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Women in Innovation

The College is committed to supporting and empowering future female innovators, entrepreneurs, artists and designers. With the number of female entrepreneurs around half that of their male counterparts, this International Women’s Day we're highlighting the work of four RCA graduates – working in music technology, human-centred design, material science and branding – to share their thoughts on diversity, making change and the women who’ve inspired them.

Helen Steed (MA Graphic Design & Art Direction, 1993)

Helen Steed
Helen Steed, VP & Creative Director of Aruliden

After graduating from the RCA, Steed worked for a number of branding agencies in London and New York before working as Creative Director for companies such as Bumble & Bumble and Glossier. She’s now VP & Creative Director of Aruliden, a product design and branding agency with clients such as MoMA, NARS, the New York Times and Architectmade. Steed’s career is defined by innovation, which she describes as ‘solving problems without looking behind you, over your shoulder, or at the person next to you’.

Margaret Calvert
Margaret Calvert
At the RCA, Steed was taught by Margaret Calvert, ‘a cool, strong woman in what was still predominantly a man’s design world’, who taught her that design didn’t have to be all about style but about tackling things that improve lives. While Steed has noticed changes in the sector over the years – female designers and innovators are no longer such rare figures – she is certain that there is more to be done: ‘we definitely need more women in tech, more female VCs, and, I would add, more women over 50!’

Elena Dieckmann (MA Innovation Design Engineering, 2016)

Waterrepellent Feather, Elena Dieckmann 2016. Photographer: Andor Ivan
Waterrepellent Feather, Elena Dieckmann 2016
Photographer: Andor Ivan

The co-founder of Aeropowder, Dieckmann captures the properties of bird feathers and turns the vast amount of waste materials generated by the poultry industry into an additive for composites and paints. The company began life as an MA project and has been supported in its development by the College’s business incubator InnovationRCA, which Elena describes as ‘a protected zone where you get to try stuff out’ and ‘a bridge that gets you from where you were as a student to a fully professional level’.

Michela Magas (MA Graphic Design, 1994)

In 2017, Magas was named the EU Woman Innovator of the Year by the European Commission. Founder of Music Tech Fest, she studied Graphic Design at the RCA before going on to establish the design research and innovation lab Stromatolite with fellow RCA alumnus Peter Russell-Clarke. Magas has launched Industry Commons – a platform for designers and innovators that attempts to bring a creative approach to problem solving. Applying one kind of system to another can be tricky, she admits: ‘You’re constantly seen as an interloper, a disrupter, an outsider.’ The results, however, have been telling. During the testing stage, Industry Commons enabled faster, more nimble forms of innovation, with ideas moving to patent stage far quicker than anticipated.

Ruby Steel (MA Innovation Design, 2012)

Ruby Steel
Ruby Steel, Senior Strategist in Design at Smart Design

Senior Strategist in Design at Smart Design, Steel’s decision to study at the RCA was a result of the realisation that simply being able to ‘communicate a problem’ wasn’t enough. She wanted to solve them. It was during her time at the College – which she says ‘completely turned my life around’ – that Steel found herself in a minority: only one third of her year group was female. She has continued to feel in a minority throughout her entire career.

This experience has been a driving force for Steel’s work; she was featured in the BBC Two reality TV programme The Big Life Fix, in which designers worked together to solve real-life problems for people in desperate need. Taking part was a way for her to counter the lack of visible role models for women in engineering, science and technology. Above all, she explains, it was to make the point that ‘in order for something to be successful, it has to be diverse’.