As a child, my father encouraged me to find leadership roles. He often commented on my academic achievements, athletic performance, musical abilities, or other undertakings from the perspective of how I could lead my peers. If I only had a dollar for every time he told me, "Laura, leadership is lonely." I often marveled at this statement, wondering what he could mean. Anyone who knows me recognizes my extroversion and natural inclination to make a friend. And, after all, don’t leaders lead other people? How could that be lonely?
Years have passed since those early days, and my experiences in leadership have continued to evolve. As time marches forward, I have begun to appreciate and understand this statement. A true leader has the confidence and the fortitude to stand alone. It takes a lot of courage and grit to make decisions or take a position on an unpopular issue, even if it is right. These experiences were amplified by being a younger female leader working in the space of advancing technical education. I spent over a decade working in the Mechanical Engineering program as the senior development officer at Purdue University’s main campus. In this role, I was a young female rooted in a traditionally male-dominated field. Similar opportunities working in technical education advancement for Ivy Tech Community College and Trine University would follow.
Fast forward to today, being at the helm of a large private foundation focused on advanced manufacturing, entrepreneurship, and technology. It can be isolating to look around and realize that many other leaders of nonprofit enterprises focused on technical education and entrepreneurship are led by more traditional choices by their respective boards. I feel honored and blessed to be counted among them, although I still recognize that gaps exist in getting more females into these fields. Additionally, I strive to achieve and model an ideal work/life balance in a high-profile position to encourage my team to do the same.
To that end, I greatly enjoy the opportunity to mentor up-and-coming leaders of tomorrow. While I sometimes shy away from using the precise phrase my father often shared with me, I recognize the tenants still ring true. I encourage tomorrow’s leaders, particularly younger females, to look inside, dig deep, and understand their own core values if they wish to lead by example with others. There will be days in a leadership role when it is a difficult road to walk, but the outcomes of leading others toward their own growth and success in a way that upholds what is right and just are absolutely worth every step of the way.
“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” -Eleanor Roosevelt
President & CEO
In the United States, the engineering workforce remains predominantly male – only 14% of engineering positions are held by women. Although women make up 20% of engineering graduates, nearly 40% of women with engineering degrees either quit or never enter an engineering profession. All stakeholders, including K-12 educators, universities, and employers, need to work together to promote STEM subjects to girls and young women. This should start at an early age and include steps such as providing mentorship opportunities, educating school counselors and parents to help them support their students, and training on potential biases around engineering professions.
Research shows that most students form their career preferences during high school. This means it is too late to persuade young women to pursue STEM majors once they enter college. Exposing young girls to STEM activities at an early age is more likely to inspire them to pursue STEM-related majors after high school. When I was the faculty advisor for the Society of Women Engineers chapter at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, we launched the annual “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” in 2013. The event inspires girls’ interests in engineering, exposes them to engineering lab experiments in different disciplines, and pairs them with college students to serve as their mentors. After ten years, “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” has touched the lives of thousands of girls. Many of them have gone on to pursue STEM studies in college, and engineering careers afterwards.
Since joining Indiana Tech, I’ve collaborated closely with our team and community partners to expand our summer camp programs and attract more girls and young women to participate. We were recently awarded a $1 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. in support of our work through its program, Indiana Youth Programs on Campus. Indiana Tech’s initiative, titled “Industry 5.0 Talent Pathway through Indiana Tech’s STEAM Academy,” is expanding summer camp offerings for K-12 students and developing a variety of after-school programs. In the summer of 2023, the STEAM Academy has offered five different summer camps, including Build+Learn STEM Middle School Camp, High School STEM Camp, Creative Expression and Communication Camp, Investigative Science Camp, and Cyber Patriot Camp. Our community partners for the STEAM Academy have included the Boys Scouts of America, STARBASE Indiana Fort Wayne, the Air Force Association’s CyberPatriot, Gear UP FWCS, and Believe in a Dream, Inc. The camps have attracted hundreds of students from around our region, many of them girls who are gaining a new interest and encouragement in STEM fields.
As one of only 80 female engineering deans in the nation, I believe mentorship and role models are vital to inspire young girls to pursue careers in engineering. No matter her background, if a young girl meets someone like her in an engineering program, she will see firsthand that engineering is a viable and rewarding career path. All female working professionals in our field need to support young girls with interests in STEM. Together, we can help girls build confidence in their strengths and abilities, share our own personal stories, give young girls a sense of belonging in the community of engineers and empower them to succeed in the pursuit of their goals.
Dr. Ying Shang
Dean, Talwar College of Engineering and Computer Sciences