When your father is an engineer and your mother teaches math, it’s no stretch to expect that you, too, will be drawn toward math and science.
However, leaning toward STEM is just the beginning of Michelle Nanney’s story. She won prestigious science and math competitions in high school. And Nanney was named both class valedictorian and “most likely to succeed” the year she graduated. But this IEEE Senior Member has gone on to hold a range of positions in multiple industries and has run five e-commerce businesses.
Her career path across diverse businesses is now the subject of the newest volume in the award-winning IEEE Women in Engineering (WIE) e-book series. An Engineer by Opportunity, by Michelle Nanney, is the 19th work in the series.
Except for the first e-book, which is an overview of STEM occupations, each volume is a personally written account of how a notable woman technologist became interested in technology, obtained her education, and developed a successful and satisfying career.
This year marks the fifth year of the landmark e-book series—praised by educators and women’s organizations—and honored with numerous publishing industry awards.
“The unique and inspiring stories each author tells in this series will help to motivate the next generation of female technologists,” says Georgia Stelluto, IEEE-USA Publishing Manager and Manager & Editor, IEEE-USA E-Books. She says the authors, who represent a range of engineering disciplines, were selected for the practical, down-to-earth professional guidance they can share. “Each is an exceptional role model for girls and women interested in a technological career,” she says.
In her e-book, Nanney acknowledges the parental “tough love” that set high academic standards for her and her sister. “We were expected to come home from school, take a brief beak for snacks, and start our homework,” she writes. “My parents didn’t want us to have part-time jobs, because they believed that school came first and our focus should be on our education.”
Nanney credits her parents for their emphasis on education, which led to her presenting a project at Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, as a finalist in a NASA student involvement contest. She also won a coveted spot in a Sony-sponsored program that enabled her to study for the summer in Japan.
“I returned home a different person, she says, “because I now saw the world in a different way. Immersion in a different culture brings new perspectives and openness to new ideas.”
As a freshman at Texas A&M, Nanney quickly got a dose of humility, when she had difficulty with a chemistry course and needed a tutor. “I was now competing with people from all over the world, not just my small East Texas town of Longview,” she recalls.
She also had her first experience with gender discrimination when she asked a professor for permission to take his class. “I don’t think women should be engineers,” he replied, to which Nanney responded, “Will you treat me he same as the other students in class?” He said that he would; she told him they shouldn’t have any problems, and she enrolled in the class.
“I did well in the course; and by the end, the professor and I were cordial as well,” she notes. “There is strength in showing others that a woman can — and does — belong.”
The author says that unlike some of her classmates, whose first jobs were with consulting firms, she chose a position that didn’t pay as well as consulting—but offered opportunities for additional learning. It also included advantages like travel and autonomy. The job entailed installing cardiac monitoring systems in hospitals throughout the United States, and the recent college graduate trained physicians and staff on how to use it.
As project manager for a company that manufactured kiosks, her pre-shipment inspection checklist so impressed the CEO, that it became the basis for the first quality department in the company. Her team achieved the prestigious quality management certification, ISO 9001.
With candor, Nanney recounts the highs and lows of her e-commerce venture with her husband, running five e-commerce businesses for seven years. But when Amazon started selling some of the same merchandise and a large supplier began its own e-commerce business, it was clear that a new strategy — and more money — was needed. In the face of great financial risk, the business closed its doors.
The author recounts attending graduate school online for her MBA, which helped her to pivot to a new direction, allowing her to use what she already had to be more successful. She also discusses living in Grenada for three years, while her husband attended medical school — an experience that not only got her out of her comfort zone, but also helped her discover new people and places.
Other insights include a personal survival list for handling the aftermath of being fired, and the value of having an engineering degree. “Engineers are valuable anywhere, doing anything,” Nanney says.
She points out that not only does an engineering degree have prestige, but it can also open doors to jobs and industries where engineers aren’t typically found. “An engineering degree makes you more competitive in the employment market,” she says. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will perform engineering work,” she concludes. “A recent study shows that only 27% of college graduates are working in the field they majored in.”
An Engineer by Opportunity by Michelle Nanney is available at https://ieeeusa.org/shop/careers/wie-book-19/, at the IEEE member price of $7.99; non-members can purchase the volume for $9.99 each.
The 16 previous volumes in the WIE series are also available at https://ieeeusa.org/product-category/careers/women-in-engineering/, and are also priced at $7.99 for members and $9.99 for non-IEEE members.
Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.