Woman in Waste: UKCM’s Emma Elston MBE

Emma Elston MBE, CEO of UKCM
Emma Elston MBE, CEO of UKCM

Emma Elston MBE, founder and CEO of UK Container Maintenance (UKCM), is a Director of the Women of the Year Awards, and has numerous awards, winning Business Woman of the Year in 2012 and receiving an MBE in 2015’s New Years Honour’s list.

Ahead of International Women's Day (8 March), I spoke to Emma about her business, achievements and experiences of being a woman in a male-dominated industry.

When did you found UKCM and where did the idea come from?

I founded UKCM back in 1998 together with my husband. He was actually working as a binman in Manchester and he saw that the containers were being damaged and scrapped, so we came up with the idea to repair the containers so that instead of being scrapped, they can go back out to be reused again and again. I was only 22 at the time!

What is your current role and what does it involve?

I’m the CEO so my role involves overseeing the whole of the businesses, and I really try to get involved as much as I can. We’re not a huge company – we have around 65 employees, and my role is basically to be team leader for our brilliant team.

What was the waste and resources industry like for women when you entered it and how has it changed?

The industry has changed so much over the years. When I first started, I was a young woman only just entering the waste and recycling industry, and I found that everything was pretty old-school. It was very male-dominated, and there weren’t many women in the industry at all.

But actually, I’ve found that a lot of the men I work with have been my mentors, and they’ve really helped me to get where I am today. It was really difficult when I first entered the industry and I definitely had imposter syndrome at the beginning.

I think we’re in a good place today. There’s still a lot of work to do, but we’re seeing a lot more women at the helm of the industry compared to ever before. It’s obviously not fifty-fifty, but we’ve come such a long way in 20 years and I think we’re really leading the way in terms of equality and inclusion.

How can we encourage more women to enter the sector and to take leadership roles?

We’re already doing some great work to do this. There are various women on board of some of the biggest companies at really high levels, and it’s really important for young women to see this and realise that this industry isn’t just for men. We’re making so much progress and I think we just need to continue what we’re doing by promoting the value of women in the waste industry.

You are a previous winner of Business Woman of the Year and are now a Director of the Women of the Year Awards. How important is it that we recognise the success of women in business?

I think it’s really important to recognise the success of women – especially because if you look at business awards as a whole, the majority of recipients are men.

We’re definitely finding that more and more men are supporting the female leadership awards. When you go to the ceremonies, for example Women of the Year, you can really see the support that our male colleagues are giving us.

At the end of the day, it’s all about inclusion for all and working together regardless of gender. As the world is changing, we need to look really carefully at equality and making sure we support one another. Everyone needs recognition if you’re working hard, as it really helps to instill more confidence.

You’ve set up a business and received numerous awards including an MBE. Which achievement are you most proud of?

Definitely the business and the team we’ve created. It’s obviously great to achieve these awards and it’s amazing to have the MBE, but the thing I’m most proud of is setting up the business.

They say you’re only as good as your team around you, and I’m so proud of everyone in the team and how far UKWM has come over the years. Everyone who’s part of the business has put so much into it – so when I do win awards, it’s not just for me, it’s for all of us.

I’m proud of what I’ve achieved as a woman in the waste industry, but I couldn’t have done any of it without the support of everyone around me.

Who is your recycling and waste inspiration?

I feel inspired by everyone who’s working hard in the industry, so it’s really hard to pinpoint one person. So many people, both men and women, have been involved in changing the industry for the better.

There’s a lot of people who are celebrated in the public eye, but I think it’s also important to acknowledge the hard work of everyone working behind the scenes, as we wouldn’t be able to do any of what we do without them. You don’t have to win awards to be the best in your field, and so it’s important to recognise everyone – especially the women, but also the men – who do all the work to make everything successful.

What advice would you give to women starting out in business?

It’s all about self-belief. Believe in yourself and what you’re planning to do and make sure you push yourself out there. It’s important to do your research, but ultimately you just need to be true to yourself. Integrity is everything, and you never have to pretend to be anything you’re not. Just be you!

The people around you are also really important – make sure you have a good support network and have people you trust and can be your sounding block. Treat everyone as your mentor, whatever their level. Everyone has great ideas that will be able to help you along the way.