“I was taught never to lower my expectations nor to expect any special treatment just because I am a woman.”
This childhood lesson bred a determination in Sophie Laveau that has defined her approach to some of the biggest turning points in her career and personal life. From a science-obsessed young girl who dreamed of being a doctor, to a graduate working in biology – Sophie had a steady job in a research lab when she first felt the itch to explore a more fulfilling career path. In search of a job that would give her the thrills and challenges she could not find elsewhere, Sophie joined Airbus in 2007.
Jumping feet-first into an IP department with no history of formal study or expertise, in just 12 years Sophie has progressed to Head of Intellectual Property Infrastructure and proven that, with a positive mindset, the sky’s the limit.
An unshakeable mindset
Working in the legal sector was not a part of Sophie Laveau’s plan.
“I was interested in science as a kid. I wanted to work as a doctor, surgeon or even in forensics when I grew up,” says Sophie. “However, as I got older I realised I wasn’t good with blood!”
Continuing to study biology at Engineering school, Sophie found a job in a research lab that allowed her to work in her area of interest – while avoiding the things that made her squeamish. Responsible for managing a technology platform on-site, Sophie ensured all researchers had access to the tools and equipment they needed for their specialist studies.
“What I was doing was interesting and I was contributing to something, but it just wasn’t challenging me enough,” Sophie adds. “Research labs are full of passionate people, but your career path and progression is firmly set – you know where your job will go and what your salary will be in five years. This rigid structure wasn’t motivating for me – I needed something more thrilling!”
Sophie was undertaking additional studies in project management and decided to launch a quality function in the lab to measure the effectiveness and efficiency of its research.
“Research labs don’t make products and for this reason quality is rarely talked about. To introduce this was novel and I certainly faced opposition. But I had the mindset that it was needed and valuable, so I pushed forward,” Sophie explains.
This determination did not go unnoticed. An opportunity with the world's second biggest aerospace and defence company – Airbus – soon came knocking.
Find your strengths. Make your successes
“I was introduced to Airbus as a Project Manager in the IP department – first as a subcontractor and later with a permanent contract. I was still passionate about biology, but this was one opportunity I just had to take!” says Sophie. “My experience in quality management and assessment got me the job, but I had to meet the challenge of entering a new industry with no IP experience.”
“When I arrived it was all new,” she adds, “but I had an amazing mentor who was really passionate about IP and took the time to teach me about the specific mechanisms and nuances associated with the industry.
You will be inspired by people across your career but we have a tendency to imitate others. I think it’s important to understand yourself – know your strengths and how you can use them in the best way. I have always had a good sense for detail and an ability to see the bigger picture – so I soon realised I had the right mindset to accommodate IP and its potential. It is a core strategic tool and being part of this function gave me the thrill I had been looking for.”
“They were more confident in my abilities than I was myself!”
Finding her feet and thriving in a new industry with Airbus, Sophie had successfully challenged the status quo and found a new passion. Yet it was a more recent breakthrough that she credits as her most defining career moment to date.
Promoted to Head of Intellectual Property Infrastructure in 2017, Sophie now plays a key role in Airbus’ functional IP organisation – working with staff to understand their requirements and help deliver what they need. Airbus has approximately 5000+ cases worldwide that need prosecuting.
“My progression last year was not part of a big master plan, things simply evolved,” Sophie comments. “Managing cross-national teams while trying to foster a shared spirit and accommodate different countries, cultures and languages has been tough - but I feel so fulfilled in what I am doing,” Sophie comments.
She jokes, “So I would say it’s been successful so far!”
For Sophie, the shine of being given a leadership role is unlikely to wear off.
“I have been incredibly lucky at every stage of my career with Airbus,” says Sophie. “IP is a field of expertise. When you are new you might think it’s too difficult to grow a career, but if you are willing to learn and use the expertise around you to make decisions, you can succeed. Management gave me the responsibility I craved early on and pushed me to succeed.”
However, Sophie’s progression has not been without its challenges.
“I never saw having three children as an obstacle to my career but taking the time out for maternity leave was tough on me,” Sophie explains. “I am an engineer at heart so I was battling with being rational and knowing I couldn’t control what was happening at work, with worrying that I was missing out and would be completely lost when I returned.”
“The reality was that my concerns were always far bigger than what happened in my time away,” Sophie adds. “I had not forgotten every nuance of my role, I wasn’t lost and I felt I was actively contributing from my first day back.”
“Returning to work part-time meant squeezing five days of work into four, but now I can see that it was all worth it. The effort made in the past has certainly rewarded me!”
Stay humble, but dare to dream
This feeling of fulfillment is something Sophie is intent on passing down to her team - a group that happens to be made up entirely of women paralegals.
“Being a woman in IP is empowering, but sometimes I worry we focus too much on men and women – why does it matter?” says Sophie. “Women and men bring different things to the workplace and diversity of all types adds real value to every business. I am proud to have responsibilities in Airbus’ IP department that gives me the chance to bring something different to the table and lead through example. I know I can drive aspirations for other women in my team and I want them to understand how they contribute, why they are valuable and the power of their ideas.”
To all women – those on her team, peers in the IP industry and women working in completely different industries – Sophie’s advice is absolute.
“Whether it’s the fault of our education system or our history, women have a tendency to minimise what they can achieve. I call on you to dare to try. There are enough barriers for women – let’s not create our own.”