Meet the Women Leading the Future of Science and Engineering at Koch
If Dawn Wurst had listened to a well-meaning teacher in high school who told her she shouldn't pursue a career in engineering because of her difficulty with math, her future might have looked very different.
“But because of my personality, when he told me that I shouldn't do something, I decided to do it,” said Wurst, who today is vice president of process and asset safety at Georgia-Pacific.
Wurst is one of many employees across Koch companies to have channeled her innate abilities into a fulfilling career. They have taken many paths to their current roles, but all agree on this: There is no substitute for matching skill with purpose.
For Koch employees, transformation means more than just improving products and processes—it means continually improving themselves. For Wurst and countless others, the key to fulfillment is simple: Pursuing their dreams while helping others find theirs, no matter what obstacles—mental or physical—might stand in the way. But even as women have outperformed their male counterparts in the same school subjects and despite filling 47 percent of jobs in the economy, women made up less than one quarter—24 percent—of science, technology, engineering and mathematics-based (STEM) roles.
“We employ nearly 70,000 people in the U.S., with roles in operations, engineering and various skilled trades. Koch values and needs a diversity of talent and experiences to succeed,” said Sheryl Corrigan, director, environmental health and safety at Koch Industries’ headquarters in Wichita, Kansas. “When we have all kinds of diversity, we get ideas that interact and spark innovation that benefits everyone in society—everyone is better for it.”
Keep an open mind—and open others’ minds.
While she might not have initially considered a career in environmental health and safety with a geology degree, Corrigan credits her career’s trajectory to an openness to new ideas. Likewise, the journey for all would-be scientists and engineers begins at an early age, she says, through nurturing kids’ natural curiosity. It’s important, Corrigan emphasizes, for adults to show that “science is just about asking questions.”
“There’s enormous opportunity here,” Corrigan said, while acknowledging that it can sometimes feel intimidating to younger students. “Whether it’s getting them out and having them dig a hole and look for worms or going for a walk and looking at all the different plants or going to a lab and taking things apart—I mean that's what kids really like to do, and as adults, we need to nurture that.”
Kids need those experiences, Corrigan said. They need to be able to ask, “Why?”
“They can get their hands dirty, they can get out and talk to folks and look at a telescope, or a camera or a laser and, figure out how it actually works because that’s what real science is all about,” she said. “All the other stuff is just the tools that we use to get there.”
Having the drive to find out why things work as they do is “what makes us human, and that isn’t changing,” Corrigan said.
“There’s incredible potential for us to take who we are as humans, and then apply it in new and different ways,” she added. “And, we’re seeing the benefits of that every day. There are all these new, cool things that are coming out—it’s just wonderful.”
Become a lifelong learner—and try new things.
Employees mentor younger colleagues as well as those studying for careers in STEM fields. It’s part of being a lifelong learner, says Nadine Dytko-Madsen, global product manager at Molex in Lisle, Illinois.
“There’s always a better way to do something,” Dytko-Madsen said. “What fascinates me is how can you do something better and you have to learn and be able to challenge yourself. Try something different. If you don’t accept that there’s going to be a level of uncertainty in that learning experience. I think that’s when the learning process stops.”
Dytko-Madsen focuses on how she can create value for the business in her role, something that has remained constant even as her roles and responsibilities have shifted.
“I’ve created value as a reliability engineer, and I’ve created value as a product manager. I’ve created value as a leader domestically and internationally, and I think what’s great at Koch is that they provide an environment to continuously ask that question to yourself: How can I create value?” Dytko-Madsen said. “That has changed over the course of my career, and that’s okay, because I know that sort of challenge is welcomed at Koch, and I know that there are many opportunities.”
At Koch, Dytko-Madsen says, employees earn the right to make decisions based on their comparative advantages—and they get to be accountable for their results—both successes and failures.
“I think Koch truly does believe that failure is a learning experience. As long as the failure is not systemic, and you learn from it, and then on the next project you’ve learned from those decisions and you’re creating even more value, Koch sees that as a win,” Dytko-Madsen said. “I think it’s fantastic because you have to make decisions, and you have to be able to learn, and while always it would be great to not have failure, sometimes it’ll happen but Koch provides an environment where that's okay and we can continue to learn from that experience.”
Find a mentor. Ask questions.
The process of stepping out for new STEM opportunities—both in school and in the workplace—can feel scary, says Deb Preschler, the operations innovation director for Flint Hills Resources in Corpus Christi, Texas.
“We need to continue to do outreach in the schools and help kids understand that if they have a passion for it, if they like it, have no fear, pursue it, because they can be great at it,” Preschler said. “Don’t be afraid to speak up and say, ‘I don't think this role is for me.’ It doesn't mean you're not the right person or a right fit for the company. Sometimes, the role just isn't right. So, go find one that is.”
Finding a mentor is key, Preschler adds, calling it the “most rewarding part” of her role “besides just loving the technology.”
“Being a mentor and helping others reach their goals, that’s what really drives me now,” Preschler said.
Mentorship means a great deal to employees like Carrie Shapiro, vice president of manufacturing for Dixie Manufacturing at Georgia-Pacific in Atlanta, who feels “a strong obligation to mentor others and help guide young women and young engineers toward fulfilling careers.”
No matter the employee or situation, confidence is key.
“As a woman, I never felt like the odd one out,” Shapiro said. “Because I felt like I had enough confidence to go into a room and say, ‘I’m here, and I can contribute, and I can help, and I can add value.’”
That means earning trust and building relationships with others to help them deal with failure, rebound and improve. “That’s how the magic happens,” Shapiro says. “Failure is okay because we learn from it, and it’s okay to feel bad about it. But it’s not okay to just stop.”
“When I was teaching my kids how to ride a bike, I would just say over and over again, ‘keep pedaling, keep pedaling.’ That's a little bit how I live my life—I just keep pedaling,” Shapiro said. “And it's not always gonna go right. You’re not always gonna win the game, and the project is not always gonna be perfect.”
Find your purpose.
After all, when Wurst’s high school teacher advised her against pursuing engineering as a career, Wurst pedaled harder.
“I was one of those curious kids who used to take things apart and figure out how to put them back together,” she said.
She sought out help from teachers and teaching assistants. She put in extra hours, and the effort has paid off in multitudes.
“Everyone wants to have a purpose,” Wurst said. “I think of the saying, ‘The two most important days of your life are the day that you’re born and the day you figure out why.’ I literally have been able to find that in my career. And, it is so motivating. I can’t wait to pursue things and encourage more people to join the team.”