Changing the World in Heels

Advice for Aspiring Female Engineers from Jada Smith, Aptiv’s Vice President, Advanced Engineering and External Relations

I spent a lot of my childhood in Indiana trying to figure out how things worked. I didn’t really know that this obsession with invention was called “engineering” until much later, but that’s where my love of science and math took me. As I pursued first a degree and then a career in engineering, I soon discovered something else: On pretty much any given day, I was the only woman in the room.

More diversity = more innovation.
That’s changing, slowly, but it IS changing. Bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in engineering and computer science have increased 38% since 2011, but we still have a long way to go. 

Growing these numbers is not only good for women like myself, it’s good for the world. Research shows that diverse teams featuring individuals from different genders, races, backgrounds, and experiences bring fresh perspectives that lead to innovative solutions. And the engineering field needs this diversity for generating new ideas, receiving and commercializing patents, and providing the flexibility and critical thinking required in the modern economy.

My three cents.
I’m often approached by aspiring female engineers for advice on how to succeed in what remains, at least for now, a male-dominated field. My answers are simple, but in both my professional and personal life, I have found them to be incredibly effective. So here goes.

 

Tip #1: Balance the moment, not the life.
In 2013, I was a recently divorced mother, working full-time and going to school to get my MBA. I felt like a terrible mother for wanting a career, and a terrible engineer because I was glad I was a mother. I attended a conference in Chicago, where a female executive on a panel (how I wish I could remember her name) was asked about work / life balance. Her reply: “There’s no such thing.” She went on to explain the secret to having both a life and a career was making choices and identifying what’s important in each moment. Each hour. Each day. Each week. 

It felt like a weight was lifted off me. I realized in that moment that I could have a career and be a great mother at the same time, but I had to be willing to make tough decisions and stand by them. And that’s what I’ve done. I balance the moment, every moment, and it works.

Tip #2: The only person standing in the way of your success is you.
I have had some challenging experiences in my life and looking back, it would have been easy to play the victim and focus solely on the negatives. Instead, whenever I encountered a problem, I thought about what I needed to change or do to solve it. I knew so many people had overcome bigger obstacles, so how could I let any of my relatively “small” problems defeat me? I have come a long way, and there will surely be potholes in the road ahead, but I am confident that I will be successful, because I’m confident I can do anything.

aptiv-women-engineersTip #3: Never, never, never quit.
Life is hard. You have to find the confidence, determination and grit within yourself to push through the hard times, even when you’re scared. 

Let me give you an example: During my first year as a single parent, my 6-year-old daughter confessed to me how sad she was that we wouldn’t have Christmas lights on the house that December. Why? Because her dad wasn’t there to put them up. I was flabbergasted. My own daughter, the girl I’ve raised to believe that her success or failure is determined by what’s inside her—not by her race, gender, or bank account—thought only a man could string up Christmas lights. My heart was broken. 
 
So what did I do? The next day, with my daughter watching, I climbed up a ladder and put up those lights (and let me tell you, I was terrified the entire time).
 
Did I have to do it? Of course not. But what kind of message would that send her? What kind of message would I be sending myself? That I wasn’t strong enough? If I can’t handle something small like putting up Christmas lights, then I certainly can’t handle the big things like making my voice heard in a room full of brilliant engineers. And I wasn’t going to let that be true. I refuse to let that be true.  
 

That was an important day for me (and I hope for my daughter as well). Determination won out over fear. And it set a great precedent. I still get scared, but I’ve been battle-tested and have come out on top before. As long as I hold on to the grit and determination that got me this far, and I have confidence in myself, I know that I can come out on top. And so can you. 

Posted By
Jada Smith, Vice President Advanced Engineering and External Relations

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