December 4, 2005Her job: Chief Executive Officer and Principal, Pegasus Global Holdings, Inc.
Describe what you do in your current work situation?
I am the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Pegasus Global Holdings, Inc., an international management consulting firm. My consulting engagements typically involve megaprojects which are defined as over $1 billion, and are primarily concerned with projects in the Energy and Infrastructure industries. I also serve as an arbitrator on construction matters, resolving disputes that arise between the various parties that design and construction a project. Our main office is in Cle Elum, Washington, with representative offices in Australia, Brazil and Japan. I am a licensed professional engineer (P.E.) in 14 U.S States, Manitoba, Canada and Australia. I am also a certified Project Management Professional (P.M.P.). In addition to my responsibilities as CEO of Pegasus-Global, I am the Vice Chair of the National Science Board, appointed by the President in 2006 and Senate confirmed for a 6-year term.
Why did you choose engineering?
Art was the love of my life and I won several awards for my pencil sketches. I was sure I was going to be either an interpreter for the United Nations or a lawyer! Then I attended a mandatory lecture at my high school on engineering. The professor, from the University of Kentucky, was a structural civil engineer and had brought along several renderings of buildings. These renderings caught my eye because one of the items that I sketched the most was buildings. The professor added that, as a woman, I would have wonderful opportunities in the engineering field and would command a nice salary. I was sold!
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have?
I have a Civil Engineering degree from Purdue University, an MBA in Finance from New York Institute of Technology's Executive MBA program, and a PhD from Kochi University of Technology in Japan in infrastructure systems engineering (civil).
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work?
My responsibilities include activities as CEO and assisting clients in executing their projects more efficiently and effectively through best practices of project management, project controls and organization management. I also serve as a "Risk Manager" and assist my clients in recognizing and understanding the risks they might face on a civil engineering project that could result in additional time and money if not carefully monitored. I have also worked on many engineering and construction related lawsuits, appearing in court to testify and also as an arbitrator, helping to resolve similar types of disputes. In addition, I am often retained as a speaker by both companies and professional organizations on issues of leadership, management, women in engineering, the image of the engineer, and ethics and professionalism.
What do you like best about being an engineer?
I love the fact that I can be creative and make dreams come true. It is a real rush knowing that what I do helps people and our planet.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of?
Becoming the first women President of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 152 years was truly the most awesome achievement of which I am very proud. Having achieved this accomplishment allowed me to pave the way and shatter that glass ceiling, serving as a role model to both young girls and women to be whatever they want to be and knowing they can achieve anything they desire to do. I am also honored that I was appointed to the National Science Board, one of 24 people appointed by the President to be involved some of the nation’s most amazing science and engineering research projects which will continue to make our world a better place to be.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career?
Keeping fit (it’s tough to work all day and continue to assure you eat well and work out) and wanting to maintain my “feminine” look, while at the same time being able to rise above the perception that I am “too young” to know what I am doing and the perception that if you look young (despite being over 50!) you should not be taken seriously as you “don’t have the experience”. It is a difficult balance. The challenge is to have enough confidence in yourself and refrain from trying to be more like your male counterparts.
Please tell us a little about your family.
I have a wonderful husband to whom I have been married over 22 years, Kris Nielsen, with whom I work directly in my company. I have four stepdaughters and a wonderful Border Collie dog named Rings, who travels with me whenever he can!
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals?
My long-term professional goals are to 1) serve as a role model that young women can look up to and 2) write books. I have already written my first book, The 21st Century Engineer, which is about the skill sets an engineer needs to survive in the 21st Century. I would like to write another book that will describe what I believe it takes to succeed as a woman in the engineering and construction industries. The other book will be about Emily Roebling and her role in building the Brooklyn Bridge. This later book will be based on my one-woman act play that I produced and have acted entitled "So Mrs. Roebling-What's Your Side of the Story?"
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices?
The first person who had the most influence on my life decisions was my mother. I always remember what she said to me when I came home and said I want to be an engineer: "Well, if that is what you want to do, go for it. You can do anything you want to if you really want it and put your mind to it." I follow her advice to this day. The second person to have most influenced my life is my husband who has supported everything I have done and enthusiastically encourages me to pursue my goals.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering?
Remember the 4 C’s: Communication, Confidence, Commitment and Credentials. To be successful, it is extremely important to be able to communicate effectively to everyone, not just your technical peers. Communication includes writing, talking and listening. Having the confidence in yourself is equally as important as it provides assurance to your peers, your employer and your client that you can and will deliver what you say you can and will do. Both communication and confidence are base premises to commitment. Once you tell someone you will do something, you must follow through. Once you fail to do so, doubt will always exist in the other person’s mind and your potential opportunities may be passed on to someone else. Finally, you are never too old to stop learning. It is a lifelong process. As such, advanced degrees, researching and writing papers and studying to obtain licenses and certifications such as a Professional Engineer’s license and a Project Management Certification will be a key to getting your foot into the door. The rest will be up to handle yourself and what you know about your subject. Homework never goes away and understanding the subject more that your client will always work in your favor!
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book.
I love the outdoors-hiking and horse riding. In the winter I love snowmobiling and living at 3000 feet in the mountains, I have a lot of opportunity to do so! I also enjoy reading. It keeps the mind young. My favorite book is A. Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged.