Breaking gender barriers... with rockets
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – About 2,500 miles west of State College, Pennsylvania, at Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) headquarters in Hawthorne, California, five Penn State industrial engineering alumnae are working in the company’s industrial engineering (IE) department.
Lauren Knobloch, Kate Tice, Fawn Romanko, Liz Jenkins and Ali DiNatale have received IE degrees from Penn State within the last five years. Some of them knew each other in high school or college, others were strangers that have become friends. Though their paths to SpaceX were different, they all now work together in an effort to accomplish the company’s mission.
“Problem solving is what IE and SpaceX is all about,” Romanko said. “We are trying to enable people to live on Mars. We are trying to accomplish the impossible.”
Tice and Knobloch are lean facilitators within the IE department. They are assigned an area of production within the company and look for ways to eliminate waste. This can be in the form of physical waste, such as using too much of a material, or wasted time.
After Tice and Knobloch have identified areas that can be improved, Romanko, Jenkins and DiNatale step in. Their job is to make changes in the processes that address the issues of waste identified by the lean facilitators.
“We all work as a team,” Knobloch said. “The goal is for everything to be as efficient as possible. Even if we aren’t working in the same area, we all consult one another.”
The women were drawn to SpaceX because of the company’s visionary mission.
“SpaceX’s mission to enable people to live on other planets is really inspiring,” said Romanko. “When I got the offer to work here, to work for such an innovative company, I couldn’t turn it down.”
Most of them were looking for the next step in their careers and the strong Penn State network led them to SpaceX.
The first of the group to work at SpaceX was Knobloch, who earned her M.Eng. in 2015 from the Penn State World Campus. She began her IE career at Lockheed Martin in its Space Systems division and made the move to SpaceX in 2014. During the spring of that year, DiNatale was also beginning her journey at SpaceX, in the company’s supply chain co-op program.
DiNatale returned to Penn State for her senior year and after graduation, accepted a full-time position with the company.
“It was hard coming back to Penn State,” DiNatale said. “After being at SpaceX it was hard to interview with companies that make toothpaste or cereal. I just kept thinking about SpaceX.”
In 2015, Romanko and Tice joined the team. Tice, who was working for GKN, and Romanko, at the time with Intel, were both persuaded by Knobloch to apply at SpaceX. Jenkins was the last to make the move. After two years with Kraft, Jenkins was looking for a new challenge, and was hired at SpaceX in August.
The five women are informally known within their department as the “PSU group,” and they believe that their Penn State IE education was helpful in preparing them for their current roles.
Janis Terpenny, Peter and Angela Dal Pezzo Chair and Head of the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, thinks this has do to with the integrated focus of the department. Students are encouraged to gain multiple industry experiences during their studies, whether it is through internships and co-ops, or research within the department.
“In our department we work to thread classes and real world experiences together throughout the curriculum,” Terpenny said.
The Penn State SpaceX women concur, they all recommend that IE students utilize department resources to gain industry experience before graduation.
“Those professional experiences while in college give you a leg up when applying for jobs,” Tice said. “It is a great way to supplement your education and helps you stand out from other applicants.”
No day in the office is the same for the five women. With multiple deadlines and a strict budget, the IE department is always busy looking for cost effective ways to speed up production.
“Everything is very fast-paced here,” Romanko said. “We are always analyzing a new challenge. It’s why I want to come to work every day.”
Like many technology companies, SpaceX is fueled by young professionals. In the IE department, the people sitting around the table making decisions are young engineers. But don’t let their ages fool you, these are some of the brightest minds in the country.
“The work culture at SpaceX is very relaxed,” said Tice. “But no one slacks off. We are surrounded by really intelligent, go-getters. Being in this kind of environment pushes us to keep doing our best.”
Working at a well-known company that is growing rapidly can lead to tense relationships among employees. But that isn’t the case at SpaceX.
“Everyone was great to me when I was an intern and when I started full time,” said DiNatale. “The Penn State women really took me under their wings to make sure I succeeded.”
Women in any engineering field won’t be surprised to learn the majority of SpaceX employees are male. It is something these women become familiar with in college and grow to expect in the workforce.
“After being one of only a few women in the classroom during college, you get used to it,” Knobloch said. “It doesn’t really bother me anymore.”
All of the women agree that the SpaceX office culture doesn’t make them feel like a minority. In meetings they feel like their opinions are heard and ideas are taken seriously by management.
“We don’t feel like we have to prove ourselves because we’re women,” Jenkins said. “SpaceX only hires the best of the best. We’re here because we met the job qualifications.”
Working with other graduates from their alma mater has made their SpaceX experience unique and even more enjoyable for the group. The five women have worked closely on multiple projects and give each other advice on the ones they aren’t working together on.
“We all have similar thought processes because of our education, so that makes the work go faster and easier,” DiNatale said.
Having a piece of Penn State while being on the other side of the country also helps with adjusting to life after graduation. The group even organized PSU Fridays. Every Friday of the year they wear Penn State attire to work, to bring some Penn State pride to the office.
“When you are the only Penn Stater you kind of feel alone,” said Tice. “There is this camaraderie and closeness that you don’t get with people from other universities.”
The women are excited to see what is going on in the department of their alma mater and encourage women in IE to explore industry options and go after opportunities that excite them.
“Don’t be afraid to apply for a position that is out of your comfort zone,” DiNatale said. “I didn’t think I would end up in the aerospace industry but I kept an open mind and it was the best decision I made. Who knows, maybe we will add a sixth member from Penn State to our team in the future.”