She recently spoke with Fenix Solutions Inc. CEO Jennifer MacKinnon, who writes a monthly column, Ottawa Women of Wonder, to profile and celebrate local women in business.
What do you do at Chipworks?
I am the president of Chipworks, but I am also the acting vice-president of one our groups called patent intelligence, so I am doing dual roles currently but am quite enjoying it. When I am having a conversation at Chipworks we often refer to my "hats," meaning I have to preface the conversation by saying "I am wearing my president of Chipworks hat" versus my "vice-president of Patent Intelligence" hat.
What does the president's "hat" mean?
It's my job to ensure the senior management team is working together and is clear on our priorities as an organization. I also work on one- and three-year strategic planning cycles and growth, whether that is evolutionary growth or revolutionary growth.
I like to see my role as also setting the tone for the culture here at Chipworks and to ensure we adhere to our values (noted Chipworks values that appear throughout the building). We use these values to hire people at Chipworks and to provide feedback and guidance to employees of Chipworks. Particularly if individuals are not adhering to the values, I refer to the values and say "teamwork, it's right up there." We don't just say we have these values; we make a point to live by them. We are setting a behaviour pattern for the organization that conveys how we want people to interact from a teamwork standpoint, a respect standpoint and a passion for the customer.
Did you help develop these values?
Yes. It was one of the hardest things I've done. In 2001 we were having a tough time given what happened in the industry. We decided we would evolve or we would lose the business. We made a very important decision at that point to invest a significant amount of money into building strategic planning into our regular and everyday processes. And this is where these values came from. We are now making these values part of who we are versus just saying it. Which is why we put it on the walls.
How did you become president?
I actually grew through the organization. I started with Terry Ludlow (CEO and Founder) in 1994 when he launched Chipworks. We had met when I was an electrical engineer at Mosaid in the 80s and he recruited me while I was at home with my two young children (two and three years old). I hadn't intended to go back to work so quickly so we arranged a part-time schedule for the first year to allow me to work, but also be at home with my kids. The opportunity to slowly get back into the workforce was perfect and it worked out well. After the first year I was paid for four days a week but was working five [laughs]. Chipworks grew quite rapidly and I came on full time.
What other roles did you play before becoming president?
I have played a number of roles at Chipworks: manager of engineering, manger of R&D, information systems, IT (at one point I was all three of these at the same time) as well as technical intelligence. I then became vice-president of sales and marketing, which gave me exposure to a totally different realm of business and balanced out my background enough that it was a logical leap to president in 2003. Chipworks has been a good company in terms of growing within this organization. I have had good work-life balance here. I can be a mom and still take on extra responsibilities. There's give and take here; sometimes the company comes first and sometimes the kids come first. That means sometimes I have to leave early because of the kids, and that's OK. As long as you're putting in the time, which is sometimes after-hours, it doesn't matter where or how you're doing it; which has generally been the philosophy here.
You've seen every role at Chipworks. Does this make being president easier?
Yes, I have done everything with the exception of human resources and finance. So I know the company well.
Sounds like maybe you were groomed for president but that the timing had to be right?
Yes, I deferred accepting the position until I was ready. At stages I made the decision that my kids were more important than being president. And I was probably pulled into being president earlier than I wanted. Although it worked out very well.
What do you bring to the organization?
We talk a lot here. We are open to debate and brainstorming; I believe it leads to better ideas. And then ultimately there is a decision that has to be made, whether it's mine or someone else's. And that's a deviation from the traditional dictator leadership style versus building a following for something and moving forward. When I ask employees what they like about working here the common theme is "open communication." We have some fun things we do here. For 15 minutes each Thursday we have a meeting, not mandatory, but we usually recognize people for their years of service and say thank you. We also feature recent successes and this allows various groups and departments to thank and recognize each other's contributions. It works really well.
Electrical engineer and president of a semiconductor company - not many women are doing that.
I never thought of myself as a business woman, but rather I think of myself as a business person. I always have. I have never said "I'm a woman in this room of men." In school I was one of five or six women in a class of 100 engineers. I was then constantly in male-dominated companies and I never thought I was different. I just was "me." Its never been an issue, I don't think about it. What I have learned along the way is that leadership styles have evolved over 25 years to a style I consider to be easier for women to adapt to: less dictorial, more consensus driven, a lot of listening and it's not about charisma but being humbled and open to feedback. And that's how we are as a company; we are that kind of company.
What does an electrical engineer do?
I have always been on the design side of semiconductor chips. Meaning, I understand the circuits inside the chips that power products. At LSI Logic I helped people design their own chips (ASICS) and I would train companies that knew how to design boards to design chips.
One of the things I think about on a regular basis is this: if I spend the next 10 years at Chipworks doing what I am doing I would be very happy. This is a great organization. I have had the wonderful opportunity to watch people grow within the company and I get a big kick out of that.
What motivated you to become an engineer?
My mom was always a bit of a feminist and she basically said "go into science" because that was guaranteed. My dad was also an electrical engineer. But going to university was never a question; it was assumed I would be going. I originally started in general sciences thinking I would go into optometry but I didn't like it. I spent a year in Quebec on a scholarship learning French and my boyfriend at the time was studying engineering. I tried reading his textbooks and he basically called me "stupid." I had never heard that before and it became a challenge. My mother in particular was passionate about telling us we could do whatever we wanted. It spurred me on. I was accepted in second year engineering at Waterloo and went from there. However, it was a co-op program and they wouldn't accept me from a work placement standpoint given I was late to the program. So I hounded the co-op advisor until he finally agreed to let me participate. It was tough because I came in late but I had a direction and I persevered.
I had to humanize engineering in order to find it interesting and so I did bio-medical engineering and found semiconductors on that way. To keep women in engineering co-op placements is critical. Otherwise I was lost in a geeky, nerdy world that didn't fit. Once I was exposed to the business world and the "people parts" it ensured I was going in the right direction.
Did your mom work?
She was mainly a stay-at-home mom, but she did go back to university coincidentally at the same time me and my older brother were in university. She took sociology. She wanted to do social work and has always been a people person.
Do you know other president and CEO-level women?
Lynda Partner is a great friend and I've known her for many years. She is also on our advisory board at Chipworks. Debbie Weinstein I know from MindTrust (a group of CEOs founded by Debbie) where we gather monthly.
Do you sit on any boards?
I sat on the Information Technology Association of Canada previously.
Tell me about your kids.
I have two: a daughter, 19, and a son who is 20. My daughter is in music at Mount Ellison University studying opera. She has a gorgeous voice like chocolate - deep, dark and smooth.
Did your kids work at Chipworks?
Yes, they both did. I started a program at Chipworks that gives every employee the right to have their children work one summer, one time, at Chipworks. Its worked out to be a fabulous program. We get a kick out of the youth and the energy they bring while they're here. And the kids get to put work experience on their resume. It was fun having my kids here and seeing them in the workplace. Sarah just finished her time here this summer. My director of HR feels I don't sit down for lunch often enough, so Sarah would show up at 12:05 and say "lunch time mom!"
What do your kids think about you being a president?
I think they think it's probably pretty cool. It's fun when they get a chance to hear me speak because they see me in a different light. I think I'm a role model.
What are you like as a mom?
My kids are so important to me. They are fabulous kids and extremely well brought up. I'm proud to be a mother to them. From a mother standpoint I think I am a good nurturer, but I may be a little overprotective, which would be the worst thing I could say about myself.
Do you have any hobbies?
I bike and play tennis in the summer and like to skate on the canal in winter. I was on the Chipworks baseball team last season. They needed a "girl" and I had never played as a kid. But I volunteered to be on the team and each season I have gotten better. The team has been very supportive. My kids were supportive as well. They wanted to get me ready for the baseball season so we would go to the park, throw the ball, hit the ball and basically train. It was one of the hardest things I have done because I had never played before. I actually got the ball out of the diamond this year; that was my big accomplishment.
Do you mentor young women on getting into engineering and sciences?
Not as much as I'd like. When I spoke to a group of Brownies years ago it was amazing to see the impact you have on the kids when you explain what being an engineer means.
1) I love ballroom dancing
2) I love wine (Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon) and would like to retire near a winery
3) I live in the Glebe