The extra time at home during the pandemic means Tochi Iheagwara has been able to do a lot of home improvements. She designed a patio, built benches for her deck and is looking to see how else she can keep busy.
Home improvement projects may be new to some people during quarantine but building and creating is nothing new for Tochi.
“I used to watch the DIY show Hometime as a kid. I remember watching that show and thinking, ‘I’m gonna design something like what they’re doing’”. She fondly remarked about one particular episode where “They were building a playground and [she] had a huge side yard so [she] started drawing up plans of what [she] was going to create” in that space.
That lightbulb moment of realizing she liked building and creating, led Tochi to tech-focused summer camps and any other STEM programming her mom could find for her.
“I did a program before the 6th grade that taught kids about electronics. I loved it so much, I begged my mom to take me to Radio Shack and buy me a soldering iron,” she said.
Tochi found that while other kids might have stretched their creativity by drawing or telling stories, she found her creativity in engineering-based activities. The logical boundaries of tech allowed her to be creative in her own way.
She followed her passion for engineering to Eleanor Roosevelt High School’s Science & Technology program where she was able to take more STEM classes as part of the school’s engineering curriculum.
“The thing I gravitated to the most was the robotics competition. It was fascinating that we could design and build our own robots to meet the competition’s requirements. Then we added code to give it functions to behave however we wanted.”
She continued her quest for tech by attending Drexel University for Electrical and Computer Engineering. While studying at Drexel, Tochi confirmed the electrical and computer engineering classes did have more men than women but she was able to find a circle of female engineers in her program as well as the chemical, mechanical, and biomedical engineering tracks.
“The advice I’d give to my younger self or another female engineer is don’t be afraid of taking people’s time, if you use it wisely,” she said. “Don’t be afraid of going up to someone and asking for help. It’s okay if you take up time and space. That’s the thing I always shied away from early in my career. I didn’t want to be a bother. Our male engineer counterparts rarely think like that.”
After graduation, Tochi began a career in Systems Engineering working for Lockheed Martin, Sotera Defense Solutions, and The Boeing Company.
“We were customizing commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) products to integrate with multiple systems. From that experience I started managing supplier relationships while managing technical teams. That was my entry into subcontract program management and it led me to eventually taking on official project and program management roles.”
Program management flexed different brain muscles than her previous, more hands-on engineering roles but the opportunity to develop strategy and lead gave Tochi new outlets for creative engineering thinking.
“Now, the teams allow me to be a little nosy, in the respect that I can hop into the teams and act in the role of a systems engineer,” she said. “I help influence the customer in the ways of technology capabilities and finding the right resources and solutions. Sometimes it’s not just physical resources and staffing, it’s also having knowledge of other groups doing similar work or tech that we can incorporate into our project or program. It’s still hands-on enough for me to keep engineering juices going.”
Fearless is working to highlight technologists of color in our community to inspire the next generation. We know how hard it can be to see yourself in an industry if you don’t see anyone who is like you.
We want to shine a light on the incredible people who can and should be role models for our future, more diverse tech workforce. Is there someone you think we should feature? Get in touch!