Aspire to Inspire: An Interview with FY22 President Rachel Morford

Introducing FY22 SWE President Rachel Morford, who discusses her direction for the coming year, how the board of directors tackles big issues, and some of her favorite SWE moments — along with advice for both new and seasoned members.

rachel-morford headshot
Rachel Morford
FY22 SWE President

A year of all-virtual events (FY21) has given us an opportunity to engage many members and potential members who couldn’t join us for in-person events in the past, and we’re building on that momentum.

We will continue to take steps to ensure that the board and all our leadership positions represent the diversity of our membership, including a targeted focus on our leadership pipeline. We also need to better understand what DE&I concerns exist outside of the United States, to ensure that we are approaching this area comprehensively.

Q: Your term as SWE president began with the world emerging, with cautious optimism, from COVID-19 restrictions. How has this backdrop shaped your direction for the new SWE year?

A: There is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now, especially around COVID-19 and the continuing impact the disease and its variants will have as we move into the FY22 SWE year. Some of our members are in parts of the world that haven’t yet had access to the vaccine and continue to live with restrictions. SWE is evaluating how to move forward with a combination of in-person, virtual, and hybrid programs in the year, much the same as companies and academic institutions.

Q: Despite the many challenges posed by the pandemic, the Society has maintained all programs and services, including a very successful virtual annual conference with record-breaking attendance in November 2020, and made significant progress in key areas. Meaningful steps were taken toward establishing a more diverse board and increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts across the organization. How will the momentum for DE&I continue and expand?

A: DE&I will continue to be a critical focus area for the Society into FY22. The DE&I leadership training that we piloted with many of our SWE leaders in FY21 will be rolled out to our entire membership; we’re incorporating recommendations from our two FY21 special directors as we continue to update our awards and recognition programs (including updates to our marketing and the way awards are judged); and our SWE groups and committees are evaluating what more they can do in their specific areas, including strengthening our pre-college outreach programs and strengthening our connections with historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges and universities.

Q: Why is it important for the board to tackle big issues?

A: The board sets the priorities and direction for the Society during any given year, incorporating feedback from many other parts of SWE’s leadership structure, including the senate. Tackling the big issues and making them operational priorities provides a vector for the organization. We can set a direction and provide an initial force to start movement on a particular area (DE&I, as an example), which can then gain momentum and generate even more ideas and feedback across SWE. If we aren’t tackling the big issues, then we aren’t enabling SWE to continue to grow as an organization, and we risk our long-term success and viability. Part of our challenge in tackling the big issues, though, is just how many there are, and prioritizing between critical and important areas! We spent several hours at our BOD orientation in June discussing what “big rocks” were in front of us as possible priorities this year to help with that determination. It’s important to remember that each board member is also a volunteer leader, balancing work or school, family life, SWE responsibilities, and time for rest.

Q: The theme for your term is “Aspire to Inspire.” Can you tell us what this notion means to you, and why you chose this as a theme for the year?

A: “Aspire to Inspire” encompasses what SWE is all about to me — from aspiring engineers in our SWENext clubs to inspirational engineers we all meet on a daily basis, engineers SWE highlights in our awards program, and in recognitions such as “Women Engineers You Should Know.”

My personal experience with SWE started with my aspiring to be like one of the first SWE members I met, as a high school senior attending an overnight program for admitted students at the University of Southern California. The woman I stayed with was an officer in the USC SWE section, part of the school’s AeroDesign team, an ambassador for the engineering program, and stood out to me as someone I wanted to be like as I pursued my degree. As I continued in my SWE journey, I met so many amazing women whom I aspired to be like, and who made me want to inspire others. So, I continued to give back, volunteering with pre-college programs and serving as a mentor.

I think that this theme really helps to connect all of us as a SWE community. We all can identify someone or something that is an aspiration for us, and we hope that we can become an inspiration for others as we give back, to the engineering community, to the world, and to SWE.

Q: What aspects of your personal or professional background do you believe have been helpful as you prepared for your term, especially in these still uncertain times?

A: Two years ago, when I was nominated for this role, I don’t think anyone could have predicted that the world would be at this spot when I took office, so it’s an interesting question. I think that any leader needs to be adaptable and flexible, because you’re frequently in a position of responding to new circumstances or events that couldn’t have been predicted. There are a lot of specific skills that go with those broad areas — listening, communicating, and articulating a path forward, for example. But another critical part is decisiveness and willingness to change direction if needed and as new information becomes known, or an ability to work in an ambiguous environment and chart a path forward. I’ve had a few roles in my career that have been fairly wide open in terms of what I could focus on or choose to work toward, and I’ve noticed that I’m using the skill sets that I developed in those roles this year.

One of the great things about SWE is that we can practice so many leadership skills in our volunteer roles and apply them to other roles that we have — and vice versa. I fully expect that in a future job interview, I may be asked about working through uncertainty and changing direction, and I’ll be able to use examples from my year as SWE president.

Q: Do you have a favorite “SWE moment”? Has there been an event or SWE experience that was especially memorable or pivotal?

A: I have so many great SWE memories that it’s hard to pick a single favorite “SWE moment”!

A few that stand out especially:

  • My first SWE annual conference, which was in Milwaukee. I had never seen so many women engineers in one place!
  • A few years after I was hired into my first job following graduation, my manager told me that one of the things that had stood out to him was my experience as a college student in preparing material and presenting to the SWE board of directors. I think that was the first time it really struck me how vital the experiences I had in SWE were to my professional career. I had always known it generically, but here was a very specific example.
  • The first time I talked with a group of fifth-grade girls about my career. Not only did it give me an opportunity to talk about how cool my job was (rocket scientist!), but it was really wonderful to hear their questions and their excitement about STEM.
  • Working with any of the SWE leaders I’ve been privileged to know over the years — from my professional section leadership team when I was the Los Angeles Section president, to all of the section presidents and the region council members when I was Region B governor, to the various Society presidents and board members I’ve served with. I’ve learned something from every person I’ve worked with, and I’m so grateful for their mentoring, coaching, and support.

Q: What would you say to encourage a new SWE member to make the most of their experience in the organization? And do you have any insights or advice for members farther along on their SWE journeys?

A: Participate in conferences, both as an attendee and as a speaker — submit abstracts! Everyone has a message they can share. Find an area of SWE that is especially interesting to you and volunteer. It could be something like “Invent It. Build It.” At the annual conference, our U.S. Congressional Visits Days in March, our scholarship program, or awards and recognition. Practicing your leadership skills in a SWE volunteer role is a way to reinforce and practice in areas that will benefit your career as well.

SWE is a community made up of remarkable people. My advice for anyone — new member or life member — is to talk with as many people as you can. Find out their stories and what makes them passionate about engineering and SWE. You’ll connect and find other members who may be the role model you aspire to be, or you may find yourself inspiring others!