Just two years ago, everything seemed to be picture perfect for the Aussie-native Vicki Powell.
She graduated with top honors from the University of Melbourne, a top-ranked university in Australia, and was accepted to the University of Michigan to pursue her graduate studies in Mechanical Engineering.
On the outside, the decision seemed simple — she would come to the University and continue her journey towards becoming an engineer in the ever-growing world of technology—every engineering student’s dream, right?
For Powell, the reality of making it into the field as a woman engineer was at odds with what the industry actually looked like.
In 2016, while 52.3 percent of people in Australia earning degrees in natural and physical sciences were women, they accounted for less than one in eight (12.4 percent) engineers of the country’s labor force.
“Even though I was studying Mechanical Engineering in my coursework, I would still outside of class say ‘I don’t think I’ll be an Engineer, I’ll probably go into management or something like that’,” Powell said.
At the end of the day, Powell had one critical decision to make: settle for a career outside her skill set or defy the odds and pursue her passion of becoming an engineer, the most male-dominated field in STEM.
She chose the latter.
“I think huge stereotypes about what an engineer looks like were affecting how I would see my future.”
Powell arrived at the University in the fall of 2016 eager to take the next step in achieving her dream of becoming an engineer in the tech world.
However, little did she know at the time, her transition to the U.S. would prove to be just as challenging as her decision to continue her studies here.
As a woman pursuing a career in a predominately male field combined with the fact she had little-to-no network inside the state or the U.S., the sheer volume of students at the University proved to be highly intimidating.
“Coming into Michigan, I felt like a tiny fish in a huge pond,” Powell said.
The sea of fish was a lot bigger than she had originally anticipated. As recent as fall of 2017, the University’s Rackham Graduate School boasted more than 16,000 enrolled students with 275 enrolled in the Masters of Mechanical Engineering, of which less than a quarter (21 percent) were women.
Every challenge, however, would only prove to Powell that she more able and prepared to take on the real world and be one step closer to achieving her goals of working in tech.
Within her first week of graduate school, she had a meeting with Mikhail Zolikoff, Director of Graduate Programs at the Center For Entrepreneurship (CFE), that completely changed the course of her career at Michigan.
“I’d heard [of entrepreneurship] before, but it wasn’t something I really associated with myself,” Powell said.
Within the following weeks, Powell was accepted into the Fall 2017 cohort of the Entrepreneurs Leadership Program (ELP) through the College of Engineering’s Center of Entrepreneurship, where, upon the completion of the program, students are guaranteed an internship with a startup in the Michigan or Bay Areas with senior-level mentorship.
For Powell, the reassurance of a guaranteed internship not only eased her transition to the U.S., but helped lift some pressure of getting the best internship offer off her shoulders and find a community that loved innovating as much as she did.
“I definitely felt like an imposter in my master’s program because I hadn’t had any of these internship experiences that everyone had had during their undergrad,” Powell said.
“I’ve become more aware about how important internships are for future job opportunities so that idea of being helped to get an internship really appealed to me and joining a community that was interested in entrepreneurship.”
Still, Powell never second-guessed her decision to apply for the program because she knew how much it would impact her future career.
“It never really worried me that I was taking time away from engineering because I knew how important understanding the business side was,” Powell said. “Ultimately, if you’re an engineer and you’re creating a product you have to figure out a way to sell it.”
A survey by researchers at Harvard and Duke of 652 U.S.-born C.E.O.s and heads of product engineering teams at 502 technology companies found that in 2011, while the majority leaders in the tech world had received a bachelor’s degree (92 percent), only a small margin of them went to school for engineering or computer science at 37 percent.
For Powell, being the founder of the next biggest company isn’t the sole reason people should be involved in the entrepreneurship ecosystem.
Overwhelmingly, she feels that getting involved in the entrepreneurship community at Michigan gave her the skill-set, creativity, and new perspective of what leading companies in tech are looking for.
“The likelihood of all [ELP Fellows] actually becoming entrepreneurs in the future is not 100 percent,” Powell said.
“It’s also about how can we help those other people that are going to be creating ideas and entrepreneurs in bigger, already established companies and equip them with the same skills when they get into the workforce.”
Combining the Two: An Entrepreneur in Big Tech
After graduating at the top of her class with her Masters in Mechanical Engineering from the University in December 2017, Powell moved to the Bay Area to get a taste of the what working in the startup world was like.
Over the next 8 months, Powell would put into practice her passion for creativity and innovation through her internship with Akimbo, a tech-based startup focused on healthcare technology.
Powell’s success at the company, coupled with her passion for entrepreneurship, led her to face another crucial decision: accept a full-time offer with Akimbo and continue focusing on a career in the startup world, or accept an offer at Apple where she might not have the same creative freedom she had experienced during her internship.
Suddenly, she felt like she had to choose between her two passions for tech and being an entrepreneur, something she had grown to love.
In the end, she got both.
During the negotiation process with Apple, she had a request most recruiters and acquisition teams wouldn’t expect to hear: she wanted entrepreneurship to be a part of the deal.
“I was told that Apple is just like a startup with a lot more resources and funding,” Powell said.
“I was skeptical whether that would actually be true, but it’s a lot more true than what I thought it would be.”
With more than a month in her current position as Mechanical Systems Design Engineer, her passion and dedication to becoming an entrepreneur seemed to pay off in more ways than she could have imagined.
“It’s a lot of innovation, being creative and thinking of new ideas. It’s worked out really well in that I’m able to get exposure to what engineering is like at this very big scale but also get that fast-moving, innovative culture and community within the team.”
For students interested in pursuing engineering careers or wanting to become involved in entrepreneurship, Powell has one piece of advice — don’t let your past get in the way of your future.
“It doesn’t matter what you already know, it only matters the approach you have and how engaged you can be now,” Powell said. “Don’t let the fear of what you might not have done before affect how engaged, how much you can get out of the future.”