Analysis

Q&A: Katya Veleva - mentoring women for careers in BIM

19 July 2020 | By Denise Chevin

BIM consultant Katya Veleva leads the new mentoring programme being organised by the Women in BIM group. She talks to Denise Chevin about its objectives, who it’s intended to help, and who has helped her most in her career.

Tell us a bit about your career and involvement with the Women in BIM group?

My background is in architecture, but after a few years I moved onto BIM. I joined Women in BIM (WIB) about two years ago, at the same time as I started working as a BIM consultant.

I have been working on the WIB mentoring programme since the start of March in a voluntary capacity.

My own mentoring experience started about 10 years ago. I was involved in an organisation named Aim Higher, which supported pupils who were not expected to go to university and inspired them to consider higher education. I got my first mentoring training from them.

After mentoring pupils, I started mentoring with various volunteer organisations, and most recently with Built By Us, headed by the absolutely brilliant Dana Walker. The WIB mentoring scheme is heavily influenced by the Built By Us mentoring scheme, known as Fluid.

A lot of what we are doing at WIB is asking women to step up, step forward, be on panels, and share their experience in industry talks. And very often we are met with insecurity and concern, people don’t feel up for it. That imposter syndrome is often exacerbated by gender norms.

It seemed like the most natural thing for us to be offering more structured support for that, so mentoring was an idea in my head from the moment I joined. But it took some time for it to be the right moment to make this happen. At the end of last year, I really pressed for it, and we started working on it. And it has been a great experience, as everything has fallen into place so that I can focus on it exactly when the programme needed me most.

Can you tell us more about the mentoring programme?

It’s about pairing up experienced people with those who are less experienced in BIM or looking to gear their career towards BIM. 

The initial idea was simply getting some people in, looking through their profiles, interviewing them and figuring out who would fit best with who, and then letting them run with it quite independently.

The actual process of application and selection took quite a while. And to me it was an emotional time, speaking with people and trying to figure out who is the best match for who. It was really lovely to get to know people and discover what they need, to see how much they’re willing to share from their personal experience and their struggles.

A lot of what we are doing at WIB is asking women to step up, step forward, be on panels, and share their experience in industry talks. And very often we are met with insecurity and concern, people don’t feel up for it. That imposter syndrome is often exacerbated by gender norms.– Katya Veleva

How have you got on when matching mentors with mentees?

We’ve ended up having so many more applicants than we expected – over 100 so we’ve had to expand the programme. We had people from 23 different countries, with very interesting experiences and backgrounds

Initially, it was going to be just matching people and then just letting them run. But there’s actually so many parameters to think about when you’re putting people together.

And obviously the location could be key. Even though mentoring sessions are being conducted online, you must consider things like construction legislation which differs in countries, and time zones.

And matching people’s personalities has been a key thing too, figuring out who’s going to fit with whom. We decided to focus on quality matches that we really thought were going to fit together and go on to do great things. And then with the people that we didn’t match for providing one-to-one training, we decided to do some group mentoring events, which is an entirely new area for us.

In terms of the one-to-one programme, we have about 20 pairs, so 40 people. All of the mentees are women, or people of minority genders. Mentoring positions are open to anyone with sufficient experience in BIM.

Can BIM have a bit of macho side – particularly on social media?

It can be. Naturally, as this is an intersection of construction and tech, there is some “lad” behavior that runs wild on twitter sometimes. When you poke your head into forums and start asking questions, you may meet people who feel everybody should know the technical stuff already. But to me, that’s impossible as there’s such a huge amount of software available, and there’s so many ways to use it.

So yes, I know what you mean. Emotional intelligence is not as common as we’d like!

The great thing about one-on-one mentoring is that it addresses people’s specific needs, and we trust our mentors to know what sort of things need to be addressed, and obviously that’s tied into the mentees’ goals.

In the group mentoring, we’re trying to address everything. We’re starting off with a series on personal development, which is a strength-based personal development coaching, which is very much about looking at what you’re really good at, and honing in on that, and developing personal confidence in that area and then building on that.

What’s the level of people involved in the mentoring programme?

It’s a very wide range, and we’ve tried to get it right for each person.

In terms of those looking for mentoring, we have people who are very early on in their career as well as those who are already in executive positions. One of our mentors, for example, is a director in Microsoft, and she is mentoring someone who is in a high executive position in a different company.

We are recommending that the difference in years of experience between mentor and mentee should be around five to 10 years, because otherwise the gap that the mentor needs to bridge becomes too great.

What does success look like for the programme?

At the moment, we are observing and learning and recording. For the one-on-ones, we’re asking the mentee to complete a record sheet after each session, so we’ll be able to observe their growth.

I think the most important thing for me is the feedback we’re going to get from the mentees. Hopefully with these documents we’ll be able to see where people have started, and where people are at the end of the sessions. Everyone will have their own individual goals that they’re pursuing, so it will be different for everyone.

Have you had good mentors?

My mum has been so key in my personal growth the way she always used to treat us as kids.

I grew up in Bulgaria where it’s traditional to talk to adults very respectfully but

even as a child, she made us feel equal to an adult. And this has been so fundamental for me to be able to address other people as equals. And it’s really helped me seek support, and also be able to give support.

I’ve also had plenty of support at work. The first architectural practice I worked at was full of people who went out of their way to involve me in what was happening. I worked with an architect called Debbie Speer at Murphy Philipps Architects and the whole team was lovely. While I was there, I started thinking that I should go towards BIM, and they were very accommodating in my learning and made space for me to pursue new opportunities.

Of course, the whole of the core team of Women in BIM are brilliant women that I learn from and lean on a lot! Recently an invaluable mentor for me has also been Danna Walker, as mentioned before, from Built By Us. She has really helped me understand better the intersections of my own diversity.