Carol Regalbuto has done what many women are being encouraged to do – pursue a career in engineering. She started down this path in high school and today has a successful career working on the latest battery technology. The journey though hasn't been easy. She's faced internal challenges like self-doubt and external challenges as the only woman on teams of men.
On this episode, Carol candidly shares what she's had to do to thrive both personally and professionally. She also shares how she became passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion, and how she has incorporated this passion into her work.
Carol Regalbuto, Senior Battery Engineer, is a Mexican American engineer originally from the suburbs of Chicago but has called the Bay Area home since 2011. She has a Bachelor’s and Master’s in mechanical engineering and spent 3 years working at Tesla before moving to a battery materials startup called Sila Nanotechnologies.
Since college, Carol has been a strong advocate for underrepresented groups in STEM and has taken that passion with her to her workplaces today, where she is committed to building gender and racial equity by diversifying corporate workforces. Carol now resides in Oakland and when not in the office or the lab, you can find her dancing bachata, looking for the next pair of sneakers to cop, listening to music and podcasts, or taking in a view.
Beth Davies, host: Suppose you want to do something, but people who typically do that thing are different from you. This is what many women interested in engineering experience, including our guest today.
Welcome to Career Curves where we talk to people who have interesting careers and explore how they got where they are. I'm your host, Beth Davies.
Today we're joined by Carol Regalbuto, a powerhouse mechanical engineer focused on battery technology. She's working in the fast paced, hard charging world of tech startups on teams, often dominated by men. Carol shares what she's had to do to be let in and then to thrive both personally and professionally. She also shares how she became passionate about diversity and inclusion and how she has incorporated this into her work.
Carol, thanks for joining us.
Carol Regalbuto, guest: It's a pleasure to be here, Beth, and to see you again.
Beth: I know. This is thrilling because you and I worked together at Tesla and I knew when we started this podcast that we just had to get you on.
Carol: I'm so honored.
Beth: So thank you.
Carol: Of course. Happy to be here.
Beth: So, I've already mentioned that you're a mechanical engineer and that you're working on battery technology. Can you explain both of these? What is a mechanical engineer and what do we mean by battery technology?
Carol: Your first question of, "What is a mechanical engineer?," I love because it takes me back to my days of being a college engineering tour guide, which is really fun, where I would have to explain what mechanical engineering is to a lot of high schoolers.
So, within mechanical engineering, there are a couple of different fields within it. It's one of the broadest fields of engineering. And effectively what we do is apply scientific and mathematic principles to solve problems – problems that come up either with things moving or as energy flows from one place to another. There are several main camps of mechanical engineering. The way that I've seen my friends' careers paths go is some are more into mechanical design and how we design parts that are going to be manufactured. A lot of CAD work, testing it under different mechanical situations to make sure that the forces that these parts are going to experience will be appropriate for the material selected.
And then there are folks who are more on the energy side of things who are looking at thermodynamics, at power plants, at heat transfer, at fluid mechanics. How do we move energy from one form to another? And that is what I was personally interested in – the energy piece of it.
As I was in high school I was thinking about what I wanted to do, and I had this knack for math and science that I was told I was very good at and I enjoyed doing, and I wanted to understand and find a way I could use that to have a positive impact on society. And, for me that came in the form of energy.
Eventually that led me to batteries. When we talk about battery technology, for me, what it means is working on lithium-ion batteries specifically. There are many different kinds of battery chemistries out there and one of the most prominent now, I would say the most prominent now, is lithium-ion.
Lithium-ion battery technology can include things from a "cell", which is the smallest component that you may have. It may include a "module" which is somewhere in the middle and then a whole "pack" which would go under your Tesla for example, under the under the floor of the car. So some folks work at the cell level, some work at the module level, some work at the pack level, and then some work at these sub-cell level, and that's mostly about materials chemistry and how do we actually manufacture the cells. And, folks can work at different points along that spectrum.
Carol: It's a lot.
Beth: Which level are you working at right now?
Carol: I'm at the sub-cell level. So in my role at Sila, we are a battery materials manufacturer and we look at the different components that we can supply to cell manufacturers.
Beth: If I were to follow you around for a day, a week, what would I actually see you doing in this kind of work, in this kind of a job?
Carol: You would see me in a couple of different settings. You would see me in the lab a little bit either performing tests on my own or receiving parts, receiving packages, getting them set up, putting them into fixtures for different testing, performing some of those tests myself. And you would see me at my computer a lot analyzing data that has been generated in the lab and I actually love data analysis. It's some of my favorite thing to look at a set of data and try to understand what the story is that it's telling me.
As scientists, we go into experiments with hypotheses, but we have to have the intellectual humility to understand that we may have been wrong in what we were thinking. So opening up a set of data and trying to look for trends and understand what is it that's actually going on here versus what did I think was going to happen? What is the story that's coming out from these numbers? And then, how do I craft those numbers into a story that's meaningful to other people who weren't in the lab with me doing the experiments or who are on a different team and don't understand all of the weeds of my project.
So you'll see me at my computer doing some of this data visualization. I love making graphs. I love making figures. You can ask any of my teammates. So I'll be doing some of that.
And then, of course, I will also be in meetings with other teams to understand what is the direction that we're trying to move as a company. What are the challenges? What are the gaps in knowledge? How do we close those? What data do I have to share? What data do others have to share? And how can we use that to progress forward as an organization?
Beth: So I'd love now to understand how you got to this place. It's fun. We're sitting together and it's fun to watch you as you're talking, because clearly you're energized by what you're doing.
Beth: And so, you're in this magical place for you and I'd love to find out how you discovered that this was your place to be. So if we go back in time, tell me about your childhood, your family, and where you grew up.
Carol: I grew up in the North suburbs of Chicago. Relatively affluent suburb. Mostly white and Asian people. Very few black people and a handful of Latinx people, my mother included. My mom is from Mexico. My dad is white American. He grew up in Texas and they met when he went back to Mexico with a friend of his that he had met in college and his friend was like, "Let me show you around. I'll take you back home for the holidays. You can meet some of my friends." And one of those friends was my mom.
Both of my parents are actually engineers. So for me, I was actually exposed to engineering at quite a young age, much younger than other people are. And I think what was really powerful for me in retrospect, which I didn't appreciate necessarily growing up, was that my mom was also a chemical engineer. She had a PhD in chemical engineering.
So for me, it wasn't strange to me that a woman could be an engineer and it didn't stand out to me as atypical because that's just what mom did. For me, that really spoke to the power of representation, that I didn't see engineering as something that was inaccessible because I had this role model in my life who was doing it and living it every single day.
I had a very happy, positive childhood with a lot of support that I'm incredibly thankful for.
Beth: What type of messages were you getting about what you should be or what career and work should be in your life?
Carol: That's a great question and one that I was trying to think about. I was struggling a little bit to understand what the different messages were because again, I had this role model in my life who was a Latinx woman who was an engineer and had a PhD. So that was a message that I was getting completely unconsciously.
And at the same time, as I started becoming older, as I got into high school, I realized throughout my own experience, like in my advanced science classes, that there were not as many girls as there were boys in the classes. But, that for me didn't send me the message that I couldn't do it, it just made me realize that there were fewer of us.
And again, I think it speaks to the power of representation and role models that I was able to still see myself in those roles, whereas for other people who don't have that representation, I can see how that would send the message of, "This is not a place for you because there's no one here who looks like you or comes from your same background."
But as I got older and in high school, you start to get the impression that as a woman you're valued more for your appearance than you are for your intelligence. That to be a smart girl or a smart woman can be considered intimidating. That we're not supposed to be confident. And those things I started to become more aware of, I would say in my teenage years.
Beth: How did you choose to respond to that?
Carol: It just wasn't me. It wasn't me to shrink. I've always been kind of an obnoxiously outgoing person and I think my confidence comes from my mom, I'll have to say. (I'm sure my family can either check me on that or not.) It wasn't me and I didn't believe in it.
Beth: So as you were finishing high school, what was your plan?
Carol: I wanted to study engineering, and I can tell you how I landed here because I still remember the day. I was sitting in our high school library and I was either reading or doing some assignment or working on college applications. I forget what. And I was such a nerdy kid that the two options I was considering for college were astrophysics or mechanical engineering, which are both very specific and very nerdy.
I have always been fascinated by space. I think space is really interesting and very cool. And so I thought, "Oh, I could study supernovas or how different gases burn. And that's really interesting. And all the fusion and the physics that happens there."
And as I started digging into it and questioning it for myself a little bit, I started thinking, "Okay, this is all really interesting science, but how does that help people? How does that help the world today?"
And for me, I was thinking about, "Well, in a couple hundred years if we're trying to go to other planets or do interstellar travel, maybe my research will help inform some of that work that helps push human technology forward." But a couple of centuries is a little bit too long of a timeframe for me. I'm kind of impatient and that was too long of a payoff.
So I thought, instead, if I studied mechanical engineering, I could work on green energy and sustainable energy and work towards mitigating the effects of climate change. And I felt I could have an influence in a couple of decades as opposed to a couple of centuries.
Beth: And so you chose mechanical engineering?
Carol: I did.
Beth: And where did you go to school?
Carol: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My dad was a professor at University of Illinois at Chicago for many years, and because of that, I got 50% off in-state tuition at any University of Illinois school, which made University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign a very attractive option because it was an excellent engineering school in line with what I wanted to do. And because of the tuition waiver that I got, it meant I was able to graduate debt-free. So between having that and some merit-based scholarships, I actually graduated college without any debt.
Beth: We hear often how much debt affects people's ability to make the choices they want to make versus the choices they have to make, so that really is quite a fortunate position.
Carol: It really was and it's not lost on me that I was put in that position because of the privilege I had growing up in the family and in the socioeconomic status that I did. My best friend will remind me that it's not just that, that I also got good grades in school, but it's certainly a combination of both of them that I would not have been afforded that opportunity without the privilege I had.
Beth: So as you're studying mechanical engineering, were your classes equally mixed gender wise or were you finding the disparity that you had felt in high school?
Carol: I felt it far more profoundly in college than I did in high school. I think that when you think about the aggregate of number, in my AP physics class, I think there were three girls in our class of maybe 20ish people and three out of 20 feels much different than nine out of a hundred, for example. So even if you're going to translate the percentages exactly the same when you look in aggregate and you see an entire lecture hall full of men and you're one of 10% women in that room, the weight of it just feels so different.
So I became much more profoundly aware of how few women there were in my college years. And the added layer of it too… This is audio so your listeners can't see me, but I'm a white-passing woman. I can only imagine how much harder it is for women of color, specifically black and indigenous women, who may walk in and they are the only person, not only of their gender, but of their gender and race and how you feel all of that weight being the "only," because now people are going to be putting an entire gender or entire race's worth of expectations on you, which is completely unfair.
Beth: How did you respond or how did this recognizing this 10% activate you?
Carol: What I found most impactful was to be a high performer. I think because of the schools that I went to, the high school that I went to, I was set up to be a very good student. And I realized that the boys stopped talking when I got better grades on them on all the exams. And when I had higher GPA than them, then they stopped. They would just shut right up if they ever challenged me.
One of the examples that I have is at the end of my college career, I was applying for grad schools. I had applied to several schools and I was accepted to every school I applied to, which was really awesome. Stanford offered me a fellowship to fund the first five quarters of my time at Stanford. I was super excited. I was telling a lot of my friends about it. "You know, I got in, I got this fellowship, blah, blah."
And I still remember this one classmate of mine telling me, "You know you only got that fellowship to hit the quota, right? You only got that fellowship because you're a woman and they have to hit their quota of having enough people." I was so taken aback, I didn't really understand how to respond to it.
Beth: And how did you respond to that?
Carol: In that moment I said, "You know what person, my GPA has been higher than yours every single semester we've been here and I have performed better in every single class we've taken together. And that's why I got this scholarship. That's why I got this fellowship. That it was for the performance."
Beth: So while you're an undergrad, tell me what role internships played in your both education and career growth?
Carol: Internships were really strongly emphasized at U of I, University of Illinois. We had four Career Fairs a year. Some were student run, some were run by the engineering career services office. It was really emphasized because they help you get a lot of work experience and kind of try on different jobs to see if you like them, try out different industries, different applications and see where you land. So internships for me were very big.
I had an internship after every summer in college. I did not get an internship between my senior year and grad school because I wanted to take a little bit of a break, but I did have a lot.
The first one that I did was working as a research aide at Argonne National Lab, and I'll admit that I 100% got that job because of my mom, because she worked at Argonne National Lab and she knew someone in her department who was looking for a student to help do chemical inventory. And so I scanned barcodes on chemicals the entire summer. But on my resume, "I maintained an 100% compliance rate in some thing, some thing, inventory." Whatever it was. I was able to make it sound a little bit more glamorous than it is. But what did help is that put Argonne National Lab on my resume, which made getting the next internship easier.
Beth: Question for you though, before you tell me about the next internship.
Beth: So scanning barcodes sounds very manual and not quite at that level that you'd been studying. Was that tough for you to kind of reconcile of, "Hey wait, I shouldn't be scanning barcodes that somehow is beneath me?"
Carol: I think maybe initially I probably had some of that hubris of, "Oh, I'm better than this. I can do that." But I think actually being in that environment gave me a lot of perspective and it was very humbling and certainly a reality check of like, "Oh, I just finished my freshman year of college. I actually don't really have very many useful skills right now. I'm still learning, I'm growing, I'm picking things up. I took AP physics or whatever it was, but I haven't done a lot of experimental design or experimental planning or execution of these various lab techniques." Because I saw all of the other work that was going on and that there was a lot there that I did not know or understand or have any sense of where to start to approach these problems.
Beth: Which is half the value of an internship, right?
Beth: Like getting that reality check.
So tell me about your other internships.
Carol: So the next summer I worked at ConocoPhillips Wood River Refinery. I was a reliability engineering intern at the refinery. That was a very eye-opening experience for me. I wanted to work at an oil company because I figured if I was going to go into energy and try to improve and make green sustainable energy, I should have some sense of understanding of where the industry was starting and what the current lay of the land was in its current form. Are there opportunities within the oil and gas companies? Are they doing renewable work? What is it like and how can I either build on that forward in my career or maybe there are parts of these companies that I could see myself working in.
Beth: Frankly, it goes back to what you said early on about being a scientist and having a hypothesis and then checking it out. Right?
Carol: I didn't even think of that.
Beth: Because you could easily have the hypothesis that oil company / gas company equals bad as opposed to going in and saying, like you did, "Wait, what are the opportunities here? What are they also working on? What's happening," and looking to prove out that hypothesis.
Carol: Right, right.
Carol: In the end it was not the industry for me. Some of the challenges there for my discipline were not what I wanted to be working on and then overall, if I looked at the global impact, I wanted to be working on a different suite of technologies that I thought were going to have a better impact overall.
But specifically from that internship, I was on the reliability engineering team and what I realized was that work as a mechanical engineer at a refinery was not the work that I wanted to be doing. A lot of reliability engineering, is, "How do we design our equipment to last a certain number of duty cycles? What should we be designing our pipes out of so they can handle these corrosive chemicals or the pressures and the temperatures that they need to?" And some people are super into that and that's awesome. Like getting into the nuances of material design and selection and mechanical design, I think can be incredibly interesting. It's not my preference.
What I realized was that the ones who were doing the really cool work were actually the chemical engineers. And my dad loves giving me a hard time because he's like, "Oh, you're a mechanical engineer. You know you could have been a chemical engineer…"
Beth: And he's a chemical engineer?
Carol: He's a chemical engineer and he teaches thermodynamics. I was always so adamant as an 18, 19 year old. I was like, "No dad, I'm a mechanical engineer. I like physics." And lo and behold, I ended up specializing in thermodynamics and energy systems, partially because of this internship where I realized that I thought the most interesting work to me was what the chemical engineers were doing. How do you take this primordial soup of crude oil and do different chemical processes on it to extract meaningful products? How do you turn that into hydrogen, into propane, into gasoline, into diesel, through all of these different things where you have to selectively pull certain molecules of certain chain lengths and all of that kind of stuff. And how does the energy flow through it?
So for me that was a very interesting thing and because of that I decided to specialize more in thermodynamics and energy systems. But mechanical engineering is still in all of my degrees, so I can at least take that home to my dad.
Beth: One of the greatest values that internships have is illuminating this exactly for us. "I want in my life now more of this and less of that," and then making a better choice the next time.
Beth: And so what was the next internship?
Carol: So the next one for me was Ford. So I worked at Ford. I thought, "Okay, energy. Increasing efficiency. One of the big spaces where that happens is the transportation sector, so how do we think about more efficient transportation?" And I wanted to work at Ford.
I was in the lubrication and mechanical friction group. Tribology is the technical field of study. So I was looking at friction between piston rings and cylinder bores. What this internship taught me was that mechanical friction was not what I wanted to be working on, that I wanted to be more on the thermodynamics and energy flow and fluid side.
Beth: So almost confirming for you what you were starting to think.
Carol: Absolutely. It confirmed for me that that particular discipline wasn't what I wanted, but that industry was of interest. So it was fun to be working on engine components, to be thinking about efficiency of engines, and how we can improve on those. In retrospect, I really also enjoyed having access to corporate resources to do research. And I realized that working with a team of really smart, great, talented people, with access to incredibly high state-of-the-art equipment, can really drive forward progress in a way that feels meaningful, in a way that feels we're actually getting stuff done, we're learning things. And this is going to inform what goes into the vehicle, maybe not tomorrow, but maybe in the next model year or the year after that.
Beth: So at some point undergrad is going to come to an end and you've got to start thinking about what you're going to do next. What did you put into play? What was your plan then?
Carol: This is another instance where I can pinpoint the exact moment of how this decision came to me. I remember it was senior year again. (I think it was senior year of high school. It was senior year of college. It's a similar pattern for me, I suppose.) I was sitting down to decide my last year's worth of technical electives and I had maybe two or three slots left in my schedule. I was looking at the list and there were like six or seven classes that I wanted to take and I only had time for two or three of them. As I was sitting there I was thinking, "Man, I really want to take all of these classes. I just don't have time. Well, I guess I'm going to get a master's because that's how I keep learning the things that I want to learn."
From there, it was a decision of, "Okay, if I'm going to go to grad school, do I stay at U of I or do I go somewhere else? Do I start to open up the options?" And I figured it was good to do a little bit of due diligence and apply at other schools, but it really came from the fact that I felt I hadn't learned enough or that not necessarily that I hadn't learned enough, but I wanted to learn more to specialize further in the field that I wanted it to work in.
Beth: You already mentioned two things. One is that you went to Stanford and that they gave you a fellowship. How did that happen?
Carol: The advice that I will give to people who are applying to grad school is that always check the box that you're interested in a PhD because many schools will only consider funding if you are intending to pursue a PhD. So even if you're on the fence, say yes, you're interested in applying for the PhD and then you're often considered for funding. And if it's not the path for you, you can opt out with a master's later. But often at schools that have a terminal master's program that is non-research, they won't consider you for funding because you're not doing research for the university.
So the way that worked out, I had applied to a bunch of schools. I made sure that I applied…. There's sometimes a couple of deadlines: to be considered for financial aid, to not be considered for financial aid. So I made sure I applied at the deadline where I would be considered for funding. And because of my application, I think my undergraduate research experience, my internships, my GPA, letters of recommendation, I was selected to be a someone who got a fellowship.
Beth: You decided to take the summer off, you mentioned between…
Carol: I did.
Beth: And what did you do during that summer?
Carol: Oh, I did the most stereotypical post-college thing for people who have the privilege to travel. I went to Europe for a month and then, when I came back, I had a couple of months because the way that Stanford worked out, they're on quarters and I had been on semesters, so I had an extra month of summer and I thought, "Okay, I can't just sit around and do nothing." So I actually went back to my high school job working at a swim shop. It was fun. It was fun to be back there. It was like a very low stress, part-time job that basically just kept me busy with a little extra spending money.
Beth: So then tell me about your time at Stanford. What was that experience like for you?
Carol: I had a wonderful time at Stanford. That's the reason that I'm still here in California today and that we're talking in Oakland.
I was interested in going to a different school than where I went to undergrad. And it was actually partially because of the advice of my undergraduate advisor who said that if I ever wanted to come back to Illinois, if I wanted to be on faculty at some point, I would be a more compelling candidate if I had gone to grad school somewhere else and then come back. That made me realize that I think it would be very helpful to see how a different group of people approach the same set of technical problems to see if there were different solutions that came out of different ways of thinking. Being at Stanford for me was very interesting because the West Coast engineering culture was very much in contrast to the Midwest engineering culture, I found.
Beth: How fascinating.
Carol: Yes, and I think because of the ties and the connection to Silicon Valley, people are a lot more willing to take risks and to try new innovative things and they want to be like, "Okay, we're going to push all this stuff out there and see if it works. Maybe it will, maybe it won't." Where I feel like in the Midwest because there's huge manufacturing companies and they have products and lines that they need to support because they have customers who depend on them, they're a little bit more risk averse. Which again, is not necessarily a good or a bad thing, it was just a different way of operating.
So being at Stanford I thought was really wonderful. I found my advisor, Chris Edwards, through some coursework and I thought his research was very interesting, so I joined his lab, the Advanced Energy Systems Lab. And that, in retrospect, was also a very unique experience because we were an engine lab and we were 50/50 men and women, which was wonderful. I didn't realize how strongly that impacted me until I left. At my first job it was not 50/50 and it was so nice to not have to even think about that during these very formative grad school years.
Beth: So you just mentioned that you found this advisor, I think you said.
Beth: So this type of grad school is totally foreign to me.
Beth: So tell me what that kind of role is and what that even means about finding an advisor and why that was, therefore, so important.
Carol: This is something interesting about grad school is compared to undergrad. Undergrad, you apply to the university overall and then you get placed in a separate department. Grad school is much more department focused, so even within the same university, one department may do their qualifying exams for your PhD candidacy in a different way from another department. So it's very department specific.
So at Stanford's mechanical engineering department, the way it worked is you're not usually linked with an advisor from the start. Whereas at other schools, as you're going through the application process, you're interviewing with different professors and you have a professor identified from the moment you step on campus. Stanford was a little bit different in that sense.
Beth: And is this advisor like a career guidance person for you?
Carol: No, they're also called "principal investigators" and they're the ones who are advising your research over the course of your graduate career. They also can serve as your career guidance counselor in a way. They can offer advice in that sense, but the primary function is to advise you on your research.
Beth: Got it.
Carol: And then some are also very good at doing the career development. Some are less good.
Beth: So less about you as an individual and more about your study, your science, your research.
Carol: I would say, in general, yes. In my case, my advisor was also very in tuned to me as an individual and what I wanted and what kind of work would make me happy.
Beth: And you said that you found him, you selected him. Do you remember what your thought process was and how you…?
Carol: It was a two way process. It was one of the things that led me to choose Stanford over some of the other schools that I had gotten into. In the end I decided I shouldn't stay at Illinois, I shouldn't stay in the Midwest, I should go somewhere else and experience a new region of the country, a new university. I was deciding between MIT and Stanford. I was looking down the list of professors and their research at MIT, and I just wasn't excited about a lot of the focus areas.
It turns out that research is just a small component of getting a PhD. And I was like, "If I'm not excited about this research, this is going to be a hard PhD."
Beth: And you're facetious about saying it's a small part.
Carol: It's a huge part. Yes, definitely.
So I had already looked at Chris's lab and his work. As I was applying, he was one of the people that I was interested in. So again, the way it works at Stanford, you don't come in with an adviser selected, you shop around a little bit. Sometimes you'll do a rotation in a certain lab's group for a quarter or two quarters. You'll go to their lab meetings, maybe work on some smaller projects.
When I came on campus, I was very interested in working for Chris. He was the person whose research aligned most with my interests. So, the first couple of weeks I marched into his office and say, "I would like to work for you," and he would probably tell this story from his end very similarly.
And he was like, "Alright, cool. Slow down. Take my class first. Get comfortable and established at Stanford and what graduate life is like and what the rhythm is like. Take my class, you'll see if you like me, I can see what you're like as a student and then we can talk after that."
And I said, "Okay." I can be a very impatient person, so I was excited to hit the ground running, but in retrospect it was good that I decided to take a beat and just settle in a little bit.
So I took his class and then at the end of the class he knew that I had been interested and we talked a little bit further and he said he would like to take me on as a student.
Beth: You mentioned how internships were helping shape your perspective of what you wanted for yourself, more of this, less of that. What about this experience of working in the lab? What was that teaching you about you?
Carol: Oh man, that is such a great question and ultimately, spoiler alert, the punchline here is that I decided to leave my PhD program. I didn't finish. And working in the lab is one of the things that really drove that home for me.
I don't think I know a single PhD student or anyone who has a PhD who has not at some point – usually around year four, sometimes year five – gone through a very dark period where it feels like they cannot continue, they cannot go on. This work is so hard. It's very challenging in a lot of different ways and getting a PhD can, quite frankly, be a very isolating experience because you are intended to be the expert on your particular project in your field, which is incredibly powerful and it also means that you're the person who has to own every single aspect and solve every single problem that comes up.
So working in the lab and trying to push forward academic research was very challenging for me. I think I went into the process of wanting to get a PhD and, honestly, I was thinking about it from the lens of school, right? Like, "I'm really good at school. I'm really good at classes. I really like learning. I want to keep learning." And in the bubble that I existed, in the pinnacle crowning achievement in academia is to get a PhD.
Beth: Both of your parents had PhDs?
Carol: Also that.
Beth: So you already said, spoiler alert, you did not go for your PhD. How did you come to terms with that for yourself personally? And what about for your parents? So, there's a part of this that means that you were quitting and I have such a hard time looking at you and using the word quit because I can't imagine you and quitter. Those two words don't go together. So I imagine that was hard for you to reconcile. So how did you end up reconciling that and what about your parents?
Carol: You're hitting on so much of what I had to grapple with in that time.
Going back to your previous question just for a second, what working in a lab taught me is that I didn't actually enjoy doing academic research and, like I facetiously said, it's actually quite a large part of doing the PhD and I didn't enjoy it. I didn't like working in isolation. I much prefer to work collaboratively in teams.
Beth: Which is even something you said you saw at Ford during that internship.
Carol: Absolutely. I felt it was very isolating. It was hard working with so few resources because you often getting funding from grants and if something breaks you don't have a spare. Whereas if you're in the corporate world, you have multiple copies of things. If something breaks, you install the spare and then you order another backup in case it breaks.
You don't have that same luxury in graduate school. I just found that it was going so deep into a problem and at some point I want to just to be able to be like, "Okay, I understand this as much as I need to. I would like to move on and connect this to the next thing, to actually apply it instead of staying so, so, so, so, so deep on this one thing from 360 degrees."
That's not how I prefer to work. I prefer to see connections between a lot of different things and understand how those all impact each other when you're looking at the full system.
Beth: It's so wonderful you know this about yourself.
Carol: I didn't know it right away. It took time and it was through my advisor, Chris, telling me this. We'll get there in a second.
Going back to your question of how did I process this? How did it feel? It was not easy. It was not easy. I basically felt like I was failing. My work was not up to par and I was feeling really incompetent. I was feeling really unmotivated. I wasn't excited to go into lab because I was just reminded of how bad I was at this in my head. Right? That's what it felt like.
I went to go see a psychologist for a little bit. We had access to really good mental health resources at Stanford that I took advantage of. I took some workshops on resilience through the vice provost of graduate education, which was another great resource we had on campus. I was trying to learn tools to help me be more resilient and not seeing some of what was coming up as failures, but as obstacles that I could overcome if I reframed them for myself.
Ultimately, and it's through a conversation with my advisor that helped here, he recognized that I was not in a good place. That I was really down, that I wasn't my cheerful, bubbly self, and he called me into his office and he said, "Carol, I'm noticing something is a little bit off with you and I'm wondering maybe if this isn't the right fit." He's like, "I just want you to be happy and if what makes Carol happy is for you to either go be in somebody else's lab, to change the projects within this lab, or maybe you should try an internship in the corporate world and see how that feels. See if you like that more than doing the PhD research."
It was hard to hear that, to hear that I was like letting him down in a way, letting myself down and having to come to terms with this fact that it really felt like I was failing. And because I had had such academic success beforehand, this was the first time I really had to grapple with that.
And so the way that I had to process it, ultimately, I had to give myself permission to see it not as a failure, but as a way to realign my path with my strengths. And through talking with my advisor, I couldn't shake this feeling of having failed. And I told him. I was like, "Chris, I feel like I'm failing. I don't have what it takes. I can't hack it. Right? Like I don't have the perseverance, I don't have the determination. That I'm not good at this."
And he told me, he was like, "Carol in every class that I have had you in, when I explain a topic, your hand is the first to go up," and I think a lot of my classmates will probably laugh because I was always known as the person who has a lot questions. My hand was always the first one to go up. And he's like, "To me, that's not a signal of you don't understand, that's a signal of you're understanding it quickly and asking how it connects to other things."
Beth: So it's connection making, like you said that's what you like to do.
Carol: Exactly, and he was the first person to actually name that. I had never named it for myself. So him naming that and saying, "This is a strength of yours, of seeing connections between other things." When he said that it clicked for me. Yes! This is why staying so focused on one thing is so difficult for me and why I'm struggling so much and not enjoying it. And he was saying that that ability to see connections is really something powerful and something that I could apply very successfully in the corporate world.
Beth: You mentioned that you didn't want to fail him and the way you portray his role in your story is that he was actually saying to you in so many ways, you're not failing me to make the decision that's right for you. But I can imagine it didn't necessarily sound that way at the time, but it sounds like you can appreciate it that way now?
Carol: Oh, absolutely. It felt a little bit like I was failing him, but also not. I think really I felt like I was failing myself and I was projecting that outwards because he was incredibly supportive of my decisions.
Beth: That's what is sounds like.
Carol: And in terms of how… You would ask me about my parents.
Beth: I was going to go back to that, yes.
Carol: My parents have always been incredibly supportive. And again, I think that feeling like I was failing them because they had this advanced degree that I sought out to get but didn't get, I think that was mostly my internal sense of failure that I feared they would also share, that they didn't. I also left to a full-time, well-paying engineering job in Silicon Valley, so I don't think they were really concerned for my future or wellbeing.
Beth: Although we're jumping ahead just a little bit.
Carol: We are. We are.
Beth: All right, so let's get there though. So it was suggested to you to try an internship in the corporate space.
Beth: And so what did you do? How did you respond to that?
Carol: The way that I went about that after the advice from Chris that I should prototype the experience – I'm very big on prototyping experiences. So prototyping the experience of being in the corporate world, I started looking for internships. I updated my LinkedIn and made it known that I was looking for these things and some of the experiences that I had that will be compelling to recruiters. And I got an email from a recruiter from Tesla asking if I was interested, because of my experience, in internships at the Gigafactory. I was not interested in internships at the Gigafactory, but I had the presence of mind to think, "Oh well, this is a Tesla recruiter. Maybe they can help me get in in Palo Alto because the office was 10 minutes from where I live.
At the same time, in parallel, I contacted a former colleague of mine from Stanford that we had from similar social networks. I knew that he works at Tesla on batteries and so I sent him my resume and I think they eventually merged my application in some way to apply for an internship on his team.
Beth: So you go into an internship at Tesla and how did that experience shape your thinking about this PhD decision versus "Nope, I'm leaving it now?"
Carol: It was so great to be outside of academia. I was so much happier. It was so great to be working with really skilled, talented people. It affirmed for me that I was much happier in a corporate space, working collaboratively on teams, with other people on my own team, with people on other teams, and having access to resources to really propel things forward in a way that felt incredibly meaningful because the work that we were doing informed again the next iteration of product. And now when I see Model 3s or Model Ss or Model Xs down the street, I'm like, "I had a hand in helping craft that."
Beth: It's interesting because you said, going back to your high school years when you were trying to decide between astrophysics, which has a super long time horizon, to actually now frankly you're involved in something that's more about a consumer product. So now you've got this opportunity to be affecting things short term. So you kind of also were fulfilling this desire of personally needing to make an impact faster and really getting to do that.
Carol: Absolutely. And I think it was also very fulfilling to feel like I was having an impact on a shorter time frame, because I think one of the things that's challenging about the PhD is you don't have deadlines. Sometimes you have some milestones for certain grants that you need to hit, but you don't have any milestones necessarily. You don't have deadlines. Everything is so open-ended.
Beth: But you want to make connections and get things done.
Carol: Exactly. So there was an inherent tension there, which I didn't recognize until I was in it.
Beth: So you – again kind of a spoiler alert – you were able to convert this internship into a job at Tesla. How did you do that? What do you think you did during that internship that got you noticed to be able to turn that into a full time job?
Carol: I don't know that I can actually answer that question. I think you would have to ask my former manager and the people I worked with there to see what was compelling about my work or the way that I was working. I think I was able to execute on tasks that were handed to me. I do think that I had a particular domain-specific knowledge with respect to energy systems and thermodynamics that no one else on the team had, at least to the depth that I did, which was actually a really fun realization because in my lab we had all taken the same classes. We all specialized in the same thing. And that wasn't unique, right?
But then when I went to this other place outside of my lab, I was like, "Oh, I actually do know some stuff that other people don't know. Oh my gosh, this is so fun." I was able to bring some of those modeling tools and some of that knowledge to the team that other people didn't have. And for the first time I was the only person who had it and that did feel kind of fun, so that probably helped as well.
Beth: How long did you end up spending at Tesla?
Carol: A little over three years. If you include the internship, it was just over three years.
Beth: And so tell me about your experience there.
Carol: I worked on the Battery Safety and R&D team, which later changed its name to the Abuse Testing and Engineering team. And we got to do really fun tests. We worked on different abuse testing scenarios to make sure that the battery performed sufficiently in extreme scenarios. So if there were a short circuit within the pack or the module or the cell, if it was overcharged, if it had some sort of an impact, or if it was accidentally charged without coolant for any variety of reasons, a failure… Not that any of this was anticipated in normal operation. All of the work that we did was if there's a three-point failure or something like that, how do we have confidence that it's going to be safe for the consumer who's using the product?
And the type of testing that we did was super fun. We got to come up with very interesting ways to recreate certain scenarios. It was very collaborative. I learned a ton from the other people on my team. I learned a ton from the technicians who were there too, because they were the ones instrumenting a lot of these intricate pack designs and it felt really good to be working on things and performing tests that informed what was going to be going into the car.
Beth: When you talked about your internships, you very strategically in your internships, were using those as opportunities to say, "I want more of this and I want less of that." You left Tesla after three years as you mentioned. What had been happening during those three years of what you were learning about yourself of wanting more of this and less of that?
Carol: I think it affirmed for me that I wanted more of the collaborative teamwork, more of the collective ownership of, "We are going to take on this really hard problem and we're going to solve it together and come up with a solution that we're all incredibly proud of." So I wanted to have more of that and I wanted to affirm more of that.
I do think what was a little bit hard about being at Tesla is that I was the only woman on my team and that was frankly challenging. I don't think that any of my teammates were bad people. They were all very nice, but just the pressure of being "the only," the only woman in the room. I was also the only engineer on my team who wasn't white or Asian. And again, I'm half white. We didn't a lot of representation and I wanted less of that. I wanted less of being "the only" in the room.
Beth: While you were at Tesla, you got very involved in diversity and inclusion. I would imagine this was a big trigger for making that happen for yourself.
Carol: I think so. It's a little frustrating to hear people talk, "There's so few women, there's so few women." Yes there are so few women, but there are women. There are women. We are there. We're just scattered. So what I found through my work with Women in Tesla was that once you brought all of us together into one room, maybe like one person was the only person on their team, they were the only person on their team. But if you brought together all of those people, we could fill a pretty big conference room and that felt really good.
So having that support network was really powerful and empowering for me, though I do think that one of the pitfalls that women's organizations or women's employee resource groups can fall into is that they don't consider a diverse group of women. We actually got feedback from somebody, a woman of color, who didn't join WIT because she felt there was no space for her. She felt it was only white women and that can happen because often if we're just thinking of women broadly, we default to white women. If we don't specifically mention that we want to serve a diverse group of women, women of color, in particular black women, indigenous women and Latinx women, they're not necessarily considered. Or we don't think about queer women. We don't think about trans women. We don't think about women with disabilities. When we think of women, it can unfortunately aggregate into one only type of woman, which means that we're not actually serving the people that we're trying to serve.
Beth: In your time as a leader at WIT, were you able to then respond to that piece of feedback and make any changes and what did you do?
Carol: What we started doing was to work with other employee resource groups, other ERGs. So we started working with the Black at Tesla employee resource group, with Tesla Latinos is another one, and Intersectionality at Tesla. We started working more collaboratively to make sure that we could host events that served more of us. And then whenever WIT hosted a panel, we made sure that the people on the panel were not all white women.
Beth: I would imagine, when you look back at your experiences at Tesla, the work that you did in engineering is probably as important as the work that you did with the Women in Tesla, with the people of Tesla. Is that a fair statement?
Carol: Absolutely. I think the work I did with Women in Tesla was just as, if not more important, than the work that I did in engineering. I think that the community that we were able to create and the network was fundamentally important to my time there and made me feel like I had other people that I could relate to, that I could go to for advice or just to vent for a second. Whether it was related to being a woman or not, I was just able to form strong friendships because of it.
Beth: You did at some point though decide to move on from Tesla. What were the signs for you that it was getting to be time for you to try someplace different? Especially, frankly, because Tesla is Tesla and probably everybody else would say to you, "You can't possibly leave Tesla."
Carol: I was even saying that to myself, so that's a very apt thing. It was a couple of different things together. I think the Tesla culture was very intense and because of that culture they're able to get a lot of really incredible things done, but I do think it can lead to burnout.
The other thing is that I thought it would be interesting to just try something new. I know for me at Tesla, the smallest I ever went was a battery cell and this new opportunity came up where the biggest I would ever go would be a battery cell. So to be on the other side of the interface and learn more and dive more into the material science and expand my knowledge in that sense.
Beth: So how did you find the role that you're in now, which is at Sila?
Carol: So this came also from a grad school connection. I had heard the name Sila in the back of my head. So as I was deciding, "Okay, maybe it's time to explore new opportunities," I started going on LinkedIn and I searched battery engineer, or battery test engineer, or mechanical test engineer. Those were things I was looking for. And Sila came up and I was like, "Sila? How do I know this name?" And I clicked on the company and I saw that I actually had quite a few former colleagues who were there.
And I was like, "Oh, this is the company that Gene founded, who was a student of Chris's, and Chris mentions it all the time." And so it was brought back to the forefront of my mind. Because I looked and I saw that maybe three or four people that I knew from my time in graduate school had independently decided this was a good place to work, it was probably worth a look.
So I texted a friend of mine from grad school and I said, "Hey, I saw you just joined Sila. How do you like it? What's the culture and what's the vibe?" And he told me that he was really enjoying his time there.
He invited me to come to a recruiting meet-and-greet that was happening and so I went. I met some engineering managers and it's funny because two of the three cofounders of Sila were some of the earliest employees at Tesla, so they understood what the experience and the role that I'd had at Tesla was, so they connected me with someone who was looking for someone with a similar background. And then I went through the interview process from there.
Beth: When you were toying with the idea of leaving Tesla, I had already left the company, but you reached out to me.
Carol: I did.
Beth: And at the time you actually were telling me that you were considering leaving engineering and switching over to diversity and inclusion based on some of the work you had done and experiences you had had at Tesla around Women in Tesla. Tell me about your thought process, both about why you were considering that and why ultimately you decided not to make that your next career move.
Carol: I was considering it because over the course of my time at Tesla – it wasn't even just at Tesla, it was just that period of my life – I started to become much more aware of history in the U.S., of the systemic inequality and oppression that had happened that I, because of the bubble that I grew up in, growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood with a white parent and being white passing, it was just stuff that was outside of my experience. I was completely blinded by my own privilege and didn't understand a lot of the history that was here.
So throughout that time in my life, I should say, through exposure to different podcasts, different movies, different films, friends of different races that I hadn't really had, I was just learning things that I should have learned decades ago and it was through learning some of these things that it became clear to me that I think everyone who benefits from the systems of oppression that our country has built, it is their duty and their obligation to dismantle it and to make it a more equitable world for everyone. Because I believe it's so fundamentally unjust that somebody's career opportunities or lifespan is predicted by the circumstances of their birth, which they have no control over. And I thought, I could be working on new technology or I could be working to create social equity within companies where I do have that influence and that seemed like a really important thing to be doing.
Beth: But you ultimately decided not to leave engineering for a role in diversity and inclusion. Why did you decide to stay in engineering?
Carol: It was hard to make the career jump, because I wanted to go into career where I didn't have any formal experience. I had been involved with Women in Tesla and trying to create a supportive network there, but that wasn't my primary role. My primary role was an engineer and that was something I did on a volunteer basis. And I don't think that I had compelling enough experience to transition smoothly into one of those roles.
I think had I wanted to spend more time on it, I could have tried to build up some of that experience, maybe tried to do some consulting work on this side, which would have given me a little bit more formal program rollout experience or anything like that. But ultimately I didn't have the experience that I thought I needed at the time to make the jump at the time I wanted to.
And I thought, you know what, if I go to a company that I feel really values diversity, equity, and inclusion, I think I can still have an impact as an engineer in that way to push forward what I want to. And it worked out because I had at the same time applied for a facilitator role at this firm called Awaken. So I was able to pick up this contract job on the side of my engineering role, which really allowed me to do both of those things.
Beth: And right now you are in fact doing both things.
Beth: How do you get work-life balance for yourself, because that sounds like a lot to be doing both of those things?
It is and I have the fortune to work at companies and employers who value work-life balance. I think it's a really great example that our CEO sets. He has two kids and publicly on his calendar he has he needs to drop off his kid or pick up his kid. I think it's really great that that's an example that's set. So when you see the execs leaving and you see managers leaving to go home and have their own lives outside of work, it makes everybody else feel like they can do the same thing. They don't have to stay until 7:00 or 8:00 PM every single day.
Committing to things that are important to me outside of work and having times that I need to be places that are not at work also helps as like a healthy forcing function to be like, "All right, I need to get out. I need to go. I have to be a practice." These are things that I've committed to that I want to do and they help make sure that I honor those.
Beth: Few more questions for you. You're still young. You still have a lot of career ahead of you. What are you thinking about might be in your future. Do you have long-term goals or do you just play it short-term?
Carol: A little bit of both. I think in the immediate term (and my manager at Sila knows this) I would like to be a manager myself. I think that would be a great way to combine my technical background and my belief in wanting to drive forward social equity. I think as a hiring manager you have a lot of organizational influence to push forward a lot of those initiatives. And again, I really enjoy working collaboratively and working with people and I've always enjoyed teaching, so I think that developing employees would sort of drawn on some of that. So I would like to be a manager, maybe work my way up or maybe as the organization grows, potentially stay and move up to director, maybe VP someday. I'm not really sure what it looks like beyond manager.
I also have thoughts of running for office someday, which I think could be kind of interesting, whether it'd be local office or Congress. This is super far out, so don't be thinking like "Carol for 2024" or anything like that. But it's something I've thought about, again to be able to work for social equity on a national stage or even on a official government stage. So that's something I've thought about. I don't know what the timing of any of this looks like, but it's things I'm thinking of.
Beth: It's just fun to play with those ideas.
Carol: Exactly. It's a little thought experiment.
Beth: All right. So my final questions. What would you say is the smartest career move you made, whether intentionally or accidentally?
Carol: I think the smartest career move I made was dropping out on my PhD. It was the hardest choice that I had to make, but my emotional wellbeing and my quality of life just went so up. It got so much better after I left and I was able to find work that really aligned with the things that I was good at and could feel good doing.
Beth: I absolutely hear that in your story. I probably would have been surprised if you had told me something different than that. But what about this one? If you could have one do-over, what would it be and why?
Carol: If I could have one do-over, I would have taken more classes in college that were specifically either in African American Studies or Women's Studies or Latinx Studies to understand that history that I had just been completely unaware of until later in my life. I wish I would have taken those classes sooner to learn some of that stuff and start to unlearn and unpack my own privilege and biases at a much younger age.
Beth: What's one piece of career advice that you wish you could go back and give your younger self?
Carol: To give yourself permission to fail, but to also give yourself permission to see failure not as a failure, but as a learning opportunity. How do you take that? How do you learn from it? How do you apply it to something new in your life? And when it is a failure, it's not necessarily because your a dumb, terrible person with no work ethic, which is what I was telling myself. It's that this maybe isn't the right fit for you and that's okay. Your path can change and maybe what you thought you wanted isn't really what you wanted and that's fine.
Beth: Couldn't agree more.
Last question. How do you define success for yourself?
Carol: For myself, I define success as fulfillment with the life that I've created and I think there's a lot of aspects to it. The life that I've created includes work. It includes activities outside of work. It includes romantic relationships, friendships, family relationships, where I live, what's in my house, how I feel when I move in certain spaces. It's fulfillment with the life that I've made and working to creating a better world.
Beth: Carol, thank you for sharing your story. I have adored you since the moment I met you and I am honored to have had you on our podcast and so thank you very, very much.
Carol: You are very welcome. It has been an honor to be here. Thanks for having me.