As BCS publishes its analysis on the ONS IT employment figures as they relate to ethnicity, age, gender and disability, we spoke to two women with interesting social mobility stories. In this second instalment, Brian Runciman MBCS speaks to Dr Chen Mao Davies about her journey from China to becoming the CEO of social good enterprise LatchAid.

Tell us about the start of your journey

I came to this country in 2002 when I was 21 years old. I came here for a Master's degree, but with minimum spoken English. With two suitcases, I arrived at Edinburgh Airport and I didn't know anyone. I didn’t even know how to get to the University of Dundee. Luckily, someone who knew the student pickup bus was around asked if I wanted to join the bus. Otherwise, I would be stranded there, I really didn’t know what to do.

Where was your education undertaken?

I was educated in China. I did mechanical engineering. I grew up in an environment that didn’t often encouraged public speaking. I was always listening to my teacher, being a good student, trying very hard in the education system, trying to succeed using the standard model people set for me. There's not much variety where I grew up.

Why mechanical engineering?

It's very different from computer science. From the very beginning, I knew I didn’t really want to be a mechanical engineer but in China, you have this education system that is very competitive and this really brutal university entry exam. It's very difficult and very competitive and in my last year of high school, I had a really difficult family time. I was living with my grandparents and my granddad had cancer and died. So, I was suffering from anxieties - I couldn't sleep, even acupuncture couldn’t make me sleep. I had high blood pressure and everything, it was really hard.

My uncle and auntie wanted to take my grandma to live with them. So I had no one, nowhere to live and I just had to go. So basically, I just took the university offer; not the greatest university, not the greatest subject. I never thought I would be a mechanical engineer, but I just went to Beijing to get that degree. Doing that master's degree in Dundee University is one of the things that helped me escape my fate of being a mechanic engineer.

During the master's degree, there were tremendous challenges of language and culture and insecurity that I didn't know what I was doing or why I was in this country. I didn't even understand my teacher's lectures. How on earth could I do all these assignments?

How did you cope?

It was hard, but gradually I found a way to survive in the system; I recalled what the teacher said, I listened back and I spent five times more energy than other people in preparing everything. I prepared before the lecture. I played back recordings I’d made, and I did loads and loads of practice with any kind of assignment. The first term I did terribly because I didn't quite understand everything, but I got better and better.

Eventually, I got a distinction in my exams for my master's and I was in the top two or three of the class. That really gave me confidence and I thought, I don't want to go back to China yet, I want to learn more. I started to like this country. I liked doing presentations. I liked to do group discussions. I liked to have open-minded people around me.

What kind of assistance did you get?

I wanted to do a computer science PhD with a scholarship, so I spent months applying for PhD studentship. I must have applied for about a hundred. I kept going and eventually, there was a Chinese university lecturer who saw something in me. However, once he got the funding, he changed his mind: because I was 22 and I hadn’t much research experience, he wanted to give it to someone better than me.

He said I’d have to send in my proposal properly so he could decide. So, I had maybe about eight hours that night and I borrowed lots of books. I printed loads of papers related to the research subject. I spent a whole night, I didn't sleep and I wrote a proposal. I still remember that night - the desperation, the fire in my belly - and the fact that I didn’t want to lose the opportunity.

It was almost like I was hanging on a cliff and to go up, I needed to make sure I got this. I tried my best trying to write a proposal like I've never written before, trying to imagine his vision and trying to paint that vision using things I read in that eight hours. Because of a postal strike, he only received a handful of proposals and no one else had put in that much effort. I think he was shocked by how much I achieved in eight hours and he saw something in me again. And then he said, okay, come to London, this scholarship is yours.

What came next, career-wise?

I started working on computer graphics and it was so close to my dream to work on feature films. I still took five or six years to get where I wanted to be at Framestore. I set goals, I decided to divide and conquer, to find the quickest and easiest way to get A, to B, then to C and to meet more and more people who could guide me every step of the way and eventually reach Framestore and start working on films.

I went to work at the West of Scotland Science Park and worked for a company that was developing software called IES <Virtual Environment>. It was doing sustainability and green design and I did a lot of stuff for 3d visualisation, for computer aided modelling and CAD software to help people build big 3D models. The software I developed was used to build Terminal 5 of Heathrow Airport.

I moved to Cambridge and worked at ArtVPS, a company that specialises in developing software and technology for photorealistic rendering. And then I moved to Cardiff University to be a postdoctoral research fellow, working on geometric modelling, so 3D stuff again. I was trying to do research but I realised that I am not really suited for academia. I published a number of papers during my PhD, but I didn't like to just work for pushing the boundaries of research and publish academic papers. That career path is very linear, I didn't want that.

What did you want to do instead?

I wanted to work on Pixar movies. I loved the Lion King when I was growing up, I wanted to work on Toy Story. I wanted to be part of making a virtual world that tells a story that touched people's hearts. I went to an animation festival called Animex in Middlesbrough University and all the film studios send their people there because it's part of the recruitment thing, so I saw Dreamworks, I saw Framestore, Double Negative, Sony Pictures and some other companies.

It's a very hard world to break into but I did find out what kind of talents and skills they were looking for, so it was a stepping stone. I knew studios looked for people who understand photo realistic rendering, because for CGI, you need to create something photorealistic from polygons and from virtual lighting.

You need to really understand the physics of how the light bounces off the surface, so I went to ArtVPS to learn physically-based rendering, ray tracing; everything about computer graphics at much higher level. I worked with some really, really talented computer scientists to develop software products for ray-tracing and interactive rendering.

My experience prepared me to secure an interview with Framestore. A friend of mine got into Framestore as a runner: he got a first-class degree and was working as a 3D artist at ArtVPS, but he went to Framestore to make coffees, to deliver letters, earn literally nothing - just so that he could be closer, have that glimpse of hope that one day he would be able to work on a sequence, work on shots, to work on something.

He introduced me to Framestore and I went to see the head of R&D and I just pitched to him, I almost had tears in my eyes. I didn’t get in. But one day, I was talking to another guy from Swansea University and he said, ‘What's stopping you from writing an email to the head of R&D again to ask about any new opportunities?’ I went home. I wrote the email. I changed it so many times and the reply was, ‘I'm so glad you are keeping in touch, we're working on Gravity* we need lots of engineers. Let's have a chat.’

He was thinking about something really informal, but I was thinking about something really formal because, again I was seeing myself on that cliff. I really want to climb up, I don't want to fall down and failure is no answer. I prepared three, four days for that half an hour chat. I was so tense, but I got through it and he said, okay, when can you start?

Did you have problems with people’s attitude towards you because of your ethnicity, or the fact that English was your second language?

I had two obstacles. The first thing I found when I arrived in the UK is that when you don't speak very well, people think you are not very intelligent. I almost felt like a dumpling boiling in a teapot. It's almost like I’ve got so much fire inside my belly but people don't know. They can only see the little steam coming out... they just think if you speak like that, you must think like that.

The second thing, I don't know if it's just how I feel, but I do feel some people were racist. When people thought about Chinese people back then, even Chinese students were not very common, so they imagined takeaway workers, people at the bottom of the social-economic rank. In China, I never felt like I was different from anyone else but when I arrived in this country, I did feel like people were looking down at me. I felt insecure. I felt sad that I couldn't express myself as I wanted.

Was that true in all situations?

My university lecturers were really quite accommodating. They even spoke more slowly for me and other Chinese students. And when I started working, things just got better and better. Maybe I had developed a thicker skin, or maybe my insecurity and my sensitivity was part of the process of adapting into a new culture or new environment.

You moved to another country by yourself, which is a big step. What support did you get?

I definitely got loads of support from my religious friends and from what it says in the Bible; I found I was treated equally. Speaking very little English actually was not a disadvantage because I felt like people were looking at me as a person. And also, when arriving in any new place, you need practical help.

People in my congregation helped me to proofread my applications - some of my hundreds of applications - and helped me to find my feet when I moved to any new places. To be honest when I came to this country, I knew no one and that was my support network.

I also really got inspiration from my mum because years ago in the 1990s, she decided to do something completely different and she moved from China to Hungary. My mum had this dream of starting her own business, to go to a new place and she gave up everything. She left her doctor's job; she basically had a couple of suitcases and she took this train that goes through Moscow over eight days and eight nights to Hungary.

She arrived with absolutely no Hungarian, knowing no one and absolutely starting from scratch with probably just five dollars in her pocket, eventually setting up a retail business employing 30 people. And then my dad, brother and sister followed. I always felt that that fighter spirit is always in me and seeing how my mom created something, a legacy from nothing, that really inspires me.

*The 2013 feature film. Chen became part of the Oscar-winning team.

Find out more

Mao Chen Davies is CEO of LatchAid and will be appearing at the BCS Insights Conference 2021.

BCS research

BCS will soon publish its analysis of the annual ONS labour statistics, covering ethnicity, disability, age and gender.