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Woman of Influence changing lives in India

05 December 2014

Kim And Roka

At 24 years old, Kimberley Abbott (above centre with villagers in India) has established a reputation as a young leader, entrepreneur, and budding mechanical engineer. A Westpac Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence winner she has a double degree in mechanical engineering and medical science. Kimberley had thought she would do bio-medical engineering. Instead she’s working for Thales, a global defence, aerospace and security company.

“I did a company sponsored thesis with BiVacor for my honours year,” says Kimberley, explaining her role in the Brisbane-based company which has designed the world’s most advanced artificial heart.

“The topic was to design the blades that go inside the heart. Your heart is really just a pump. A propeller with spinning blades drives the pump and I had to see if I could solve the problem of the blades cutting the red blood cells. The blades have to spin fast enough to pump blood but not rupture the red blood cells and destroy their oxygen carrying ability,” she explains of what turned out to be an interesting and “very challenging” thesis.

Now working for Thales, Kimberley’s day to day work is not something she can speak about in detail.

“When I graduated I had a number of offers. I was lucky. I’d done work placements with Cochlear and the thesis with BiVacor. My first thought was I should try something different. I took up the position with Thales because it offered me the chance to see what other opportunities are out there,” she explains.

On the phone from Paris late one Sunday night, Kimberley’s involvement with Thales has indeed been varied: “I had this opportunity to go on an overseas work trip, but I’m not actually here in my capacity as a graduate engineer. Thales has a new global Foundation, and they’ve asked me to work on their corporate social responsibility policy.”

A far cry from mechanical engineering, Kimberley has a number of feathers to her cap, including founding a successful social enterprise which empowers Indian women working in granite quarries outside Bangalore by providing them with sustainable work making jewellery.

In 2012 Kimberley received a grant from the University of Wollongong to volunteer with 40rtyk Globe, a social enterprise which funds Australian students to develop social enterprise ideas, as well as teach in India.

She freely admits she didn’t travel with the greatest of social intentions. But =that quickly changed. Exposed to the villagers who live in the granite quarries, and work 12-hour days six days a week mining granite by hand with a hammer and a chisel for $1.50 a day, Kimberley was approached by a woman called Rani.

“She said to me: ‘You do all this wonderful stuff for our kids but can anyone do anything for me?’ She was spot on. She knew she was capable of more,” says Kimberley.

The question for Kimberley was how to empower the women with skills and knowledge and create something sustainable - a business that would teach the women entrepreneurial skills, pay a wage and create funds to educate the village children.

The engineer in Kimberley figured out that the granite dust, which is a by-product of the mining process, can be mixed with water and a few other ingredients to make a clay that dries hard and when polished looks amazing. Roka began and the women are now trained to make the rock and form jewellery pieces using the granite dust for sale through the business.

“Rani is essentially head of Roka in the village now,” Kimberley continues.

“Throughout the process, she has been our advocate. There’s always a little scepticism on the part of the women when people like me come in with solutions to their problems. Rani has remained passionate about the business and that drives the others.

“Rani is a natural leader and a sort of matriarch in the village. She’s lived in the quarries her whole life with her children and grandchildren. As a result of her and the work, we have nine women across 2 separate villages earning a wage from the business and the profits go toward subsidising the running of 40rtyk PLUS education pods to provide literacy, numeracy, and life-skills education to children in the village. That’s around 40 kids.”

Kimberley is often asked what she sees for her future. She has come to the conclusion she’s not a person who has a top of the pyramid ideal.

She loves engineering, and business is her passion.

“I guess I don’t know what I want to be, but I know who I want to be. I want to be respected for the job I do and for who I am,” she says.

“I’m innately curious. I don’t know what I don’t know yet, but as long as I’m learning I am not fussed about what I actually do.”

Usually up by 6am, she finds being an early riser helps her to be effective: “I check the business’s emails [Roka] and I walk to work which lets me get into the engineering head space. I try to be organised and have some sort of schedule. I surf with my little sister on weekends, mainly.

“Surfing is great exercise and incredibly therapeutic. I grew up on the NSW south coast spending a lot of time on a dairy farm. Growing up in the country has a lot to be said for it. The experience teaches you about resilience and hard work,” she finishes.

Adamant that her achievements have not been done on her own, Kimberley especially acknowledges members of the 100 Women of Influence alumni who have been inspirational and of practical benefit to her since her 2013 inclusion on the list.

The time in Paris is 11.30 and Kim has six or so hours of sleep left before she’s up for another day.

“Who would have thought a ‘work trip’ to Paris really means a work trip,” she says, her voice tinged with humour. “I’m looking forward to getting home.”


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