Our administrator Gaëlle Henriet has had a varied career over the past 10 years, wearing various hats as a translator, a crochet tutor, and an admin assistant. She is now using her admin skills and her wealth of experience to help Actuation Lab run smoothly!
For this month’s Letters from the Lab, CEO Simon Bates sat down with Gaëlle to discuss just how she ended up here, and for her to give an honest take on what it is like working amongst a team of eager engineers/hardware nerds…
What did you do before working at Actuation Lab?
I was a translator for over 15 years, working freelance for the past 12 years or so. I’ve also been teaching crochet for the past eight years. In 2021, I realised that everything I had learned by running my own businesses meant that I could help other businesses with their admin, so I decided to leave the translation industry and I started offering admin services on a freelance basis. Then in March 2022 I joined Actuation Lab part time.
What attracted you to Actuation Lab and why did you apply for the role of Administrator?
I was immediately drawn to the eco-friendly side of what Actuation Lab want to achieve.
After having done translation work for some very big companies that didn’t align with my values (but I had to put food on the table…), I really wanted to work for a company that had a strong ethos and was trying to do something good for the planet. When I discovered Actuation Lab’s emphasis on reducing emissions in industry and read the job description, I knew I wanted in!
Given what you said about running your own businesses, would you say you’ve got a certain entrepreneurial spirit?
I suppose so, although to be honest, it’s quite exhausting!
When you start your own business, you don’t know if all the effort you’re putting in your marketing, etc., is going to pay off eventually. Trying to get your name out there is relentless.
In the translation industry, I didn’t really need to market myself that much, as I had rapidly built a good network.
In the crochet world, trying to find students was a lot of effort for not that much financial reward. The teaching in itself was extremely rewarding, and that’s why I kept going for so long.
Now it feels quite nice to be back in an employed role, and not to have to keep looking for clients and hoping to get work. I have plenty to do, and I can see directly how it’s benefitting my colleagues and the company in general. The deadlines are generally reasonable, and it’s also very lovely to be thanked for my work – that’s a nice change from the translation industry!
What does being the admin in a start-up actually look like?
As it was a newly created role, there was a lot of groundwork to do – the existing team had so much on their plate already, they didn’t have much time to spare on admin. There were overflowing inboxes to sort through, drawers and online folders to tidy up… The state of the stationery cupboard was dire: no scissors, no sticky notes, and only black pens!
Now I deal with the day-to-day tasks that are pretty much common to every business: I do the bookkeeping, send and reply to emails, take care of bookings and orders, update the company’s LinkedIn page and website, etc. Essentially, anything that’s not related to engineering or business development – I leave that to the rest of the team.
I’m also working on documenting the company’s processes, even if these are sometimes still in progress as Actuation Lab is evolving and expanding. The aim is to save everyone time in the long run – no need to waste time trying to figure things out, instructions are available.
And I’m always keen on creating a good spreadsheet when that can help streamline a process!
You joined a small team of very engineering-focused people. What is it like, working in such close proximity with engineers?
We think differently on some levels, and that’s quite fun to observe.
I’m very detail-focused and a bit of a stress head. Some things that I, as the admin, find extremely important may not seem relevant to the engineering team, so we’re constantly working on finding a reasonable balance.
We have a very different approach to deadlines… I remember a conversation with our Head of R&D, Tom Llewellyn-Jones, where he said “There’s 24 hours left”, clearly meaning “There’s STILL 24 hours left”, whereas in my head it was “There’s ONLY 24 hours left”!
It’s also very interesting to discover the engineering side of things. Obviously, what I’m learning is quite at high level, because I don’t have the technical knowledge to understand all the finer details of what’s going on. I’m amazed at how engineers come up with solutions to new problems so quickly and ingeniously – they’re a really clever bunch!
You have been through our standard 3D printing session with one of our R&D engineers, Matthew Hollis. Did you expect this sort of thing when you applied for the job?
I didn’t! To be fair, as the only non-techie person in the team, I have to say that everyone always takes the time to explain things to me. This has been their attitude from the start, so I’m never afraid to ask questions!
When I asked if I could be shown the basics of how 3D printing works, just so that I’d have a general idea, I didn’t expect to be offered a full hands-on workshop, which was really cool. I now have a lovely little 3D printed penguin sitting proudly above my desk.
I was also taught the basics of using Onshape, our CAD software, and that blew my mind!
I didn’t expect that people would take the time to teach me those things in so much detail, and I really appreciate it.
That’s great to hear! I guess I hope that’s one area we do better at Actuation Lab than in some big companies. But are there other areas where you think the way things are done in larger companies could benefit ours?
Before going freelance, I only worked for a couple of years in one large international company. Even though my office was in the global headquarters, I never spoke to the CEO and he had no idea who I was! There was not this friendliness that we have amongst the whole Actuation Lab team, including the CEO and all the directors, which is really nice. I don’t know if it’s a small team thing or specific to this group of people though.
In bigger structures, I feel there’s a lot more politics involved. At Actuation Lab, you can speak your mind (respectfully of course), as everyone’s input is appreciated.
The thing that might be “better” in a big company is that there are more defined processes. I put better in quotation marks because although it’s useful to know exactly what to do, if the company’s too precious about its existing processes, that can sometimes lead to inflexibility. But putting processes in place and documenting them is actually part of my job at Actuation Lab, so we’ll get there!
As well as being small, Actuation Lab are also in a very different industry from where you’ve come from. Coming with fresh eyes to the engineering sector, are there differences in the types of people who work in it?
I haven’t had that much insight yet into the engineering world, but so far, there seems to be very little diversity, especially in terms of gender. At Actuation Lab for instance, the engineering team is 100% men, and I’m the only woman in the office, in an admin role – so we’re perpetuating a bit of a cliche! But hopefully, we’ll see more female engineers applying for the jobs that we’re advertising, and redress the gender balance.
Yes, that’s a very important thing for us from the cultural side. We are trying to be culturally inclusive and supportive of everybody, whether it is through training or trying to build a diverse team, but diversity is a real challenge for us. You’ve helped a bit with our hiring process, by looking at candidates, and so you know that we don’t get huge diversity in our applicants.
Are there things that you think we might be able to do differently in the future? Or what do you think can be done to help us get more women on board?
I heard (I think it was on the Guilty Feminist podcast) that women who are looking for a job will not apply for a role if they don’t tick ALL the boxes from the job ad, whereas apparently men will happily apply even if they only tick SOME of these boxes.
In terms of what can be done… maybe some outreach? Especially when we try to hire graduates, maybe we could just go and talk to students in the universities directly, to tell young women that they should not hesitate to take chances. Even if there’s a couple of things in the job specs that they have never done before – they might still tick one more box than a male candidate and that could be enough for them to get an interview!
I think it’s important to show women, from early on, that they have a place in this industry.
Absolutely! It makes a lot of sense to start earlier… That’s one of the challenges that we have to face.
What else do you see as a real challenge for our company?
As Actuation Lab grows and as we get more people on board, we’ll have to make sure that we still look after everyone well enough, because it’s easier to look after a handful of people than a larger team. After all, caring for every team member, as a human being, is one of the big values of the company.
On the engineering side of things, I guess that getting a product to market is going to be a big thing, because we’re still working purely on R&D at the moment. It’s such a different experience from what I’m used to, not being in a frame of mind where the company has to sell stuff to make money – the focus is “only” on having to create something that works! I think it’ll be a very exciting time when we shift from R&D to the commercialisation of our products.
Glad to hear we’re on the same page about this!
One last question: what does Actuation Lab mean to you?
Actuation Lab means a lot to me, because it came at the right time in my life, and it brought the right kind of change to my career. I’m really proud to contribute to the success of the company, I’m happy that my work is being valued, and I feel that I have gained not just work mates, but also friends. Socialising together is a big part of the company culture and I really enjoy that, after years mostly working from home on my own!
I appreciate that, that means a lot to me and the team.
We hope Gaëlle’s story is helpful if you are considering taking the jump into a start-up like ours. Some days it can be slightly chaotic when big ideas take over, but having Gaëlle around has definitely helped bring some order where it counts, and for that we are very grateful!
We are excited to be currently looking to hire more good people, so whatever your background, if our company excites you, please do get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.