She also teaches entrepreneurial product development and marketing at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
Before joining Rethink Robotics, Elaine, similarly, has worked at several other Boston area startups, which built products with a strong human interaction component, including Zeo, Zeemote, and SensAble Technologies.
Her work in the field of human machines interface and systems engineering, wasn’t her chosen path when she was studying mechanical engineering at MIT. Instead she was interested in rehabilitative engineering, but an opportunity came up when she was working on her second thesis on human machine interfaces for rehabilitative robots.
While working with her thesis advisor, she was introduced to Exos, a startup at the time that designed, developed, and manufactured haptic devices that provided a sense of touch when interacting with various applications, including surgical simulation, teleoperation, and video gaming in arcades and on home PCs. She ultimately joined the company upon graduation.
At Exos she was originally hired as a machine designer, but went on to write all the firmware running kinematics code that controlled each haptic device developed at the company, and to manage application software development on the PC. Her experience in this startup taught her two things:
- Startups are a great place to push yourself beyond your comfort zone: you are usually free to do anything you want even if it is not technically within your job function.
- Engineering is only part of the puzzle, which is only part of the puzzle in product development, which in turn is also only part of the puzzle in building a business.
“I learned to look at the broader problem of building a viable business by solving real problems with enough market pull that makes those problems worth solving, instead of being attracted to the pure technology sides of things.”
Exos was eventually acquired by Microsoft in 1996. Taking the experience and lessons from working at Exos, she wrapped up her tenure as a software development manager and went on to take leadership positions in several other high tech startups.
Today, the same passion and intensity can be seen at in her work on Baxter, a humanoid robot with 7 degrees of freedom on each arm, at Rethink Robotics.
“It’s awesomely hard core and 100% related to everything I learned about engineering and product development to date. It’s got at least four engineering disciplines rolled up in the same product: mechanical, electrical, controls, and software.”
Elaine’s position as the head of engineering in a hardware startup is fairly rare in the technology sector, where engineering is traditionally male dominated.
In a survey done in 2008 by the National Science Foundation of the 10 million scientist and engineers who are employed in industry, only 3 million work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. Within just engineering, the gender gap is vast – 20% and 80% men. The gap is a bit smaller for computer and math related professions (36% women and 64% men).
Elaine does think that the landscape is changing. “Women on the whole know they can achieve anything men can, and obstacles are slowly coming down. However, things in the trenches are improving so slowly that sometimes it’s hard to tell.”
With the media angling stories on female tech executives such as Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg on their roles as women and mothers rather than on their careers, it has been harder to tell if the landscape is changing.
“The reality is that it took hundreds of years for cultural attitudes to get here, and it’s going to take a very long time to get out of here. What we can do is to make sure the next generation hears a balanced narrative, and we take extra steps to encourage girls to nourish their interest in STEM to compensate for the very ambivalent messages that they are hearing from everyone around them. It can be as simple as encouraging a girl to take part in the FIRST Lego League or teaching a girl and her friends to program a game in Python, along with their male counterparts. Another thing we can do is to proactively mentor young women in tech to invest and continue to invest in their careers, regardless of the signals they pick up from the workplace and from society.”
“We also need more female role models in leadership positions. Seeing is believing and a successful female leader who is clearly thriving and loving her work and her life is worth a thousand words.”
Elaine is an embodiment of the true definition of a Femgineer. Her passion and accomplishments in engineering, and her passion to help change the prevalent mainstream attitudes about women in STEM is what being a Femgineer is all about.