Holly Yeomans is principle powertrain lead at McLaren Automotive Ltd, having joined the company in 2018 and worked her way up to the position she holds today. She was winner of a Surrey ‘40 under 40’ Business Award in 2022, and she also took part in a BBC documentary the same year — Made in England: We Make Supercars. Prior to embarking on her automotive career path, Holly had considered studying physiotherapy, having initially been persuaded that automotive careers weren’t for women, before returning to her passion and studying mechanics at college, followed by a BSc in Motorsport Engineering from Swansea University.
“Over the years, as I have got older, International Women in Engineering Day has become more important to me. It highlights that, as women in the engineering space, we are not alone, and we are amongst some of the most influential and talented engineers in the world!”
The only girl
I was always surrounded by motorsport, automotive, rugby, fishing and all things your average young girl wouldn’t be associated with. Recently, I remembered that even for my art project in secondary school, I ended up drawing Valentino Rossi’s iconic Camel MotoGP bike!
When it came to picking my options in school, I had no way of researching how I could tie in my passion for automotive into my career. I saw my classmates knowing what they wanted and I was still stuck trying to work out what I could do.
When the day came, I told a career advisor I wanted to do mechanics — as this was the only way I thought I could get really close to cars. (I hated maths so I didn’t think I could become an engineer…) The careers advisor’s response made me pull the handbrake and do a U-turn completely. “You do know you will be the only girl in the class, don’t you?” This planted a seed of doubt immediately, to the point I chose physiotherapy as I was on the local athletics team, played netball and was fairly active so I thought: “That’ll do.”
That wouldn’t do
From there, I ended up going back and re-selecting my options, and I eventually went with what I actually wanted to do — mechanics. I spent two years at a small college in South Wales, tucked away in a workshop for a full day a week changing clutches on transit vans, replacing gearboxes, doing general servicing and maintenance, and then studying theory for the rest of the course.
Whilst in college, I was lucky enough to be chosen to do a short-term work experience placement at a local engineering firm that specialised in automotive diagnostics. As the time came to further my education, I found myself in the same situation: “Yikes! What am I going to do now?!” As someone who really did not enjoy mathematics, I instantly assumed that being an engineer was off the cards.
The head of the company I did my experience with said to me: “I’ll employ you if you go to university and come back!” Let’s just say, I owe this man a big thank you for planting that ambition in me and giving me a vision as this was what then drove me to go to university.
I then went to university in sunny Swansea and graduated with a BSc in Motorsport Engineering. Once I graduated, I dished out my CV to all major motorsport facilities in the UK (McLaren being one of them!) thinking for sure that “someone is going to want me fresh out of university”, not knowing I was competing with THOUSANDS of other talented candidates for every single role.
Feeling disheartened, but not defeated, I had to continue to find work. After all, I successfully worked three jobs whilst in university, so the work ethic was ingrained in me from the age of 15. I was successful in securing myself a role at a popular German manufacturer selling new and used vehicles, where I stayed for two and a half years.
Not expecting the unexpected
Then, one day, as I was leaving work after a busy week on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I got a phone call from an unknown number – it was a recruiter for McLaren. I instantly thought this is a joke, someone must have been joking with me. Fast forward five years, it wasn’t a joke after all. I was headhunted for a position at McLaren Automotive.
I started as a project engineer in powertrain in 2018, working my way up the ladder to a senior engineer in powertrain, which then led me into my new position today as a principal powertrain lead. (In automotive engineering, the powertrain, sometimes known as the drivetrain, is made up of the components of a motor vehicle that deliver power to the drive wheels.)
My current position as a principle powertrain lead is very new! I now work in a high-operating team that lead and manage future projects for McLaren Automotive from a powertrain point of view.
Day-to-day, I am responsible for ensuring that the timing, cost and quality of the programmes fall in line with the business plan, as I’m the key point of communication for the content. It sounds simple, right? But the sheer scope of the projects means that we are designing and developing vehicles that take years for the media to form their ideas about, so it’s vital that we all communicate and work well with a team so commercially that sensitive information stays that way as the vehicles are developed.
Diversity is what makes a great team
Coming into McLaren, where I am amongst some of the best engineers in the industry, heavily experienced individuals from all over the world, made me realise what makes a great team — diversity: Different experiences; different backgrounds; and different outlooks. Having to make decisions is part of my job, so having a high-functioning, diverse team, regardless of gender, makes this easier.
Over the years, as I have got older, International Women in Engineering Day has become more important to me. It highlights that, as women in the engineering space, we are not alone, and we are amongst some of the most influential and talented engineers in the world!
Confidence is the word
Every year I am more and more surprised by how many women are out there doing this. It’s a tough gig and I for one don’t give myself enough credit for the tough times I’ve had trying to crack this industry since the age of 16! It’s important because if 14-year-old Holly was looking at a video of hundreds of female engineers on this day, she would have known to go for it with a bit more confidence. That’s the word — confidence.
To celebrate over the last two years, I have been part of various discussions and panels talking with some amazing colleagues across automotive and racing. I dare say I will be doing the same this year. Over the last three years I have learned a lot more about ‘women in engineering’ as I decided to become a STEM ambassador.
Going to primary schools, colleges and universities has opened my eyes to how influential even someone like me (little old Holly from Drefach in South Wales!) can be over a young girl deciding she wants to be an engineer. I have put in hundreds of hours and dedicated a lot of my time to education representing STEM and I couldn’t be prouder.
Small(er) is beautiful
Having recently started my new position, I am looking forward to facing the challenges head-on, and focusing on my personal development at McLaren. It’s been five years and I am already looking forward to the next five! McLaren being one of the smaller car manufacturers in the world offers a sense of family for me, you get a close-knit feel as all the other departments are just across the corridor.
The advantages of this and networking have allowed me to have some amazing experiences outside of my day job. The last two years I have been part of the social media team for Goodwood Festival of Speed and meet some amazing people. So, again this year, I am looking forward to it!
UK readers can watch Holly in Made in England: We Make Supercars on BBC iPlayer (until approximately November 2023)