Europe, Interviews

Isabell Gradert – Material Fast Track Leader and General Advisor for Materials Technology to the CTO at Airbus

We need to have more managers who encourage and support women in their career progression especially when it occurs at the same time as setting up a family and having children.

Isabell Gradert is Material Fast Track Leader at Airbus and general advisor for materials technology to the CTO. In this position Isabell is leading the cross-divisional Material Roadmap for associated technologies and guiding research projects ensuring group wide leverage of technology synergies.

Isabell has 10 year experience in the field of Materials & Processes. She was previously technical project manager leading different transnational and multidisciplinary projects in Material & Processes Research & Technology linked to e.g. surface technology and additive manufacturing.

Qualified as an Aerospace Engineer from Technical University Carolo Wilhelmina in Braunschweig, Germany, Isabell joined Airbus in 2009. Isabell was born in Germany. She is married with two children.

In a Nutshell: Tell us a bit about your job and what role technology plays in it?

I am working at Airbus as Fast Track Leader for Materials and General Advisor for materials technology reporting to our Chief Technicl Officer (CTO) Grazia Vittadini. With my team, I am setting up a vision for future materials for new Airbus applications. Materials play an important role in improving Airbus products. They can enhance their properties, reduce their weight and offer cost-efficient solutions. Their development over decades has resulted in a wide set of materials and associated processes like metal and ceramics, composite and polymers, surface technologies and bonding, and as well additive manufacturing. These materials and processes will enable advanced aircraft concepts in the future and will be continuously developed with the focus on sustainability, function integration and digitalization.
Technology is key for Airbus to innovate and market the best products possible.

Where did your professional journey start and how did you get to where you are now?

As a first step towards building my academic career, I attended a humanistic school of thought where I learned Greek and Latin and later followed by scientific education. I am a mechanical engineer with a major in aerospace engineering. There were a lot of similarities between both educations, especially the need to grasp the overall context but also look into details. The first year at university was quite hard with intense physics lessons coupled with the fact I was studying in a male dominated environment. It turned out to feel normal over time, and we almost reached gender diversity parity in aerospace related lectures.
After completing 2 years the university, I began coaching new students in mathematics and mechanical engineering. It was a great opportunity to support others, strengthen my knowledge and to get more financial independence.

My career kick started at Airbus in Bremen while I was still a student. I started working in the “Material and Processes” team followed by the “Wing Design” team in the UK. I completed my studies after gaining a diploma thesis in stress calculations for load introduction ribs.
I later joined the “Surface Technology” department as an engineer. With my strong focus on the overall context of developments, I was quickly promoted as a technical project manager leading different projects in the field of “Material and Processes”, where I developed myself personally as well as professionally.
Within the first 10 years of my career – leading various research material projects at Airbus commercial aircraft – I made strong networks within the company. During this time I showed my dedication, team work, commitment to deliver and strong desire to inspire others. In 2019
I was offered my current position by the Airbus CTO, to work on strategy and vision for materials from a cross-divisional technology perspective.

In my personal life, I am married and a mother of two children – my first priority in life, who have helped me master the art of work-life balance.

What is the greatest transformation in technology you`ve witnessed in your career?

The introduction of smartphones is the greatest transformation in technology I have witnessed until now. When I was a child, I remember my father had one of the first big mobile phones. The evolution happened quickly resulting in today’s multi-media devices to be used intuitively by all generations. The basic spirit of the smartphone, the touch-screen, has entered many other products in the meantime and has simplified their operations. This success is enabled by materials such as ceramic-based components and high-tech glasses as well as emerging display technologies.

Looking at the aerospace industry, great transformations have already been introduced before my career started, like fly-by-wire or the introduction of automated processes.
Today, we at Airbus, have the ambition to be the first aircraft manufacturer to market a zero-emission aircraft by 2035, and therefore reduce the environmental footprint of our products, while continuing to connect people and transport goods around the world. Materials and associated processes are contributing to the environmental footprint of the aircraft from a global life-cycle point of view considering as well circular economy. I am very glad to witness and contribute to this transformation.

We always hear there are not enough women working in Tech. What needs to happen to change that? Using your own words, why do we need women focuse groups in the tech community?

A diverse workforce has immediate and tangible benefits: it provides a variety of perspectives, hence increases creativity and improves productivity leading to better results thanks to collective intelligence.

It order to attract more women to technology careers and I see the following opportunities:

  • We need to increase the visibility of women role models and explain what a technical career is about, to inspire girls. Schools need to play a major role to pass the message to younger generations.
  • We need to have more managers who encourage and support women in their career especially when it occurs at the same time as setting up a family and having children. Managers should promote flexible working hours, and should accept that women leaving work early to take care of their children are not lazy, especially as they work again in the evening. They are just optimizing their time at home and at work.
  • Women should be free to decide to return to work after the birth of her child, and shouldn’t be influenced by societal pressure. Governments should support these returns to work by providing enough free places in nurseries with attractive opening hours.

We need to have more managers who encourage and support women in their career progression especially when it occurs at the same time as setting up a family and having children.

Women-focused groups in the tech community are a good starting point for discussions, experience and best-practice sharing on work-life-balance.

What skills do you need for a career in tech (aside from the actual tech skills)?

In my view there are no specific skills required for a career in tech, but I would say more general skills are needed to be successful in every career.

From my point of view it is all about passion. If you are passionate about something, you will definitely go the extra mile to achieve it. If you are not passionate about something then ask yourself if you’re doing the right thing, and what would be needed to change what you’re doing.
Moreover it is important to be open and have the willingness to learn new things, which might be out of one’s own comfort zone. This will broaden your scope, making sure that you develop yourself and evolve over time.

Moreover it is important to be open and have the willingness to learn new things, which might be out of one’s own comfort zone. This will broaden the scope, making sure that you personally develop and evolve over time.

Last but not least, it is important to ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. Being successful and respected as a leader is not about knowing everything. It is more important to be involved, and engage with all stakeholders, take into account the expert’s view, always have the big picture in mind and communicate efficiently so that people can understand.

What and who were the influencers of who you are today?

I have been fortunate enough to have been surrounded by many people who have positively influenced me.
My family: I grew up in a loving family who supported me in making my own decisions in life, providing wide education opportunities, making the basis of what I am today. My father, an engineer himself, introduced me into the tech world, but did not push me to follow him. But finally I did by myself.

It was our mutual decision to share the time in raising our children, so that I never start a business trip with a bad conscience, but with an affirmation that our children have loving and caring parents.

My husband: He believed in my dreams and ambitions and supported me from the beginning with my passion to work. It was our mutual decision to share the time raising our children, so that I never start a business trip with a bad conscience, but with an affirmation that ourchildren have loving and caring parents.
Colleagues: During my career at Airbus I have met and worked alongside a lot of colleagues who inspired me and encouraged me throughout my career. I am very thankful for these relationships at work.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 14-year-old self?

Follow your dreams and interests! Don’t be carried away at young age on benefits, businesses or working best for the future.

Taking into account today’s world with fast changing conditions, social media and the quick evolution of technologies, I would like to give two pieces of advice to teenagers:

1) Follow your dreams and interests! Engage in different topics, work with different groups of people and cultures, build your own experiences. A wide education will equip you with a variety of skills and knowledge. On this basis you will be able to adapt to any field of interest you discover and overcome any challenges that life may put in your way.

2) Set ambitious targets and be focused and disciplined! As soon as you have identified your passion, work towards it! Success is not coming for free or overnight. You require dedication, perseverance, passion, curiosity, willingness and the desire to achieve your ambitions.

You are supposed to host a dinner and need to invite three people in Tech. Who would you invite and why?

First of all I would like to invite Alexander Gerst, European Space Agency astronaut. I once listened to one of his inspiring speeches. I would be very interested in meeting him, and understanding what he learnt from our Mother Earth from looking at it from a far distance.
I would also like to have Tom van Soest and Sheryl Sandberg as additional guests.
Tom van Soest is the Creative Director of StoneCycling, a company, which envisages a circular world where waste is synonymous with raw materials. He creates new stones out of waste for buildings’ constructions. I would be interested in the efforts he has taken together with his team to achieve this excellent transformation of waste into new raw materials. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, would complement the dinner sharing the activity for
sustainable data centers and her journey of encouraging women to work in tech.

Isabell Gradert is Material Fast Track Leader at Airbus and general advisor for materials technology to the CTO. In this position Isabell is leading the cross-divisional Material Roadmap for associated technologies and guiding research projects ensuring group wide leverage of technology synergies.
Isabell has 10 year experience in the field of Materials & Processes. She was previously technical project manager leading different transnational and multidisciplinary projects in Material & Processes Research & Technology linked to e.g. surface technology and additive manufacturing.

Qualified as an Aerospace Engineer from Technical University Carolo Wilhelmina in Braunschweig, Germany, Isabell joined Airbus in 2009.
Isabell was born in Germany. She is married with two children.

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