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Recap: IEEE WIE International Leadership Summit

By Liang Downey

The Region 4 Women in Engineering Leadership Summit (R4 WIELS) took place on 3 November 2023, in downtown Detroit at the Microsoft Technology Center. More than 90 people attended the event, including engineers, managers and local students. The main topics covered were professional development, energy and sustainability, artificial intelligence (AI), and leadership. Volunteers from IEEE-USA, the IEEE Humanitarian Technology Board (HTB), IEEE Region 4 and IEEE Women in Engineering (WIE) worked together with our local Southeast Michigan Section to make 3 November a fun and memorable day for all.

Steve Annear2023 IEEE-USA President Ed Palacio kicked off the event, stressing the importance of engaging industry leaders for IEEE to do more. The first keynote speaker, Steve Annear (pictured at right), took the audience’s breath away with his captivating life story. Growing up in Australia, he lost one of his legs before he was 10, but shared how he was able to overcome life’s setback to achieve personal growth and professional success as a CEO for more than 25 years. He attributes his success to his ability to set personal standards and by establishing a value-based approach, instead of letting society define that for him. Annear emphasized the importance of developing a clear sense of purpose during his career, and how that not only steers his career direction but also his personal life. It was refreshing for the audience to learn to re-orient oneself. Today, many organizations define a North Star, the purpose for the company, which drives company strategy, its roadmap and its daily operations. Likewise, according to Annear, it is essential for individuals to have a personal North Star.

Along the professional development theme, Microsoft’s Muge Wood shared her story on how to survive big tech layoffs. 2023 has been a historic year of layoffs that have cost tens of thousands of tech workers their jobs. It is likely that many IEEE members have been impacted. Her practical coping strategies provide a great recipe to follow, beginning with embracing the power of “refirement” and to make the next play the best play. Wood defines refirement as the act of living a life with even greater purpose and joy on one’s own terms. Re-inventing one’s purpose, investing in one’s identity outside of work, and leveraging the period of job change as a catalyst for growth. IEEE can be such a community outside one’s work for one to find the refirement.

Ford’s Carlene Bills spoke about the difficulty getting to the top floor in her career. She didn’t have the opportunity to get to the top floor by riding the elevator; instead, she climbed the stairs to arrive at the top. This powerful metaphor is extremely motivational — all paths lead to Rome, as long as one is willing to try, even if it is not an easy path. Now in the giving-back phase of her life, she goes out of her way to encourage others who might have self-doubts. She wants to be the one who holds the elevator door open for others to ride on. Bills’ enthusiasm was infectious. As she spoke, she began dancing about, and the audience laughed in approval and reflected her outsized energy in the room.

During the professional development track, Amy Courter elaborated on ways to Move-Up-In-Your-Ability-To-Be-Your-Very-Best.

The professional development track also included a presentation by IEEE member Gina Aquilano, Senior Director at Analog Devices Inc., who addressed technology advancements in electrification. Aquilano started as an electrical engineer and worked her way up to a director role. She spoke about how she blends her technical skills with leadership to reach her career goals. She is in the process of becoming an IEEE Senior member, and well on her way to becoming an IEEE Fellow in the future.

On the energy and environment track, Adrienne Pierce, a start-up CEO from New Sun Road, walked us through her firm’s award-winning Microgrid Controller innovation. She presented on the technical merit of the cloud-based controller, and how it is a potential solution for climate change.  She shared case studies of current systems in the Sierra foothills, Puerto Rico, downtown San Jose, CA and Guatemala. In Guatemala, the system is empowering women entrepreneurs to enrich their lives and work.

Kim Getgen, Founder and CEO of InnovationForce, spoke about their innovation framework to help power and utilities companies manage and measure outcomes from innovation holistically and centrally, via a common innovation framework, inspired by Dr. Linda Hill from Harvard. Her framework is built on having an innovative culture because Innovation is a human-team sport. Creating cultures that support innovation is as necessary as having the technical answers.

Simay Akar represented IEEE HTB to present electric vehicles and renewable energy system development as part of the HTB initiatives.

ChatGPT overtook the world in less than a year. Microsoft’s chief engineer Jennifer Marsman demystified the various AI models, explaining how they work and their limitations. Hala Ballouz, Electric Power Engineers LLC’s CEO, highlighted various AI use cases for power utility sector, especially how AI might optimize power system distribution by bringing more renewables online at the right time and to the right locations. Dr. Shi-Guang Li shared his start-up’s achievement developing AI models used to predict and prevent underground water contamination from agriculture run-offs and industrial discharges.

R4 WIELS PanelThe R4 WLS wrapped up with a diverse panel of women leaders — a classical music station radio host, a director from Westinghouse Nuclear Energy, a student from University of Michigan, a chemist from LTU, and a mother of four (see photo at right). Liang Downey, the WIELS Summit Chair, facilitated the panel discussion. Dr. Sibrina Collins ’s powerful tool is to engage students through storytelling. It is such an effective way to get your points through and bring everyone on board across multi-culture and multi-discipline environments. Likewise, storytelling is a super tool for engineers to practice, try and leverage. Each panelist walked their own unique path, but they have arrived at a common point today to embrace their successes as overcomers, motivators and contributors.

Alexandra Enders is a college student in computer engineering at the University of Michigan. She joined her mother to attend an IEEE Region 4 WIE AI Summit in Chicago in 2019 when she just started high school.  Her mother Kim Enders is a dear sponsor for our summit. She attended many AI sessions during the summit, and it was that early exposure to AI motivated her to pursue computer engineering degree today. At the Summit in Detroit, she got connected with Hala Ballez and there is an opportunity for her to intern at Hala’s firm in Austin.

Some attendees made the 5-hour drive from Chicago to attend the summit in Detroit. They shared that the drive was more than worth the travel time, and they thanked IEEE for putting together such a high-caliber event. During Ed Palacio’s closing remarks, he said that as the 2023 IEEE-USA President, he had attended many conferences and this was one of the best. This Summit would not be successful without support from IEEE-USA, Region 4, WIE, HTB and the Southeast Michigan Section. IEEE can engage members and non-members by engaging volunteers and leveraging industry connections to increase our eminence in our community, and connect students with mentors. 


Liang Downey

Liang Downey is IEEE R4 WIELS Chair.

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