experienced person in the room,” she says, “it’s more around how you think and your behaviour and your attitude. There’s not that much support and training for people who are early in their career and want to step into leadership.”
In 2011, she co-founded Power of Engineering, a non-profit organisation dedicated to encouraging young people – particularly girls – to pursue engineering as a profession. High school students inspired to study engineering after attending the first Power of Engineering events in 2012 are now graduate engineers. “I feel really proud that there are women now in the profession who wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t put my hand up and said I want to do something about diversity,” she says.
Felicity is also an ‘engineer in residence’ at Swinburne University, part of the university’s effort to “bring in the industry perspective and create a culture of partnership between academics and industry”.
A large part of her role is working with industry partners to secure opportunities for students to gain practical experience. “We’re about to roll out a big transformation project within our STEM degrees where every student will have industry experience while they’re studying,” she says. “They’re learning what the real world of engineering is like before they leave university.”
Ironically, it wasn’t until her second year of a Bachelor of Engineering at QUT that Felicity fell in love with engineering.
An engineering student more by circumstance than choice – Felicity listed engineering as her fifth preference in her university application – she considered quitting the course at the end of her first year. She was put off by the focus on maths and physics and a male-dominated cohort in which Felicity was one of 12 women among 120 students. “I often felt out of place,” she says.
Fortunately, a second-year project requiring students to design a housing estate changed everything. It was a transformative moment that ignited Felicity’s passion for engineering and has seen her flourish in the field.
“I got to see that we design things for people,” says Felicity, one of Science & Technology Australia’s Superstars of STEM in 2019 and 2020. “It sounds so obvious now, but I had no idea what engineering was, even while I was studying it. When I saw that I got to design the world and make things for people, it was a real ‘a ha’ moment for me. Engineering just clicked.”
After finishing university, Felicity joined WorleyParsons as a structural engineer, a “detailed-focused” role that she came to realise didn’t play to her strengths. “I’m more of a people person, a communicator, someone who likes to solve problems in a team,” she says. As a structural engineer, “I was often sitting by myself a lot, doing design”.
A better fit was a project manager role at Brisbane City Council that Felicity took on in 2009. “I was fortunate enough at 23 years of age to be given a portfolio of road projects,” she says. “I was managing $45 million worth of road projects in the Road Action program.”
Felicity relished the opportunity to lead a team and see roads she helped build shape the city she grew up in. It was an experience that “sparked a love of infrastructure,” says the engineer, who has since worked on large infrastructure projects such as the West Gate Tunnel project in Melbourne, an experience she found incredibly rewarding. “You get to have such an influence over how something is built and designed,” she says. “You’re accountable for a great result for the community.”
Inspiring young people from diverse backgrounds
Felicity hopes the example she sets through her advocacy and public speaking inspires more young people from diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in STEM. “It took me a while to have the confidence to put my ideas forward and share my perspective,” she says. “I wish I’d done that earlier and realised there was value in being different.”
Now, she says, “I speak with a lot of young people, and I say, ‘What’s the problem you want to solve? Who are the people you want to help? What are your unique strengths?’ STEM is a foundation for you to go help those people, go solve those problems and do something you’re really passionate about.”
Organisations such as IPWEA also play a vital role in supporting young engineers, says Felicity. “So much of what I’ve accomplished in my career has been because I’ve volunteered with an industry organisation,” she says. “It enables you to step into leadership, to meet people and to network.”
Felicity will be speaking at the International Public Works Conference in Adelaide on May 1-5, 2022.