Liz Harlaar heads the body which is responsible for giving away £20m of National Lottery money each year to charities in eastern England. She is also helping in a government initiative to persuade more women to serve on quangos. She has worked as a curator in Chemistry for the Science Museum and in sports promotion, but she began her career working in a male-dominated industry with a job as a plastics technologist

How did you start your working life?

I left school at 16 to do an HNC in polymer technology on a scholarship with the Rubber and Plastics Industrial Training Board, as it was then. It was the first year of the course and I was the first, and only, woman on it. I left college in 1978 and went into industry but they were not prepared for women in those days. I couldn't get anything but very low-key jobs.

Why did you do an MBA with the Open University?

I needed qualifications to get on, and I couldn't afford to go to management college. Also I don't believe in "hothousing" – spending a year that is all concept and no practice. You need to be putting these ideas and concepts into practice.

A lot of the skills I learnt on the MBA I now find extremely useful, particularly the financial strategic unit. Finance is everybody's hairy spider in the bath. In my current job we can sift through up to 40 organisations in one session with each organisation having to submit its full finances with its application.

What does your job involve?

I am chair of the Eastern region Awards Committee and a member of the Board for England of the Community Fund – what used to be called the National Lotteries Charities Board. We award different amounts to charitable, benevolent and philanthropic organisations. It can be anything from a playgroup replacing its toys, to a single grant of a million pounds.

What do you like best about your work?

It's a fascinating role because it's not just about deciding grants, but also looking at the strategy of how we are going to award them. We have more applications than we have money, so we have to try to prioritise, perhaps focusing on specific areas that are suffering deprivation. For example, in the eastern region, we might look at pockets of serious urban deprivation or places with high numbers of asylum seekers; or specific groups such as older people and their carers.

What's your newest project?

Since Christmas I have been working for the Cabinet Office Women and Equalities Unit, which is pushing for more women in public appointments.

What are your ambitions for the future?

I would like to work for the OU as a tutor, because I think it is such a brilliant organisation.