By Ashley Orzel (ashleyorzel.com)
Photo Credit: Shannon Halliday
Working on a technology that could literally reverse climate change inspires Anna Stukas to come into work every single day. As Vice President of Business Development at Carbon Engineering, she played a key role in the commercialization of a technology that captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which will be used to produce ultra-low carbon fuels. Anna’s work has been recognized by the Minerva Foundation’s Women In™ Energy Award for Philanthropy and 2020 Business in Vancouver’s Forty Under 40 Award.
While studying Mechanical Engineering at the University of Victoria, Anna was one of a handful of women in her class. Initially, she was hesitant to join ‘women in anything’ organizations and to get involved in anything that would make her different or separate her from male peers. But as she progressed in her career, she ran into barriers that, up to that point in her life, she had no idea even existed.
The “bucket of cold water“
Growing up in a “family full of nerds,” Anna was used to asking her mother when she needed something re-wired or for help with her thermodynamics homework. Anna’s mother was the first woman to graduate from the engineering program at Memorial University in Newfoundland. To boot, Anna’s mother’s college roommate went on to become a female astronaut. To Anna, these career options seemed completely in the realm of possibility.
“When I compared my frame of reference to what [my mother] had gone through, I was sitting there going, ‘Well, we’ve arrived, we’re welcome. What else needs to be done?’ In that sense, it also made me somewhat ill-equipped to deal with the adversity that came with navigating a culture where challenging the status quo wasn’t met with the same welcome I had experienced in the past,” she says.
“As someone who – my entire life and my entire career – had been told, ‘You can do anything you put your mind to, as long as you work hard enough,’ it was like this bucket of cold water being thrown over top of me.”
She realized that she could learn something and benefit from being involved in an organization with people who had shared similar experiences.
Leadership shaped by volunteerism
At a time when Anna was looking for guidance on how to grow as a leader, the opportunity to join the SCWIST Board (as VP Grants in 2009), and subsequently become SCWIST President presented itself. While President from 2010-2012, SCWIST organized the milestone 30th anniversary activities, including a sold-out gala at the Four Seasons in downtown Vancouver. The evening brought three decades of SCWIST history into one room and recognized the work of SCWIST’s founders – who Anna calls “a force to be reckoned with.”
“You don’t get to be a trailblazer in male-dominated fields without also having a fierce personality and a whole lot of conviction,” she says in reference to SCWIST’s founders.
Anna was not only surrounded by strong women in STEM with amazing backgrounds and stories, but she was also leading a community of people all across the spectrum with different perspectives. She learned how to become the type of leader she wanted to be – one that was empathic and able to inspire individual motivations while bringing people together. These experiences were unique to her time volunteering as SCWIST President and were something that she believes she wouldn’t have developed just from going to work on a day-to-day basis.
“When you’re leading a volunteer organization, people are there because they want to be. They’re there because they’re choosing to put their time in. Their motivations can vary widely,” she says.
“The way that you lead [members] for a volunteer organization requires a lot of flexibility and diplomacy and grace; those are all things that I’ve had to work to develop over time.”
Equity initiatives require diverse perspectives – including men’s voices
Anna has no problem walking into a room and sharing her opinion, but she knows not everyone is like that. Being cognizant in creating a space that draws people out who are different than her was a valuable lesson she has carried through her career. Whether it’s in a volunteer organization or developing a game-changing technology for climate action, Anna says diverse perspectives combined with inclusion, where those voices feel comfortable speaking out, are imperative for big breakthroughs.
“Nothing great was invented by a whole bunch of like-minded people sitting around a table agreeing with each other.”Anna Stukas, VP of Business Development, Carbon Engineering
A fundamental component of innovation and progress, according to Anna, is diversity. However, diversity is only effective and can only lead to equity if it comes with inclusion.
For Anna, bringing all parties to the table is crucial in equity initiatives – which means inviting men to the table as well.
“If men make up over 80% of the engineering profession, you’re never going to move the dial on diversity if you’re only involving less than 20% of the profession the table,” she says.
An article from Harvard Business Review describes the value of engaging male allies in gender inclusion programs where 96% of these organizations see progress — compared to only 30% of organizations where men are not engaged.
Anna points out that SCWIST understands this need, as the organization stands for promoting, encouraging and inspiring women, yet it isn’t an organization that is meant to solely comprise women. She believes that inclusive diversity has been imperative to SCWIST’s success and longevity.
One SCWIST initiative that brings women and men together is Make Possible. The free online platform and support network connects mentors and mentees to develop a range of skills to broaden their knowledge as a STEM professional.
From technology to diversity in the workplace, society is evolving. While we’ve come a long way, there are further challenges and breakthroughs on the horizon. “Nobody has a crystal ball,” says Anna, “but it’s important to say yes to opportunities, get involved and invite a myriad of different voices to the table.”
Ashley Orzel is a freelance content specialist with a focus on writing, editing, website strategy and multimedia production. Have questions for Ashley? Visit her website or contact her via Twitter @ashleyjaye.