University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Alumni Stories

Fierce and Fabulous Mentor

As an electrical engineer in the defense industry, Laura Odell coaches others to strive for greatness.

Photo Courtesy: Laura Odell

As one of the few female electrical engineers working on defense projects, Laura Odell (C.S.E. ’86) has let her talents and gusto propel her career. But she’s also never forgotten the people who advocated for her along the way. She has vowed to do the same for others to help them change both their outlook and their professional fortunes.

Odell, who is an assistant director at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a Virginia nonprofit that operates three federally funded research and development centers, leads teams in the Systems and Analyses Center, where she deploys her expertise in artificial intelligence–enabled decision-making, natural language processing, and machine learning.

Odell, the oldest of four and the child of immigrants (her father is from Costa Rica and her mother from Ireland), moved from Washington, D.C. to the University of Minnesota to study electrical engineering. She initially planned to head down the medical school path but got engrossed in design engineering. That interest helped her chart a career course into aviation, then work as a consultant and global partner in the defense division of KPMG, and to work as a leader in cybersecurity at IDA today. Along the way, she earned two master’s degrees in management from the Florida Institute of Technology.

“With engineering, I knew there would never be a time that I’m not learning something new and applying this in a different way,” says Odell, who feeds off the problem-solving aspects of her job.

Such attributes have been part of her work since her first job as a design engineer at Honeywell in Hopkins. But when an opportunity arose to work on landing systems for aircraft carriers, Odell left Minnesota with mixed emotions.

Under a law passed in 1948, women had been prevented from working on aircraft carriers or other vessels that might be called into combat. When President Clinton repealed that law in 1993, Odell became part of a tiny minority of women in her professional life as a flight test engineer for the U.S. Navy in Maryland and in the Pacific Rim. She says the move led to days that were a mix of thrilling and terrifying. “Whether it was landing on an aircraft carrier that looked like the size of a postage stamp to assess automatic carrier landing systems for the U.S. Navy or coding algorithms on the fly from the air for the U.S. Coast Guard, it was amazing to me that humans could do this,” she says.

After that work, Odell initially came to IDA for a short-term project and loved the work so much she has stayed for the past decade. Her latest focus involves uncovering the pertinent information in big data sets, then applying that to answer questions and make evidence-based decisions. The work pulls together many skills and experiences she gleaned during her varied career.

And though it takes significant time and energy outside her job to also guide and mentor people in their careers, Odell has honored her promise to pay it forward by making coaching others a big part of her life’s work. For her efforts, she recently received the WE20 Spark Award from the Society of Women Engineers. The society bestows this award on people who contribute to the advancement of women through mentoring.

“I will [mentor others] until the day I die,” Odell says. “I’m just so grateful for the people who mentored and coached me. People need an advocate—someone who speaks for you when you’re not in the room—a coach who tells you things that are not necessarily found in a textbook on leadership, and a mentor that gives advice about career progression.”

Today Odell says some of her most important experiences have grown out of mentoring. She uses strategies she learned from her previous coaches and applies her own twist to them as she encourages her mentees—both male and female—to be “fierce and fabulous.” (When mentoring, she even hands out cards with flamingoes on them, coupled with her saying.) To Odell, being fierce and fabulous means projecting confidence and showing others upstream and downstream that a person can successfully take on more responsibility and reach their goals.

Odell also challenges the people she coaches to lead projects and present at meetings—first internally, and then externally—to build the muscles required to continually put themselves in the forefront. She prompts them to mentor others, chiefly because she often learns as much from the people she counsels as they learn from her.

“Being a mentor takes continuity,” she says. “It’s a long-term job. You’ve got to follow up, follow through, and finish for them. I think bringing other people along is the most important thing you can do.”

Suzy Frisch is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.

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