Challenging male-led C-suites

Beenish Siddique tells us about becoming her own boss, navigating a world which usually invests in men and proving her worth.

“To never give up is one of my biggest take-aways in life and my innovation motivation group and business mentor have really helped me believe in myself, as well as the support I’ve had from my family,” says Beenish Siddique, multi-award winning professional and CEO of her own science company, AEH Innovative Hydrogel Ltd.

Originally from Pakistan, Beenish broke tradition by being the first female to leave Burkey Mirpur, Azad Kashmir for university.

“My mother died just before I left for university in 2008 to study chemistry, so it was my father and brothers who shielded me from outside criticism as people in my community would question why they were allowing me to pursue higher education. Women didn’t even travel alone but since then, there has been a positive cultural shift.”

“My innovation motivation group and business mentor have really helped me believe in myself.”

Setting the bar

“Now that I’m a qualified doctor, my community is proud of me and more girls from my area are going to university, so I appear to have been that catalyst for change. However, the first few years were challenging - I chose not to attend weddings because I was singled out for following my own path,” Beenish explains.

“It’s difficult in the UK but if you keep on going, you’re given a chance. In my city (and for people from my caste), it’s almost impossible to go to university and if you do, you’re usually accompanied by a male relative. Back then, there was no university in Mirpur, Kashmir that offered Chemistry and being a chemistry undergraduate wasn’t an option for women. Today, it’s become easier for women to do things independently.”

Prize-winning innovator

Soon after completing her PhD in materials at The University of Manchester, Beenish received her first job offer which she accepted, and after a year, made a life-changing decision.

“I wanted to start a family and work in innovation, but being a postdoc would have been a bit too prohibitive, so I worked to the end of my contract then decided to set up my own biotech company, AEH Innovative Hydrogel Ltd.”

AEH Innovative Hydrogel Ltd is an award-winning company that develops applications in agriculture and vertical farming. Plants are grown in hydrogel which is more sustainable than current alternatives. As hydrogel is 100% natural, it is completely biodegradable and can improve soil function.

“I had health issues at the time but that also gave me some flexibility to establish the company, apply for funding and find a business mentor.

“I worked really hard on my business plan and won first prize in the Venture Further competition. I then needed to find lab space but I either had no response or was repeatedly told “no”, until I found BiOspace at Manchester Science Park.

“I would have thought that after winning awards for my work, I would have been able to pay myself a salary so it was a shock when I couldn’t afford to do that.

“I applied to Innovate UK and eventually received a £1 million award but as a female CEO, finding an investor to match fund was challenging.”

Beenish Siddique

“To anyone who doubts themselves, I would always say 'never give up'. ”

Challenging stereotypes and setting examples

Beenish recollects how one investor was surprised to come across a Pakistani woman pitching for financial business support.

“Investors were surprised that not only was there only one person in my company, but it was a young woman from Pakistan. Despite this, however, I’ve proved to be someone worth investing in. Things are changing and there are now more female investors who only invest in women.

“As a CEO, I feel that I can set an example for other women,  especially women from Kashmir, and my vision is for AEH Innovative Hydrogel Ltd to be seen as a successful company founded by a woman."

Beenish is now based at the Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre (GEIC) and notes the growing support it offers to entrepreneurs.

“The GEIC is quite unique as it offers lab space to non-academics and their support for innovation is encouraging. There’s a positive ‘try, try, try’ attitude in the air – this is how companies succeed.

“My days are long and they’re usually split between working in the lab and managing my team. When I’m at home, the work doesn’t stop as I do my accounting and administration, but I find it all rewarding.”

Confidence boost to step over obstacles

“Growing in confidence is what’s helped me to overcome my obstacles. I became assertive and stopped worrying about whether I was saying the right thing.

“I learnt a great deal from pitching and from my female mentor (Valentina Squitieri) in particular, as I can relate to her as she has experienced the same fears. The mentoring I’ve had has been invaluable.

“I would like to share my experience by mentoring other young entrepreneurs, and for anyone who doubts themselves, I would always tell them to never give up.”

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