Be Your Own Best Advocate at WE21

Whether wearing a mask or attending remotely, the annual SWE conference provides an opportunity to grow professionally and personally while advancing your career.

By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor

You’re getting excited about SWE’s WE21 conference, and its theme, “Aspire to Inspire,” so get ready now to make a great impression — whether virtually or in person, wearing a mask — and make your networking skills pay off.

The conference, Oct. 21-23 in Indianapolis, features sessions on building your dream career, interrupting the voices that hold you back, and achieving home workload parity, as well as keynote speeches from mission-driven women leaders such as Siemens USA President and CEO Barbara Humpton, PG&E CEO Patti Poppe, and Lockheed Martin Rotary and Mission Systems Executive Vice President Stephanie C. Hill.

If you’re unfamiliar with any of the keynote speakers, that’s reason enough to start your checklist for winning friends and influencing people at the conference — whether virtually or in person.

Baynham headshot

“We tend to seek out people who we think have a specific title or interest that fits our interests. But we really don’t know this person’s background or even who that person knows. So don’t limit yourself to focusing on a single person or a single company or even a specific interest.”

– Tamara C. Baynham, Ph.D., director of clinical research, EBT Medical, and principal consultant, Ingenuity Medical Device Research LLC

Cast a wide net

Rather than zero in on one speaker or one potential mentor, cast a wide net and research a variety of speakers and presenters, says Tamara C. Baynham, Ph.D., who runs her own consulting firm, writes about how women in STEM can navigate career challenges, and is director of clinical research at EBT Medical, where she leverages her experience in clinical research, medical device development, and intellectual property development.

“Do searches on LinkedIn. See who writes articles and notice their interests and priorities,” said Dr. Baynham, who earned her undergraduate degree in biomedical and electrical engineering from Vanderbilt University and her master’s and doctorate in biomedical engineering from The University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“We tend to seek out people who we think have a specific title or interest that fits our interests,” Dr. Baynham said. “But we really don’t know this person’s background or even who that person knows. So don’t limit yourself to focusing on a single person or a single company or even a specific interest,” she advised.

Rather than focus on aiming to be an engineer who designs LEED-certified, energy-efficient buildings, concentrate instead on meeting and getting to know a wide array of speakers and other professionals, Dr. Baynham said. “People are usually glad to help and are willing to talk,” she said. “Engineering students are in the most unique position to get people to spend time with them. People are usually glad to offer advice.”

And stay open-minded about attending panel discussions and Zoom breakout meetings that revolve around general topics that may be of interest, Dr. Baynham said. “Even though I’m in the medical device industry, I attended a breakout room meeting recently on health care, and it was interesting to talk with people who have different levels of experience in the many industries within health care,” she said. “Talking with different people is important.”

It’s also important to stay open-minded about your mentors. “Don’t always wait for someone who looks like you to mentor you,” Dr. Baynham said. “You may find your mentor is a man. After all, the few women in engineering are bombarded with requests to mentor, to serve on a committee, and countless other demands. They may or may not have time.”

Another consideration: “Be practical. Males usually have the roles that can provide you with support and opportunities. They’re typically the managers, the directors, the vice presidents.”

Turn into a networking detective

Another potential gold mine is alumni networks, Dr. Baynham said. Are any conference speakers or attendees fellow alums? Do your homework so that you can introduce yourself and show that you’re happy to know more about the other person. Keep preparing by researching people’s careers, writings, research, and interests on LinkedIn or other social media.

Other networking experts advise other ways to ease into a conversation. Write a short goal statement or a conversation starter on your conference badge as an icebreaker. If you’re watching speakers on Zoom, ask questions and let your personality shine through.

Another way to respect others’ time is to set up a professional contact for yourself in your address book that you can text someone quickly. This “conference contact” should include your email, website, phone number, and, if appropriate, your social media feeds, such as your Twitter or Instagram handle.

In a similar vein, practice your elevator pitch for different audiences. What would you tell a CEO, a researcher, a senior executive, or another engineer during a 30-second elevator ride that would be intriguing enough to win a coveted dinner invitation?

“Talk about your research, an idea you’d recommend, or ask to grab a coffee and talk about the other person’s research,” said Ioana C. Cristea, Ph.D., a McKinsey & Company consultant whose doctorate is in management with a focus on collaboration and distributive work.

Fit your skills into the life you want to live

For midcareer professionals, Dr. Baynham said it could be time to think not about the specific job that you want, but about the life that you want to live and shape. Ask yourself whether now is the time to reset your work priorities, and whether your potential employer is really resetting its culture post-COVID. “Figure out how you can fit your skills into the life you want to have — and not vice versa,” she said.

Dr. Baynham did just that — seven years prior to the coronavirus pandemic — when she started her consulting firm, Ingenuity Medical Device Research LLC. “I had decided that I wanted to be able to work from anywhere. I didn’t want to go into an office,” she said. “I wanted more freedom of time and location.”

This prescient decision enabled her to move back to her native Middle Tennessee to be near her family and university friends when COVID-19 plunged the country into the pandemic.

Of course, such decisions must be clearheaded. You must have experience and solid skill sets to work as a consultant and to run your own business, Dr. Baynham said. “With consulting, you also must realize that, sometimes, you might not have work,” she said. “When you get paid, you might not want to spend all of your money at once. You have to manage the ebb and flow.”

Another critical backstop is to stay active in your industry and maintain a network of people with shared experiences. “Keep a network so you can bounce things off of each other,” Dr. Baynham said. “It’s important to be part of a network that provides support as well as education.”

A network may also help you determine a potential employer’s culture and whether the executives are willing to implement real change post-COVID, such as child care, flex time, and a renewed commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.