After an earlier career in operational engineering, Ronnie Cloke Browne (MEng Chemical Engineering 1992, PhD 1996) founded CareerBreak People to give people the confidence and tools to return to work following a career break. We caught up with her ahead of a workshop for Imperial alumni in October 2019 to find out more about her journey and motivations. 

Please tell us a bit about your career journey so far.      

"After my degree I had offers to work in engineering consulting, operations or research. I chose to do a further PhD before working in an operations environment. Working for Esso at their refinery near Southampton meant that I was able to work across the disciplines, and in my role as Lead Engineer I collaborated with research (in Abingdon at the time), the European engineering team in Leatherhead, and participated in technical conferences. I was involved in the transition of 4star petrol to Lead Replacement petrol, and it was a career highlight seeing the first blends of that product being sold from new pumps on the forecourts. I also enjoyed being an elected member of Council of the Institute of Petroleum, now the Energy Institute, alongside some very prestigious members of Council.

In 2001 I took an extended career break when we started our family. In 2008 my husband, Chris Cloke Browne (MEng Electrical Engineering 1992, PhD 1997), and I founded BRAVE Partners LLP with a vision to enable leaders to develop superior energy and insurance products globally. In 2015, with the increase in awareness of returnships for people returning to work after extended breaks from the workplace I founded CareerBreak People."

Why did you choose to focus on helping people return from career breaks?

"I felt that career breaks themselves were not being sufficiently valued. The GDP incentives quoted for increasing the numbers of women back into the workplace do not fully reflect the loss (and hence there is economic cost) of unpaid work carried out such as volunteering work, uniting communities, care work, help reducing mental health and loneliness that all needs to be replaced in society. I question why society lauds an ambition to retire early and travel for five to ten years, but not an ambition to take an extended career break to raise a family (or grow some brains, as you could describe it!) and then work longer beyond 55 or so."

What does CareerBreak People do?

"CareerBreak People gives people the confidence and tools to take a career break from the paid workplace and to return when the time is right for them. As well as providing a Personal Skills Log, mentoring and running workshops about returning to work or starting a business, I run termly talks series called Pondero, Pilates for the Mind. With my engineering background I have introduced technical subjects to people who otherwise would not have engaged with the subject including organising tours of recycling plants, talks on UK energy policy, nuclear power, marine architecture, digital skills for the workplace and also non-technical talks such as unconscious bias, science behind anger and more. In addition to building their own knowledge and confidence, participants can also use these to talk to their (teenage) children about careers available today or gain valuable presenting experience if they are preparing to return to work."

How has what you learnt at Imperial helped you in your career so far?

"Imperial taught me not to be afraid to apply principles and learning across disciplines; whether in an operating environment, such as Esso’s refinery, reviewing a funding proposal for BRAVE Partners or producing a business plan for CareerBreak People. The final year design project was key in providing a practical example of how working together across disciplines is so important and the ability to recognise and incorporate everyone’s strengths optimises the outcome. 

Imperial’s timetable was very demanding, I remember 9am – 5pm every day except for a half day on Wednesday. This taught us how to juggle a lot of things, and work under pressure – with additional work to be done outside the department. In fact, when I started working a normal work day seemed very short in comparison."

Why did you choose Imperial as the place to follow your interest in STEM subjects?

"I discovered chemical engineering as a career through my interest at the time in nuclear waste (the Chernobyl disaster happened during my O Levels). I then researched courses available and was also lucky enough to be accepted on a course in the summer after my lower sixth year which ran for a few days and gave girls the opportunity to stay in Imperial College halls and learn more about studying at the College. Imperial’s Chem Eng course also had a management option which I felt was important."

How did you find life at Imperial as a woman?

"Chemical engineering was one of the more balanced subjects, I think there were about 30% women in our year of around 80 students. My first hall, Weeks, was also very friendly and sociable and felt balanced with the number of women in – it had a bar downstairs which made it easy to get to know people. I think the biggest adjustment was the style of learning/questions during lectures – I had come from an all girls school. It was daunting at first, but I was lucky enough to know a few people already at Imperial which helped."

What advice would you give to girls who are thinking about studying STEM, particularly at Imperial?

"Go for it! The flexibility and choice of career after a STEM degree is vast and Imperial will give you a very good start from which to springboard into the future."

Who did you find inspiring at Imperial and why?

"I very much enjoyed working in Dame Professor Julia Higgins’ research group for my PhD which was very collaborative with an international outlook. Piper Alpha disaster happened when I was interrailing after my A levels just before starting at Imperial. Professor Stephen Richardson - I always remember the huge amount of energy he had – (together with Dr Graham Saville) was a technical witness for this, and it was so interesting hearing about his work."

What is your fondest memory of your time here? 

"It is difficult to name just one, but springing to mind are: singing in the ceremony, attended by Princess Anne, to mark the merger of St Mary’s and Imperial College; CGCA dinners at the Rector’s house (Sir Eric Ash’s wife would ring a bell between courses and we would all have to swap places); and graduation ceremonies in the Royal Albert Hall."

What are your plans for the future?

"I plan to keep growing CareerBreak People. Alongside the online downloads, I have been running CareerBreak People’s workshops and talks locally and now hope to roll these out to a far wider audience across the country - including a workshop for Imperial alumni in October 2019Who knows what else the next 20-30 years will hold – perhaps I will also return to operational engineering one day."
Find out more about CareerBreak People, or connect with Ronnie on LinkedIn or Imperial Plexus.