Meet Erin Sawyer, an inspiring woman, a former senior executive at Tesla Motors, mechanical engineer, project manager for many Fortune 500 companies, and Spring 2016 Neiman Marcus Face of Beauty.
Erin’s is an accomplished mechanical engineer, having designed diesel engine components and developed new turbocharger products. She has also served in executive leadership roles, including at Tesla Motors, where she developed their global supply chain. Many women working in male dominated tech industries feel pressure to fit in. But Erin doesn’t hide her blonde ponytail anymore, and she is not afraid to wear dresses and high heels. We met up with Erin and asked how she found success without compromising her femininity.
Erin is wearing Kamila Dmowska Caroline Dress. Photographed by William Ross in New York.
Q: There is a common belief a beautiful woman cannot also be smart, especially in a male dominated industry. It may come as a surprise that a woman who codes can also be pretty. Women are succeeding in the tech industry more than ever before. Recent studies show that startups that include at least one female founder perform better than those that are only run by men. Why do you think we still have to prove so much to be taken seriously and what can we change about it?
Studies have shown that girls’ low level of confidence in their math and science abilities impact their performance in school and, ultimately, result in their underrepresentation in STEM jobs. Beginning at age 12, girls begin to like math and science less, expect not to do as well in these subjects, and attribute their failures to lack of ability. This has a longer-term effect and, by high school, girls self-select out of higher-level math and science courses, reducing their chances to pursue STEM majors in college and pursue STEM-related careers. I argue that to truly correct this phenomenon, we need to do more in education to empower young girls – to embrace an interest in STEM and develop leadership skills that will help them navigate their way through school and their career.
However, we have a pervasive diversity issue in the tech industry today. Silicon Valley struggles to match the broader U.S. workforce in diversity, with women and minorities accounting for a tiny fraction of companies’ workforces. While women earn 58% of bachelors degrees in the U.S., only 18% of STEM bachelors degrees are awarded to women. Further, women have shamefully little representation in the executive suites and corporate boards of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies – only 57% of Silicon Valley’s largest companies, by sales, have at least one female director, compared to 98% of the 100 largest companies in the U.S. Similarly, the people who fund start-ups are overwhelmingly male. The largest Venture Capital firms in Silicon Valley are worse than the diversity breakdown at major tech companies – 92% of senior investment teams at top-tier VC firms are all male, and 78% are all white.
This translates into an imbalance in opportunities for female tech entrepreneurs. Shaky self-confidence is one of the chief things holding women back, with a culture in which women don’t easily brag or bring the same swagger to fund-raising pitches that the men do. The people stewarding the capital are supposed to be the arbiter of good ideas, but unfortunately the same people are funding entrepreneurs and ideas that they can relate to.
Q: Tell us, what is STEM and how are you involved with it?
STEM represents education and careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. I studied Mechanical Engineering at University of Michigan and have 11+ years working in male-dominated industries – both automotive and tech. I’m a board member of the non-profit Kids’ Vision, which is an organization that works to inspire young girls to enter into STEM fields. We created an amazing after-school program, where girls 3rd thru 6th grade visit tech companies in Silicon Valley, meet female role models working in those organizations, and do hands-on experiments to learn about how mathematics and science are applied in companies in Silicon Valley. I believe providing positive role models of women in STEM is critical for increasing our future pipeline of women engineers and leaders.
Q: You are a role model to many young women. What do you wish you could tell your younger self at 21?
My one piece of advice is to own your education and career path. Young women shouldn’t be afraid to take ownership of the direction you want your career path to go. Early in your career, do not be afraid to ask for more responsibility, ask for a promotion, take on new roles, change companies, relocate, start your own business, etc. It’s up to you to be your own advocate and be proactive about what you want!
Q: Our mission is to inspire young professional women to dress better not only when than go out but also during the day. I am pleased to see you love fashion and wear dresses. What does your typical wardrobe look like?
At work, I dress professionally and conservative – most often either a shift dress, slim skirt or pants, with a blouses and/or a blazer. I also love throwing a statement necklace on top of my outfit for work. Outside of work, I dress elegant and feminine, with lots of color – mostly dresses and high heels. I love the simplicity of a dress, and avoid the hassle of putting together separate pieces that match.
Q: You were chosen for Spring 2016 Neiman Marcus campaign as a new Face of Beauty among other remarkable women. What are the 5 beauty products you can’t live without?
BareMinerals foundation, Nars high shine lip gloss, Bobbi Brown intensive serum concealer, Lancome hypnose mascara and Chloe perfume.
Q: I always like to ask women we interview what is the best career advice they’ve received. What is yours?
When I joined Tesla, my boss and mentor told me “Welcome to the Revolution!”. Essentially, his advice was that no matter how large or small of an organization you work in, you should not be afraid to change things for the better. If the team, processes, or ways of working you start with aren’t optimal– then don’t be afraid to change them. This piece of advice really empowered me to take ownership and create a future-state organization that I wanted to be a part of.
The interview was conducted by Kamila Dmowska. Photographed by William Ross.