While the technology behind it is impressive, I’m equally intrigued by 22-year-old electrical engineer Paige Kassalen, who is helping to make it happen. She’s one of three women on the 16-person ground crew, the only American woman on the international team, and the youngest person responsible for safe takeoff and landing of the plane.
Kassalen’s role on the “catching crew” includes steering the tail of the 5,000 lb. plane as it taxis onto the runway, then catching the wing when it lands.
After graduating from Virginia Tech last year, she joined Covestro and was quickly tapped to represent the company for the Solar Impulse journey. “When someone offers you the opportunity to travel around the world in a solar-powered plane, you don’t think twice,” said Kassalen. Her job on this mission is not only groundbreaking as a young woman, but for any engineer.
Her career trajectory to get there relied on a combination of determination and sponsorship, she said. After graduation, she was based in Pittsburgh for a rotation program with Covestro. Soon, a mentor – a VP at the company – recognized her potential and advocated for her to apply to a position on the Si2 ground crew. Personally, I’ve long been an advocate of female sponsorship as a solution to fostering diversity and inclusion within organizations. Kassalen’s path is proof that engaging leaders to identify diverse talent early and champion them across the company, works.
Her work on Solar Impulse is unchartered territory; when the plane is taxiing, Kassalen is one of two people holding and balancing the 236-foot long wingspan. According to her: “It’s an amazing process but there’s no guide on how to be on the ground crew for a solar powered airplane!” Couple that with the quick learning she’s had to do on communication; being one of the few native English speakers on the team. “It’s an intense job – the welfare of the plane is literally in your hands,” she said.
“Seeing a female engineer at work isn’t crazy,” she said, but she persevered to overcome internal struggles of doubt. “In class, I would be nervous to raise my hand and get answer wrong…I just would not want to be wrong, but when someone else spoke, half the time I had the right answer in the first place,” she said. “I was frustrated – why was I so scared of failing? I had to train myself to be ok with failing .” In her opinion: “Young women are expected to be perfect” and that feeds into the fear of taking risks and being “afraid to fail.”
At work, she tackles with a constant “reminder” that she’s a woman, even if it’s out of “chivalry,” she said. “The other day, we were taking pictures of me doing different tasks [for the media], but when it came time for us to bring the plane back to hangar, a guy said ‘I’ll do that for you,’” she said. “But I’m working on changing the culture where women don’t need help. I’m a woman and I can pull this 5,000 lb plane!” Her advice to others who encounter this machismo disguised as chivalry? She laughed: “You have a voice and you can say no. Politely!”
Kassalen is deeply passionate about the field of engineering and the opportunities it presents for women. “I find engineering so attractive!It gives you the toolbox to take creativity and passion for innovation to help make the world a better place. ” Despite this, women make up only 14% of engineers in the U.S. and only between 18 to 20% engineering students are female.
Trying to overturn these dismal statistics “gets her excited,” she said. “We have public days for Solar Impulse where we let people into plane. We talk to the public about what we do and that’s one of my favorite things about my job,” she said. “Speaking to young people and seeing how they react…we are changing history.” At a recent public day, a young woman in college who had a nearly 4.0 GPA in engineering college told Kassalen that “the guys wouldn’t see her as smart.” Kassalen’s response? Sure, there’s a lot of negativity, but part of the focus needs to shift to the positives. “I told her, instead of saying I’m only one of three women in my class, see it as a powerful position and a way to change the stereotypical narrative about women in STEM.”
Being a pioneer for women in engineering has been a consistent theme in Kassalen’s career so far. She started the first women in engineering and computing organization in college. Then started up the local Pittsburgh Women in Engineering chapter of professional organization, IEEE, and now serves as chair.
“It’s coming up to my one year anniversary from college,” she said. “Everything in my life changed with this opportunity. I’ve always been such a big advocate for women in engineering,” she added. “For the rest of my life, I want to be working to change the stereotypical narrative around women engineers.”
Solar Impulse is making its way to New York with stops in the Midwest. The plane will then fly across the Atlantic to Western Europe or North Africa. From there, it will go to Mediterranean coast before completing its around-the-world flight in Abu Dhabi.
Ruchika Tulshyan (article author) is also the author of The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality In The Workplace (Forbes, 2015).