Since 2004, the Georgia Tech College of Engineering (COE) has been the largest producer of female engineers in the U.S. Thirty-five percent of COE’s undergraduate engineering students are women, as opposed to just 17% nationally.
As such, it’s only fitting that the Institute’s Society of Women Engineers (SWE) is also one of the largest collegiate sections of the organization in the country, serving more than 800 undergraduate and 200 graduate students.
Mahati Vavilala, who graduated this past May, was SWE’s president during her final year at Tech as a student enrolled in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE). She will be continuing her involvement with SWE on the executive board for SWE Atlanta.
Two ISyE students serve as Tech's current leaders: Fourth-year Toral Kadakia is the undergraduate president, and Ph.D. student Isabella Sanders is the graduate group leader, a position she has held for the past two years. Sanders is also the graduate programs chair-elect at the SWE society – or national – level, which means that she will assist the current graduate program chair and be responsible for developing diverse section tracks for SWE’s annual conference. She will assume the position of graduate program chair in 2020.
In the following interview, Vavilala, Kadakia, and Sanders share their thoughts on leadership and how participating in SWE has shaped both their Georgia Tech experiences and their perceptions of themselves as female engineers.
What is your philosophy of leadership?
TK: I always want to be a team player. I expect honesty and hope that in turn, I gain the respect and trust of my team members. Part of that means being there for my team in any capacity I can be – whether it’s answering their questions, problem solving, or encouraging them to think outside the box and go beyond their comfort zone.
IS: My goal is to motivate and empower others to succeed. The best way to do this is to lead by example, as a leader’s effort and attitude are contagious, and a group’s morale is often determined by its leader.
Why is leadership important to you?
TK: A leader is someone who can bring about changes and make an impact on people. As president of SWE, I feel it’s important to specifically address issues that women face by being in STEM fields. And I hope that through my various leadership roles on campus, I have contributed to getting rid of that stigma.
In addition, I want to impact younger students and give them the same great opportunities and supportive environment that I have experienced with SWE.
MV: A lot of students come to Tech having served as president or vice president of their high school organizations, and that wasn’t really my experience. I came to realize that I was interested in those roles but had to forge my own path and figure out how to get involved in my own way.
I learned to be aware of other people and to help them adjust to being at Tech and to help make them feel at ease within various organizations. That’s a really powerful leadership trait – to be able to acknowledge the different perspectives and views present in a room, and that’s why being a leader is so important to me.
Why is it important to have an organization dedicated specifically to supporting female engineers?
IS: SWE is important because it provides support where it otherwise may not be found and encourages students to succeed. Particularly for graduate students, where the number of women enrolled is even lower than it is in undergraduate programs, SWE brings students into a larger community that they can lean on.
MV: It’s particularly important at Tech to have a SWE presence because engineering is so dominant. The Institute is close to achieving a 50/50 balance when it comes to female/male representation, but it’s not quite there yet. SWE connects a community of women working toward the common cause of female representation.
How has your SWE experience shaped your time at Georgia Tech?
IS: SWE has given me a group of women who are not only great teammates but also are great friends. We’ve been able to travel the country attending SWE conferences in different states. And at the society level, SWE has given me the opportunity to present my research, earn a scholarship, and meet women from all over the world.
MV: As I became more and more involved in SWE – the more I gave to the organization – the more SWE gave back to me. I grew professionally and personally. As president, I had the opportunity to engage with members and go outside my comfort zone to talk to people I wouldn’t normally talk to, as I tend to be a bit of an introvert. SWE has been a constant source of motivation throughout my time at Tech, and my experience with Georgia Tech’s SWE has inspired me to become involved with Atlanta’s SWE section.
Has SWE impacted how you think of yourself as a female engineer?
TK: SWE has definitely made me feel like I belong here at Tech. I see the incredibly strong and successful women who are in SWE, and it inspires me every day to work harder and continue to break boundaries. And Mahati and Isabella, who are incredible people who have done so well in their careers – I know I’m following in their footsteps and will hopefully be just as impactful as them.
IS: SWE has helped me realize that I have a community of women to lean on. I’m not alone – I’m part of a strong group of women. While we may not all be in the same fields of study, our experiences are strikingly similar, and we can support each other.
In addition, SWE has also taught me the importance of leadership. When you’re one of the few women in leadership, it’s important to leave a good example, because your impact can empower others and inspire the next generation.
What are you most proud of accomplishing with SWE?
MV: As president, I worked on being approachable and accessible – and correspondingly, worked on fostering connections between the exec board and our members. The organization has become more tight-knit and supportive as a community. What keeps the members coming back is their ability to stay connected with each other, and I’m excited to see this growth continue for years to come.
TK: I am very proud of my contributions to our fundraising and outreach efforts. We continue to encourage young women from local Atlanta schools to consider a STEM professional with our outreach events. I’m also proud to have co-hosted an award-winning charity Engineer’s Ball that continues to raise thousands of dollars for local charities and organizations.
SWE membership is open to all students at Georgia Tech. Each fall, female first-year and transfer students in the College of Engineering are invited to attend Tea with Dean, where they receive a free one-year SWE membership and an opportunity to meet other women engineers and faculty members. This fall’s Tea will be September 3rd, 2019; look for a formal invitation to arrive via email.
For additional information about the many corporate, conference, and networking opportunities; technical trainings; and professional development and social events offered by SWE, visit the organization’s website here: http://www.swe.gtorg.gatech.edu. You can also email Toral at firstname.lastname@example.org.
H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering