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International Women’s Day: Alexa Hartwell Interview

Alexa Hartwell, BCU Head of STEAM Academy Innovation and Development, explains about the importance of STEAM thinking in helping businesses and gives her advice for women looking to pursue a career in business.

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International Women’s Day: Alexa Hartwell Interview

Alexa Hartwell, BCU Head of STEAM Academy Innovation and Development, explains about the importance of STEAM thinking in helping businesses and gives her advice for women looking to pursue a career in business.

What did you do before joining BCU?

I did my degree at BCU in multimedia design and graduated in 2002 with a first.  Afterwards I wanted to work in the arts but decided that my real passion was working with people, in particular bringing out the potential in young people. I travelled and then worked on an EU Interreg programme which was all about bringing people together to share innovative and sustainable solutions to challenges. I then returned to BCU in 2008 and worked for the enterprise team on cross-innovation work.  

Where does your passion for business come from?

I’ve always been passionate about enterprise and the creative industries. My husband and a lot of my friends have set up their own businesses.  A corporate culture isn’t right for everyone, if it isn’t I’d encourage anyone to think about starting their own business. BCU has a great range of Business Services which can really help.  To be successful any business needs good team work. Thats why I’m such a fan of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Mathematics) – by working collaboratively it brings out the best in people and gives you a real empathy for other people with different skill sets and life stories. 

How has STEAM evolved in the time you’ve been at BCU?

STEAM has helped to set a pioneering new approach to problem solving by bringing together policy makers, industry and academics. In the early days working here I helped to secure a small amount of funding from the European Regional Development Fund to test out different approaches focussing on 4 themes – policy brokering, maker space, finance and culture. We worked out of a small production space in Digbeth – today that has grown into STEAMhouse, a £70 million innovation centre located in the heart of Birmingham with over 100,000 square feet spread over five-stories!

Tell us about the difference STEAMhouse has made to business

At STEAMhouse we have worked with many big and small businesses including HS2, NHS and a national chain of care homes, helping them to think in new and innovative ways about the problems that they face. We also helped hundreds of SMEs, helping to drive growth and maximise their economic output through innovation. In all, since it was set up in 2018 STEAMhouse has helped over 850 businesses. I’m very proud of that. 

Tell us a bit more about your role?

I’m responsible for promoting STEAM across all the facilities at BCU, for example I have helped to develop a joint ocean experience project with Cal Poly University in California working with 36 students from three different faculties at BCU. I’m also working on a new STEAM qualification for schools with the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation. It will be the first in the UK and I’m very excited about it. In addition, I’m studying part-time for a PhD on STEAM practice working with community groups in East Birmingham which I’m hoping to complete in 2026. I’ve also got three children, so I’ve got my hands full!

What would you recommend to any girl or woman who is interested in pursuing a career in academia or business?

Be disciplined, understand yourself and find out what really interests you. Then develop good connections and find other like-minded people to partner and collaborate with. While we have made huge strides towards equality, we still live in a male dominated world. If you come up against prejudice it’s an opportunity to show your voice. Above all I tell my 12 year old daughter to believe in herself.

What do you do to relax?

I enjoy running marathons and raising money for charities, like Molly Ollys Wishes which supports children with life-threatening illnesses. I’m going to be doing a 100k ultra run in Snowdonia soon. The first really big run I did was the Marathon des Sables, a six-day, 250 km ultramarathon across the Sahara. After I entered it, I found out that I was pregnant. My doctor, a man, told me I couldn’t do it, saying ‘this isn’t in your make up’. That made me really cross as I knew my own body, so I got a second opinion and completed the race in 2011. I got married that year as well and gave birth to my daughter. 

What are your proudest of in your career?

I’m proudest of helping to develop STEAM and see an idea that started off life in a small office in Digbeth become established as the biggest innovation centre in UK. With a great team of colleagues, we saw a gap in the market, and helped to develop a radical new methodology and then in my time at BCU saw that idea really take off. The next big challenge will be getting it imbedded in schools.

Access expertise through STEAMhouse

STEAMhouse’s membership packages offer the best way for businesses to access the University’s innovation expertise – allowing opportunities for collaboration and engagement. Find out more about how your business can benefit from STEAMhouse memberships.

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