Laura Mahany is a plant manager at Air Liquide and one of the emerging leaders recognized by the 2019 STEP Ahead Awards. Below is in interview conducted for the NAM’s morning newsletter, Input.
Input: Tell me a little about your background. What got you interested in working for a manufacturer?
Mahany: I wanted to be an engineer because of my love for math and science. When I started doing internships in college, I realized I liked the more hands-on work of manufacturing—the direct interaction with the meat of a business. I liked how every day was different, fast paced, challenging.
Input: Which parts of your education were the most valuable to your current career?
Mahany: As a child I did academic competitions in math and science, which really pushed me to improve my skills. But back then, we didn’t have all these STEM clubs and other activities the way kids do now. In college, I was a part of a program for women in engineering that made the larger engineering program feel a little bit more approachable.
Input: You’ve mentored underprivileged kids in math and science. What sort of things did you do to inspire them?
Mahany: Each time we would learn about something different, for example, we would build rollercoasters or make ice cream using liquid nitrogen. These were experiments—we would change something, then study how it affected the outcome. I think that really drove home the scientific concepts for the kids—they had to think through how things worked for themselves.
Input: You went through a pretty dramatic experience early on in your career. What was it like to be caught in Hurricane Harvey?
Mahany: The hurricane came on very fast, and there wasn’t a lot of preparation time. We only realized it would be an actual threat to our operations two days before the storm hit. I hadn’t lived through a hurricane before, so I didn’t know what to expect.
We evacuated during the hurricane itself, but once it passed, my team and I came back to something out of a zombie apocalypse. There was no one around, the street lights didn’t work, and there was debris everywhere. The local government hadn’t given the okay for people to return, but my particular plant is critical to the safety of the community because we produce nitrogen, which other industries need to prevent the release of dangerous chemicals. So we had to restore operations very quickly.
The phone lines were down. We didn’t have internet. Plus, the hurricane traveled up to Houston, where the company has a lot of resources and personnel, so no one could come down to help us. And on top of that, many of our employees were also dealing with damage to their own homes. We had to collaborate with other industries to get what we needed, like cooling water and electricity. Luckily, I had good relationships with people at other companies—it really made such cooperation possible.
Input: When you talk to young women on college campuses about going into manufacturing, what do they tell you about their interests or concerns?
Mahany: A lot of them are interested in sustainability. They’re interested in being part of a grand solution. I’ve noticed companies looking to be more sustainable as well; the mindset of the industry seems to be shifting toward environmental consciousness.
Input: How do you talk to college students about whether manufacturing is the right choice for them?
Mahany: I usually talk about sitting at a desk all day. In manufacturing, you almost never do that. Many people, especially women, like more collaborative environments, and manufacturing always offers you opportunities to interact with operators, technicians or other people in the facility. That makes your work much more interesting and engaging.
Input: When you’ve been mentored by women further on in their careers, what have you found most valuable from those relationships?
Mahany: My female mentors have helped me maintain confidence in myself and my career—it really motivates me to see women in high-level roles accomplishing great things. But I’ve found my male mentors valuable as well—some of my best advocates have been men, and I believe that men should make a point of mentoring women.
Input: And lastly, what more could we do to inspire young people to go into manufacturing?
Mahany: I think we should be more transparent. We should increase awareness of what those careers look like and what they mean. When you talk to a child, they always know what a doctor does or a teacher does because they interact with those people. But it’s not very often that they get to interact with engineers or visit a manufacturing plant. Manufacturing is just a big word to them—we need to make it real.