Engineer and Entrepreneur Karen Purcell Shares STEM Survival Strategies for Women

Karen Purcell, author "Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in STEM," spoke at ESU on February 19. Photo Credit / Ronald Hanaki
Karen Purcell, author "Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in STEM," spoke at ESU on February 19. Photo Credit / Ronald Hanaki
Karen Purcell, author “Unlocking Your Brilliance:
Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive
in STEM,” spoke at ESU on February 19.
Photo Credit / Ronald Hanaki

By Ronald Hanaki
Sports Editor

On February 19, ESU welcomed Karen D. Purcell, author of “Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in STEM.” Purcell is an engineer and entrepreneur who wanted to impart her experiences and strategies for survival in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields to women.

Purcell’s presentation was part of the Career Development Center’s ongoing Success Series Workshops. The event was co-sponsored by ESU’s Women’s Center.

Purcell did well in math and science in high school and went to Widener College, where she majored in electrical engineering. After college, Purcell did some R&D work in Washington, D.C., but she found she did not like doing research.

She then moved to the west coast to work for an electrical engineering firm. After six years, she started her own company called PK Electrical. Her company does lighting, power, and electrical design.

PK Electrical has serviced many projects for the University of Nevada, including a 300,000-square foot building. It also services the military and the health care industry.

Along with Nyx Hemera, PK Electrical designed the first LED-illuminated tunnel in the United States at highway speed: the Carlin Tunnel on Interstate 80 in Nevada.

Today, the company has grown from one to twenty-two people. Moreover, PK Electrical has generated over $3 million in revenue and has won numerous industry awards.

Recently, Reno Magazine named Purcell one of six power players in Reno, Nevada.

Purcell noted that the average salary for STEM workers was 30 percent to 40 percent higher than non-STEM workers. Further, commerce in the STEM fields is projected to grow 17 percent by the year 2018. This projection is nearly double that of other fields. However, women interested in entering the STEM fields are likely to face hurdles because men traditionally dominate these fields.

The first tip Purcell presented for women to succeed in STEM is to command with confidence. “Confidence,” said Purcell, “is the sexiest thing that a woman can wear.” It is especially important for a woman not to let her confidence slip.

Purcell’s first strategy is to define your support group, or tribe. In Purcell’s case, she is a member of the Reno Tahoe Entrepreneurs’ Organization. Purcell credits her fellow entrepreneurs for suggesting she write a book about her success.

Her second strategy is to participate in an extracurricular activity. Purcell runs marathons and says that there is something about crossing the finish line that gives her a sense of accomplishment. Extracurricular activities get you motivated and give you confidence.

Purcell’s third strategy involves having a supportive family. Purcell credits her husband and two daughters for keeping her grounded. Her family is always there to support her, and she is always there to support them. Purcell said, “Don’t forget that family are the ones who will help you and guide you.”

Purcell’s fourth strategy is to find a mentor. Purcell herself has had two mentors in her life. Her first mentor was her high school physics teacher, Mr. Brown. Purcell said that if it wasn’t for Mr. Brown’s influence, she wouldn’t be where she is today. Mr. Brown suggested that Purcell major in electrical engineering in college.

Tom Krob was Purcell’s second mentor. Although she said there were times that she disliked him, it was important for Purcell to have Krob in her life to guide her.

If you can’t find a person to be your mentor, Purcell said to find an organization, society, professor, or career development office to help and guide you. Mentors are important because, according to the National Science Foundation, one of the main reasons women leave the STEM fields is due to the lack of mentoring.

The second hurdle is for a woman to earn the respect of her male colleagues. Purcell said that gender bias is not just implicit; it is also explicit, but you cannot let the comments bother you. You can simply do your job, but women have to work harder to earn respect. According to Purcell, it starts with behaviors and how women act on the job.

Even when she is out in the field accompanied by a younger male colleague, Purcell said some people will automatically assume that the man is the engineer, and she is the assistant. It is not until Purcell begins to talk that people realize she is the engineer.

Purcell’s first strategy to overcome this hurdle is for women to be heard. Often, soft-spoken women are out-talked by louder, boisterous men, so Purcell had to learn to speak up in order to be heard.

Moreover, women tend to ask more questions than men. This might lead women to feel that they are being constantly scrutinized and evaluated, but Purcell admonished that women cannot be afraid to ask questions. Purcell recommended taking on new challenges outside of one’s own comfort zone in to overcome this hurdle.

Purcell’s second strategy is to be accurate. It’s important to know the correct information, but it’s okay to say, “I don’t know. I will have to get back to you.”

Being realistic is also very important for women in STEM fields. Sometimes, men don’t give out enough compliments. Purcell recounts a time when she went home in tears because she did not know how well she was doing in her job. However, you cannot let the lack of compliments damage your confidence.

Purcell concluded by saying that these hurdles are not easy to overcome, but they can be. She challenged the women in the audience to help develop the STEM field and perhaps serve as future mentors to help other women be successful.

At the end of the talk, a student asked Purcell how she should cope with sexist comments. She replied that you need to have a thick skin. She takes one hour a day while she runs to process those kinds of comments. Purcell said the best thing to do is to ignore those comments and move on.

Purcell was also asked about getting into graduate school. Because Purcell did not go to grad school, she deferred the question to Daria Wielebinski, director of ESU’s Career Development Center. Wielebinski said that completing an internship or having work experience is what will separate you from all the other candidates.

For her part, Purcell agreed with Wielebinski. She said that she would consider drafting experience to be an asset for any job applicant to PK Electrical.

Karen Purcell can be followed on Twitter @STEMspire or

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