Diversity is driving the Agoria Solar Team forward

Aug 05, 2020

 What does it take to win a solar car race? A great pilot, a fast car, a pinch of cutting-edge technology, a solid strategy… But also: a team of complementary individuals in which everyone gets their chance to shine. The Agoria Solar Team is one such team – and they have the results to back it up. We asked four members about their experiences with diversity – on and off the race track.  

Don’t call the Agoria Solar Team ‘just another racing team’. With the tagline ‘Invent. Improve. Inspire.’, this group of Belgian engineering students is a force to be reckoned with in the international world of solar-powered vehicle racing. In 2018, the team won first place in the Carrera Solar Atacama event in Chile. In 2019, they were once again victorious at the prestigious Bridgestone World Solar Challenge in Australia – a daunting 3021 km race through the outback.

In February, they’re poised to continue their winning streak at the SASOL Solar challenge in South Africa. We had the opportunity to talk to race strategist Romanie Cnockaert, composites engineer and pilot Inge Habets, head of marketing, business relations and finance Ine Verhaeren and external communications officer Yante Van Ham.  

What pushed you to join the team?

Ine: “From the day I started my education at Group T, the technical engineering school of KU Leuven, I was intrigued by the solar car on display in the main hall. When I learned about the team behind it and that I could be part of it as well, I was sold.”

Inge: “What attracted me the most was the ‘race’ component of it all, and the fact that there was a clear goal to work towards. At the same time, it was all so completely out of my comfort zone, I simply couldn’t resist.”

Romanie: “I would add that for me as a strategist, the Solar Team was a great way to turn all the theory I had absorbed over the years into practice.”

Yante: “Exactly. And let’s not forget about the topic of sustainability. For me, that was an important motivator as well.”

In your opinion, what role does diversity play in the success of the team?

Yante: “I’d say it’s pretty crucial. We’re a mix of different personalities and skill sets, with some of us better equipped to keep a helicopter view of the project, while others are better at getting the crucial details right.”

Inge: “I couldn’t agree more. From an educational perspective, our backgrounds as civil and industrial engineers are pretty complementary as well. Civil engineers think more in concepts, while industrial engineers tend to be more practical.”

Romanie: “This focus on diversity and complementarity is reflected in the recruiting process as well. This year, there were 80 applicants, and while all of them have technical backgrounds, you can tell that there’s a lot of focus on assembling a team where hard and soft skills are equally represented.”

Ine: “That’s right. The overall mindset is less about your merits on paper and more about how you’re going to tackle a specific problem.”

Some of you have backgrounds in STEM, a notoriously male-dominated field. How did you experience that?

Yante: “Sadly, that’s still a fact. Out of the 200 pupils in my class, only 10 to 15 were girls. But I should add that I’ve never experienced any disadvantages in this regard – except maybe that teachers knew me by name and could immediately tell if I skipped a class – which I never did, of course.” (laugh)

Romanie: “It’s true, but I also agree that it never felt like I was in any way disadvantaged. A lot of that has to do with your upbringing, I guess. My parents never pushed me in a certain direction, I was always free to pursue my own interests.”

Do you think things are getting better in this regard?

Ine: “It’s hard to tell for sure, but I do think they are. As a team, we’re also organizing the Solar Olympics, a contest that encourages high schoolers to get creative with solar power. Here, there doesn’t seem to be any gender disparity at all: everyone is equally motivated to tinker with technology and invent new things.”

What would you say to young girls who want to pursue careers in engineering and technology?

Yante: “Most of all, I would tell them to not be afraid. Sure, there are more boys than girls, but there are tons of opportunities to build amazing friendships.”

Ine: “I agree, and I would add that it’s always a good idea to use any criticism or bias you’re confronted with as an extra motivator. At least, it worked for me.”

Inge: “The most important thing is that you do what gives you pleasure. I love being part of this team, I love the race… I won’t let anyone hold me back from doing what I love.”

Romanie: “… and don’t be intimidated. If you enjoy doing it, go for it.”

Who has inspired you?

Yante: “My teachers and professors have always been a source of inspiration for me. They’ve shown me what you can achieve in this field.”

Ine: “For me personally, Laurence Schuurman was an inspiration. She was Young ICT Lady 2018 and has been a very prominent advocate for women in STEM education.”

As a partner of the Agoria Solar Team, delaware wholeheartedly underscores its diversity efforts. Learn more about the steps we’re taking to become a more inclusive workspace.