Advocating science as the gateway to a world of opportunity

Maggie Saykali has just been promoted to Advocacy Director, Petrochemistry and Plastics Additives Programme, at Cefic – the European Chemistry Industry Council. Before that, she was Sector Manager for the Cefic Plasticisers group. 

Cefic is the forum and the voice of the chemical industry in Europe, whose job it is to promote the interests of Europe’s chemical industry to lawmakers, opinion formers and the public. As such, it represents 29,000 large, medium and small chemical companies in Europe, which directly provide 1.2 million jobs and account for 20% of the world’s total chemical production. Based in offices in Brussels, Maggie’s job involves plenty of travel, meeting a wide range of people (including government officials, top scientists and key business leaders) and acting as the public face of a hugely important industry sector. Unsurprisingly, it’s a tough, demanding – but highly rewarding position.

 Maggie took an hour out of her busy schedule to tell us what exactly her job involves, how she got there and what advice she has for anyone wanting to get into her line of business.   

How long have you worked in your current position?

I joined Cefic as Sector Group Manager for the Plasticisers group in 2009. Now, I’m really looking forward to the challenges of being Advocacy Director – starting next Monday!

How did you get into the role?

I’ve spent my entire career in the chemical industry, starting out as a technical sales rep after graduating with a degree in Chemical Engineering from the Université Libre de Bruxelles. I progressed in technical, sales and marketing positions in different companies, gaining responsibilities for wider geographical areas including Central Europe, France, Italy and Benelux. Then I took the decision to take a fresh turn in my career – and I’ve never looked back!

Was your choice of degree key to your career?

Absolutely. Although I’m not involved directly with scientific research, my studies have been essential to progressing in the different jobs I’ve done. And the great thing with a degree in Chemical Engineering is that you never start at the bottom – graduates tend to get pretty good positions and remuneration. There’s a lack of Chem Eng graduates in Europe, so it's a qualification that really opens doors . It’s also a degree that allows your career to evolve into new, interesting areas, as has happened in my case. 

My reason for choosing the degree was that I like to know how things function. Being an engineer and a chemist is simply the best way to know how the world around us works.  

What expertise do you need for your job?

Apart from the degree – languages! I speak eight, but you should think about having at least three if you’re going to work internationally. Business sense is also vital, as are good people skills. You often forget that knowing how to negotiate, being diplomatic and understanding someone else’s point of view is really essential in a job like this. An open mind is vital, and you have to be willing to learn and take on new ideas, because nothing stands still. 

How technical is your job?

I would say – technical, but not geeky! It requires me to draw on pretty much everything I’ve learned so far during my career, including all the scientific stuff. 

What do you like most about your job? 

Meeting interesting people from every part of the world, with wildly different expertise and experiences is great. You get to hear and discuss very different points of view on a wide variety of subjects. There are fascinating problems to be solved, too. And you actually have the chance to change things and make a difference, which is very satisfying. 

What does a typical day look like?

It’s rare that any two days are the same, but there are always phone calls to be made and meetings to attend. Most weeks, there’s travel involved – around Europe and sometimes further afield. I also need to stay in regular contact with our sister organisations in Asia and the USA. 

Do you have a good work-life balance? 

Usually, yes. On the whole, I have plenty of time for a life outside of work – but there are always rush periods where you have to put everything on hold and concentrate on the job in hand. 

How would you describe your working environment? 

Very diverse! We have at least 20 different nationalities represented in our offices in Brussels, all with a wide range of expertise. I personally work with a team that consists of an assistant who deals with all the statistics and some administration duties, plus two communications specialists. We also coordinate closely with a scientific working group. So, as you can see, there’s a lot of variety. And in terms of corporate culture, things are always different, because you tend to work with different companies and countries – so you’re never tied down to one particular way of working or one organisational point of view. 

What value does your job have for the outside world? How does it help others?

Cefic represents a huge number of companies and, as such, it can wield a lot more influence than any one single member. My job is to help ensure that the interests of the industry as a whole get heard and promoted. Remember, this is an industry that employs over a million people in Europe and which supplies one fifth of the world’s chemicals, so making sure it makes its case effectively and fairly is very important. 

And we don’t just consider the needs and wishes of the industry. The public, environmental groups and policy-makers all have a part to play. In fact, we can help all of these groups to cut through the sea of information out there to get to what’s really important and helpful. That’s a key part of my job.  

What advice would you give anyone wanting to have a similar job?

Firstly, don’t specialise too early and keep your options open if you can. Your interests can easily change as you progress.

I’d also advise any women and girls reading this to get involved in science and scientific careers. It’s not just for men – and it’s certainly not nerdy. In fact, it can be quite cool! What’s more, many science-based careers require a lot of empathy and interpersonal skills, which most women seem to have in abundance. 

Why would someone aspire to your position?

Because there’s never a dull moment. Because you get to meet interesting people from all over the world. Because what you do can really make a difference to a very important industry. It’s a great feeling when you present your ideas, argue your case and finally get your point of view across.