The team at The Modern Battlespace is sharing the stories of inspiring women in STEM to help celebrate Women’s History Month this month by showcasing some of the many women behind innovation and progress in the defense community. For this installment, we spoke with Jennifer Fredin, Director of Engineering at Collins Aerospace. Fredin has been with Collins Aerospace for more than 20 years and thoroughly enjoys her role in supporting the creation of a safer, more innovative battlespace for the warfighter.
Here’s what Fredin had to share about her career path, professional growth, and what it’s like to be a female leader in the defense industry:
The Modern Battlespace (TMB) Editors: Did you always know you were going to have a technology-related career? What did your career path look like?
Jennifer Fredin: When I was in high school and unsure about what I wanted to do, I visited my uncle in Colorado, who was an engineer at Apple. While I was there, I had the amazing opportunity to see the Apple campus. This was in the 80s, so they were a much smaller company at the time. My uncle and his team were very enthusiastic and excited about what they were doing, and it seemed like they were really trying to make a difference. That experience helped me realize I wanted to do something that made a difference too.
Into my college years, I was torn between becoming a doctor and doing something on the engineering side to serve that goal of making an impact. I pursued both an electrical engineering and biomedical degree so I could keep my options open, but I realized later that becoming a doctor just wasn’t the path for me. But I could work on the technology that helps them do their job. In that respect, I was ready to apply my skills to the world of medicine.
But, obviously, I didn’t end up going into the medical field and instead, found myself at Collins. With several of my friends and family having served in the military, my husband included, I was introduced to a different side of the defense industry through them. In interviews with both medical companies and with Collins, I came to an interesting realization: defense companies aren’t just about lethality. In fact, a lot of what we do at Collins is about keeping civilians and warfighters as safe as possible. We want to provide the ability to communicate as much as possible and minimize unnecessary damage. Truthfully, I think I have saved more lives, made more of a difference, working at Collins than I would have if I went into the medical field.
TMB Editors: What were some of the obstacles in the way, and how did you overcome them?
Fredin: I often was the only female in my electrical engineering classes. And that can be a little intimidating, not because people were mean to me or anything, but I definitely stood out. When you’re the only woman in the class, everyone knows who you are, and you might be called on more in an effort to include you more, which adds pressure. But I decided to use that circumstance as an opportunity.
I became a teaching assistant and taught labs, which I found to be a helpful tool in managing my fear of being singled out and it helped me with my teaching skills in the future. Teaching is a big part of being an engineer because you have to be able to explain what you’re trying to accomplish. Being a TA was also an efficient way for me to earn some income while I was going to school, relieving some of the burdens for my mom, who was a single parent. Overall, that experience helped me stay driven and focused on what I wanted to do.
TMB Editors: When you look back to where you started to the present day, what shifts have you seen to encourage more representation?
Fredin: I’m on the industry advisory board for my alma mater, and I can see first-hand that there are more women pursuing those STEM degrees. I also think we – as a society – do a lot more awareness-building around STEM in early education. As a result, both kids and parents are starting to think about those career paths a lot earlier in life and it’s really beneficial.
I always made sure to attend my kids’ Engineering Week presentations as well, and I remember one year very clearly. By this point, I had attended five years in a row with my child, so most of the kids knew who I was. And when one of them asked what an engineer is, another explained saying, “It’s a lady who…” and then continued with the definition. But to default to saying an engineer is a woman speaks volumes to the importance of representation, especially at a young age.
TMB Editors: What are you most proud of when looking at your career accomplishments to date?
Fredin: I am very proud of being in the leadership position where I am today. I had to push through a lot to get here and I am proud to have helped pave the way for my other female colleagues. I’m also proud to be someone who takes the opportunity to speak to schools and help shape the modern image of representation for kids today.
As far as specific accomplishments go, I actually have proof that the work I was doing made a real difference to a warfighter. One time, I was working on a radio that needed repairs because it had taken on some fire in the field. A note came with it from the warfighter essentially saying that because this radio was reliable even in the line of fire, he was able to successfully call for help and make it out of there. And that really hit me – what my team and I are doing is important and it matters.
TMB Editors: How would you describe your leadership style and what leadership traits do you respond more positively to?
Fredin: I’d like to think they are both the same. I like being empowered and given the free reign to make decisions. I don’t respond well to micromanaging – most people don’t. I try to be on the same page with my team about the vision we are trying to accomplish and trust that they will do what they need to in order to get there. I also like to push people out of their comfort zone; that’s how people grow. Ultimately, I want my whole team to be focused on doing the good work, and the promotions and growth will follow naturally. For me, I’ll take meaningful work, a strong boss, and the right team over a big, fancy job any day.
TMB Editors: What advice do you have for the next generation that may be seeking a tech-related career?
Fredin: I think the next generation needs to not be so hard on themselves. You don’t need to be the valedictorian to accomplish great things. You just need a drive to help people and an interest in what you’re pursuing. If something looks interesting to you, you should try it. A lot of times, people won’t even try something if they won’t be experts at it on the first try. And that’s not how you find the right path for you.
Additionally, I think people really should consider the opportunities that come with the defense market. It’s not as finite as you might think and there is a lot of influential technology that comes out of defense that trickles into the civilian world. It’s a great technology incubator, and it really can make a big difference in ways you might not expect.