Buckeye Engineering alumnae inspire next generation of innovators
Innovation is the lifeblood of success across academia and industry, but how do successful innovators move from ideas to impact?
This topic was the theme of last month’s “Meet Inspiring Women Innovators,” a special panel discussion featuring three trailblazing alumnae from The Ohio State University College of Engineering: Nancy Dawes ’81; Janet Braun ’82, ’85; and Lee Ann Schwope Cochran ’03.
The March 31 event, which drew a crowd of fellow alumni, donors, faculty, staff and students, was moderated by Dean Ayanna Howard and hosted by Buckeye Engineering Women in Executive Leadership (BEWEL). BEWEL was established in 2019 to advocate for women students and faculty in the College of Engineering by encouraging growth as leaders who shape our world.
The panelists—whose careers span large companies, startups, government, commercial and consumer applications—began the conversation by defining what innovation means to them.
“Making connections between seemingly disparate things and combining them into a new whole that makes money for the company,” said Dawes. She offered an example from her 38 years of experience working at Procter & Gamble, where she was instrumental in the successful reinvention of the Pringles brand. After being faced with some challenging new labeling regulations, the company combined product improvements with consumer research, renamed its product “potato crisps” instead of “chips,” and launched a new marketing campaign.
“All of that fundamentally allowed us to triple the business,” she said. “And as many of you know, Pringles is sold in about 30 or 40 countries around the world. That's innovation.”
A common theme emerged during the discussion—innovation comes from invention coupled with commercialization to solve real problems. But are innovators born or made? The alumnae agreed it’s likely a combination of the two.
“You have some genetic predispositions, but a lot of it comes from your experiences,” said Braun, describing herself as an independent child who would often question why things were the way they were. It was a skill that served her well during her 25-year career as a corporate lawyer, where she would challenge companies to move away from their “we’ve always done it that way” mentality. Braun said her personal experiences also helped develop her into the innovator she is today, whether it was coaching youth soccer or supporting her family member with a disability.
“I grew up with a sister who had one arm and so throughout our lives we were always innovating to try to make sure Carol found a way to do things,” said Braun. One of those innovations was figuring out a way for her sister to use a manual typewriter. “We tied a string from the shift key down through the bottom of the typewriter and a loop for her foot so that she could shift with her foot.”
That ability to observe and experiment ultimately helped her succeed in the commercial world, she noted.
The panelists agreed that another critical attribute that enables successful innovation is diverse ideas and experiences.
“I think it shapes everything,” said Schwope Cochran. Currently a partner at Amphora Consulting, she travels globally to deliver the Amphora Grassroots Strategy program and support employers who value diversity, equity and inclusion while creating a positive work environment.
“If you don't have diversity of thought at the table, then we're never going to get the best solutions that we're looking for,” she said. She shared an example from early on in her career, shortly after she graduated from Ohio State, in which she was working on body armor for the military. She realized that despite the growing number of women soldiers, body armor was still designed for men.
“We said, how do we redesign this body armor so that women can be safe and feel secure and have the same protection that men do? Because if body armor is heavy or doesn't fit you correctly, you can't escape in the same way,” said Schwope Cochran.
“Having that experience helped me learn that I needed to think about who is using that end product, redesign it and get that feedback from those consumers in real time so that we could really optimize that.”
Toward the end of the discussion, the panelists took several questions from the audience, offering some final words of wisdom for the group. They emphasized the importance of taking risks, finding the right team to support your endeavors, making lasting connections and writing your own definition of success.
“Sometimes we put all these parameters around ourselves, like here's the boxes we're supposed to check,” said Schwope Cochran. “We need to get a bachelor's degree, then decide if we're going to go work or get a master's degree. And then family pressures. But we don't have to do it the way everyone did it before. You just have to do it your way and love every bit of it. And that's where the magic happens in my mind.”
About the Panelists
Nancy Dawes earned her bachelor’s in chemical engineering from Ohio State. A rare cross-disciplinary serial innovator and business builder, she has been recognized by Procter & Gamble as one of their most elite technologists. During her 38-year career at P&G, she developed multiple industry-defining products that materially transformed the company’s business results across Duncan Hines, Pringles, Olay, and Head and Shoulders. She holds six granted patents, is a published author and is passionate about consulting with local early-stage entrepreneurs. Dawes earned the College of Engineering’s Benjamin G. Lamme Meritorious Achievement Medal in 2021, and is a Texnikoi Outstanding Alumna (1998) and Distinguished Alumna (2012).
Janet Braun earned a bachelor’s in industrial and systems engineering, and a JD with honors, both from Ohio State. She is a startup advisor in legal and operational roles. Most recently she served as general counsel and chief operating officer of HBT Labs, Inc., which focuses on complex injectable pharmaceuticals and was acquired by American Regent, Inc. in 2022. Braun has more than 25 years of experience as a corporate lawyer and is currently a councilmember for the City of South Pasadena in California. She has also served on the board of directors of many nonprofit organizations. She received the Distinguished Alumni Award for Entrepreneurship and Innovation from the College of Engineering in 2021.
Lee Ann Schwope Cochran earned her bachelor’s in materials science and engineering from Ohio State. Currently a partner with Amphora Consulting, she has spent nearly 20 years in corporate workplaces across the aerospace, defense, startup and non-profit industries. She offers expertise in areas including research, business development, sales and strategic marketing capabilities. Schwope Cochran advocates for women and girls’ access to education and works to advance the cultures of diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM. In 2020, she was presented with the College of Engineering’s Texnikoi Outstanding Alumni Award.
To learn more about BEWEL, visit engineering.osu.edu/bewel.
by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications | email@example.com