CEC Guest Speaker—Karen Purcell

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Did you know 21% of girls are encouraged by their parents to become an actress, but only 10% are encouraged to think about a career in engineering?

This is a startling and unsettling statistic that Karen Purcell, Engineer, Entrepreneur and Author, began with today as she addressed a group of female students at the CEC Middle College of Denver.

Ms. Purcell is the author of Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), and her passion, as a practicing engineer and business owner, is to share with young women the possibilities for a rewarding career in the STEM professions and helping them overcome the possible intimidation and hurdles of this male-dominated field. Ms. Purcell inspired the young women through sharing the secrets she has learned throughout her journey as an electrical engineer. Now, after many years of hard work and dedication, she has a thriving business that has expanded to two states and has 19 employees.

Encouraged by her high school physics teacher to become an engineer, Purcell wasn’t sure at first what that involved and asked the teacher, “Well, what do engineers do?”

Her teacher replied, “They can do anything.”

Intrigued by the notion that she could enter such a diverse field, where the sky was the limit in terms of achievement, she was sold. She earned a college degree in engineering and began what has turned into an extremely successful career path.

But it hasn’t been without its challenges and often she has felt lonely along the way, as the majority of her counterparts are male. She gave this statistic: only 10% of those in the field of engineering are women. Not one to be deterred, she found her way over the hurdles by using the resources around her—many of which she shared with students today.

Her savvy advice included these suggestions:

  1. Find a mentor: Purcell encouraged students to have a mentor—someone who can be a role model, example and provide advice. Her mentor taught her not only about the field of engineering, but also how to run a business, which helped her launch her company and run it with a great deal of success.
  2. Take charge and educate yourself: Students need to take ownership of their education and look for opportunities to get involved within school and with extra-curricular activities and programs that speak to their interest areas and help build skills and relationships that will help them further their careers.
  3. Join organizations: There are a variety of organizations designed to help women navigate through male-dominated careers and find support. Purcell suggested to students to locate chapters of organizations such as, the Society of Women Engineers, Women in Science, etc.
  4. Maintain confidence: One of the most difficult things when beginning any career is being confident in what you are doing, Purcell encouraged students to create their “tribe,” a group of people within their job environment (and even personal lives) they can turn to for suggestions, support, advice and friendship.
  5. Don’t overlook the power of family: Purcell is married and has two daughters. She finds great satisfaction as a mom and spends time as a Girl Scout troop leader and a volunteer with Big Brothers, Big Sisters. Her family is her main support system and she talked to students about needing to nurture those relationships in addition to those on the job.
  6. Find extracurricular activities: Look for things that you are passionate about, make you feel good about yourself and give you a confidence boost, was another piece of advice she shared. Purcell is an avid runner and a half marathon competitor and explained the exhilaration she feels crossing the finish line. She encouraged the young women in her audience to find their own areas of interest for relaxation, growth and confidence building.
  7. Own your expertise: Her final piece of advice was to always take in opportunities to learn and grow, because the more you know, the more confidence you have to tackle larger projects and challenges and ultimately, as her book suggests, Unlock Your Brilliance.

Overall, Ms. Purcell was a positive, energetic, and informative role model for CEC Middle College students who hope to follow in her footsteps and pursue a career in the STEM fields.



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