In Her Own Words: Cranfield Aerospace’s Jenny Kavanagh

Published: Dec 1, 2021  |  

Why did you want to get into engineering? What was the original spark?

Not everyone knows what their passion is at 17. Some are lucky enough to “always” know. I didn’t– I had no idea. So my way to finding my career was the practical approach– I didn’t “fall in love” with engineering from the first.

My path into STEM was quite a pragmatic thing: I had no clue what I wanted to do while in school. So when applying to universities and deciding what to do next as a teenager, I turned to my dad, who is also an engineer, in addition to my brother and grandfather. He said most people these days have degrees, so you’re going to choose something that allows you to differentiate– a degree that you can get some proper life experience whilst studying would be great. So of course he recommended I look into engineering.

I wasn’t great at physics, but did have an affinity for how things work and processes, and generally “making stuff” appealed to me. I also enjoyed economics. So when I discovered the University of Birmingham would allow me to delve into a dual program in Manufacturing Manufacturing Engineering and Commerce, I applied and was accepted. I was then approached to apply for sponsorship where I’d get a year of work experience in industry before starting my studies; I’m not ashamed to admit that the prospect didn’t appeal to me—all my friends were either going straight to uni or going off around the world on a year out but my father insisted—when opportunities like this coming along, you don’t turn them down so I applied and was accepted as the only woman in a group of six.

One thing this process taught me was when an opportunity presents itself, take it– even if it’s scary or isn’t perhaps what you’d planned, because you never know where it’s going to lead. I’m extremely grateful for my dad’s support and how he encouraged me to go for it. Pushing myself outside my comfort zone got me to where I am today. If you told me at 17, that I would one day be Chief Strategy Officer at a cutting edge aerospace company, I never would have believed you.


How did you find your way to the aerospace industry?

The company that offered me the sponsorship designed and produced equipment for food manufacturing; bread, biscuits, confectionery, and breakfast cereals all around the world. I continued working there in the summer holidays through university and joined them full time after I graduated, managing a welding cell in the factory, supervising a team of men old enough to be my father. During that time, I had to make sure that whatever they were working on was done on time so I worked with project managers a lot and thought to myself “I want to do that”, so I asked to be moved to the project management department and happily, they arranged that for me. After a while, however, I started to realise that I was capable of more than the company could offer me and started looking for what I should move towards next. I looked into the logistics industry, steel, and then an advert for BE Aerospace caught my eye. I knew I liked the problem-solving of engineering and loved being involved in the design and manufacture of things—and working on aircraft really appealed to me, so I figured I’d go for it and apply. Luckily, I landed the job, so in 2005, that’s when my career in aerospace started. 

At BE, my Initial work was as a Programme Manager, leading a team of design, certification and manufacturing engineers to deliver Flight Crew Rests to Airbus (a small room to the right of the cockpit on large aircraft where the pilot sleeps). .

Not long after I started, however, the company embarked on a huge bid to be the single source supplier of galleys (aircraft kitchens) to  Airbus for their new aircraft development, the A350XWB (an aircraft now in service all over the world). The bid lasted two years, and we were the underdog, but to our surprise and obvious delight, we won. It was a massive project—a 2.5 billion dollar programme. So I worked on that for years after, growing to Senior Programme Manager.

How did you come to Cranfield? 

Cranfield was another opportunity that presented itself that scared the living daylights out of me.

Again, I was getting to the point where I thought, “I don’t know what I’m capable of, but I know I’m capable of more than this,” and I wanted to seek out the next thing. What I did know is that I had fallen in love with product development and wanted to move to a role that had more influence on the strategy & direction of the company and where I could make a difference. One day out of the blue, I got a call from a recruiter to say there was an opportunity  for a Head of Airborne Systems at a small aerospace company. Everything in my body screamed, “that’s too scary, you can’t handle that,” but my head said, “well of course you can; this could be just what you’re looking for: just talk to them and find out more. What’s the worst that could happen?”

Of course, when I did follow up, what I learned was this was exactly the kind of role I’d been hoping to find. I love being part of the creation of something new, bringing it to market and improving the world around me, which is exactly what Cranfield is doing. It’s thrilling and cutting-edge work. I also appreciated that, since Cranfield was small, I’d be having a big impact. I was coming from a big company at this point, so this was a new opportunity to be a “big fish in a small pond”; to make a difference to people’s lives. So I went for it, and I got the job. 


“I don’t know what I’m capable of, but I’m capable of more than this”— where did that mindset come from?

My parents are Northern, so I grew up very much in the mindset of “Stop crying, get up, sort yourself out.” I learned resilience from them, and never giving up. Of course the other side of that coin is this perspective doesn’t really include a lot of encouragement. It’s more “Don’t get big-headed or arrogant,” so there’s no one telling you “of course you can do this.”

My drive and resilience came from my upbringing, but that courage to push forward  in spite of doubt is something I’ve discovered within myself. It’s something innate. I know when I’m outside my comfort zone that I don’t like it, but I know that it’s good for me. I look back on the times when I’ve doubted myself or thought “I can’t do this” but still pulled through, and that shows me that I can. So the next time I encounter that feeling of self-doubt, I say to myself, “You’ve felt like you can’t before, but you then you did it—so come on, girl, have more confidence in yourself.”

It’s a process of getting comfortable with not knowing all the answers and not knowing everything. The more I follow that, the more I realize I’m not alone: no one has all the answers. You wouldn’t know that by talking with people, but oftentimes they don’t know either.

Now, while there are times when I’m hindered by not knowing how to do something specific, I do know how to break down a problem and when to call in others with different expertise, which allows us all to move forward. If you rely on the skills you do have, you’ll soon form new skills. It’s crucial to understand where your strengths lie and build on them, rather than becoming obsessed with what you can’t do and focusing on flaws. Your weaknesses will always be there, but they won’t be what drives you. 

For example, if you want to go somewhere quickly with a horse and cart, the horse is your strength and the cart is your weakness. If you have a big powerful horse, it can pull a crappy cart anywhere. But a great cart with a lame donkey isn’t going very far. Whenever I get stuck or the negative self-talk starts, I come back to that analogy and remember what I’m good at.


Was your gender ever a hindrance?

I don’t know if my gender has been an issue. I’ve often been underestimated throughout my career, and probably also my life, at least by those who don’t know me. Maybe it’s because of my gender, butWhatever the reason, I love it when I’m underestimated because it’s quietly satisfying to prove people wrong! 


What motivates you in your current work?

Project Fresson [the Project Fresson consortium is led by Cranfield Aerospace; Project Fresson aims to accelerate the journey to zero-emissions passenger-carrying aircraft through using hydrogen fuel cell technology]: I feel it’s the first time in my career that I’ve found my purpose. It gets me up in the morning. The climate change crisis is SERIOUS. I have two daughters: ages eight and ten and they are a constant reminder of the importance of this issue. This is not a future problem: this is a problem now. We need to address it to ensure that there is a future to move into.

The aerospace industry isn’t the worst, but is a high-profile polluter. So to be able to bring my love of product development to a cause I fundamentally believe in is incredibly enriching. I deeply believe in the good it will do—not just the money it will make. This is a critical, pressing issue, and I believe hydrogen is the answer.

It’s difficult and heartbreaking when you come across problems that threaten the dream from becoming a reality. As in any groundbreaking industry, there are serious problems and difficulties that need to be sorted out, but that’s when the whiteboards come out, and the felt-tipped pens appear, and everyone works together and invariably, the problems get solved.

These are my favourite moments, where everyone works together to figure out a problem standing in the way of our solution, collaborating in the service of something much bigger than any one of us. It’s inspiring. I love giving people opportunities to do this kind of work, creating opportunities for young people to get their start and have a world-changing career.

One thing over the past five to ten years I’ve learned is just do your best at everything you try. Don’t try to be anyone else, just be better than you were last week, last month, last year. Otherwise, you’re continually comparing yourself to others and feeling like you’re not enough, but you don’t know what’s going on with other people. You can only compare yourself to you, and work to be a little bit better every day, that’s how you keep growing. I wish I’d known that when I was 17.

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