Many inspiring stories start small but significantly impact the world when heard. Similarly, women leaders that make their presence themselves from the ground up are the ones who inspire an enormous number of people. Growing up on a small tropical island of Penang, Malaysia, May Winfield was the only one who had access to old school computers due to her father’s interest in them. Brought up in a relatively traditional household, she was strongly encouraged to choose a professional career. Later, May studied law in Sheffield, England, and then a post-graduate barrister. She worked as an advocate and solicitor for two years in Malaysia. Following she managed to become a lawyer in the South West of England.
Today, May leads as the Global Director of Commercial, Legal and Digital Risks at Buro Happold. She works closely with the business worldwide, identifying legal and digital risks and opportunities. She assists in developing new technology and digital data products, services, and offerings across the industry.
Buro Happold is an international, integrated consultancy of engineers, consultants, and advisers, with a presence in 31 locations worldwide, over 70 partners, and 1,900 employees. Founded in 1976, Buro Happold has built a world-class reputation for delivering creative, value-led solutions for an ever-challenging world. As a truly inter-connected community of experts, it values human wellbeing curiosity, embraces mutual responsibility, and genuinely cares about its work’s impact and legacy.
A Steady Rise
In 2011, May specialized working in construction insurance law in London, where the UK Government mandated the use of 3D Building Information Modelling (BIM), which by 2016 was applied to all government procured construction projects. This mandate allowed May to combine her interests with her work; however, she was frequently advised to drop the interest to focus on money-making specialisms or endeavors.
May didn’t give up and read anything that she could find on the topic and attended a digital technology conference in the construction industry, where she would be the only lawyer in the room and only one of a handful of women. She learned that the new processes led to new risks and was eager to help the industry avoid the ticking time bomb. An opportunity struck in the form of the major contractor, Carillion, that led May to move in-house to work there, where her boss encouraged her to research BIM. She ended up leading on the legal and contractual matters for digital and technology issues at Carillion, then a £4b company.
After Carillion failed, May was told repeatedly in interviews and by heads of legal that the digital and technology aspects of construction were not of any real assistance to them or her career and was rejected from several jobs. In the meantime, May wrote one of the first detailed legal analyses of a contractual framework for this area of law (cited worldwide). Eventually, Dr. Marzia Bolpagni, a supportive friend, introduced May to the now CTO of Buro Happold, Alain Waha.
Leaving a Mark
Buro Happold is in a position to effect real change as it can work collectively towards an equitable and green recovery, adapting its business to mitigate climate change and the biodiversity crisis. It recognizes that the industry must make substantial, sustained changes to design and create environments from the building to a regional scale that are sustainable and fair. As engineers and consultants, it is committed to working with clients and partners to better the industry, cities, and communities.
The Foundational Pillars
Buro Happold is a values-based practice with an inclusive culture driven by mutual respect and passion for creating:
- Value human wellbeing and are discontented with limitations, committing to taking this as seriously for its people as its projects.
- It is a diverse, one-firm culture. When it gets right, it sings. Internal barriers are always to be overcome through inclusivity and equity above all else.
- It embraces mutual responsibility. It is easy to default to individual success. Teams need to share success and failure in the same way.
- It is more than a business. It cares about the legacy of our work. It has a responsibility of care as an employer and influencer in shaping the world.
- Sustainability is intrinsic to the economic and social impact of its work. Going beyond compliance requires challenging preconceptions taking extra steps.
- It takes courage to create. Its culture fosters a dynamic between technology and empathy to gain deeper insight, unleash imagination, and manage risk.
May mentions that the organization is actively involved with its local communities wherever it can and makes its skills, experience, and time available to those in society most in need, wherever they are located in the world. Its main program for community involvement is Share Our Skills (SOS), established in 2014; it enables its employees to carry out non-fee-paying work during regular work time.
The Technological Leverage
May expresses that technology shouldn’t be used purely for technology’s sake; it can enable parties to remove repetitive tasks or make things much faster and more efficient, generating more accurate results.
Buro Happold’s climate toolkit or dashboard shortens the time to generate a climate report from one day to ten minutes; removing barriers and speeds up processes to run the complex analysis involved – all at the click of a button, making the data more accessible.
May notes, “Automation is a great tool when applied sensibly, leading to more time being made available for designers to make better decisions and produce higher quality, sustainable designs. Though it can’t replace the years of experience, local knowledge, and precedent in the areas we work in – as well as the risk mitigation and liability control provided by the legal team. There is no single tool that accounts for all those variables, and we correctly use technological advances to supplement and enhance our services – rather than replace them.”
The Long Haul
May states that while known for its forward-thinking, technologically advanced ethos and ways of working, Buro Happold is, in some ways, at the beginning of its whole digital journey. May feels blessed that the belief and support of various people have led her to the role she has today, enabling her to lead the legal risks side of the digital journey.
May envisions to support Buro Happold to continue to be thought leaders and recognized talents in the digital and construction technology space while progressing its strong vision of sustainability and more equality and diversity within the industry.
May advises budding women entrepreneurs not to listen to the detractors who want you to pursue something more accessible, more mainstream, or more suited to you. She says, “Be bold in your belief. However, understand that the road can be long and is hard; nothing good comes easy, and it will take personal time – though the balance is important to make it all worthwhile. It is possible – I have my career, my side ‘hobby’ of digital-based conferences, papers and activities, a 6-year-old child, a patient husband, and loving friends.”
Concluding her thoughts, May asserts, “Research and consider sensibly what precise direction you should take to succeed in the way you envision – where is the gap in the market, where is the knowledge gap, what organizations are vital to be involved with? Be prepared, in the long journey, to pivot when needed while keeping your eye on the goal. My journey as a legal specialist in digital and technology matters started in 2011, and I build on it every day.”