Fierce and Fabulous Mentor
As an electrical engineer in the defense industry, Laura Odell coaches others to strive for greatness.
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
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
to the University
of Minnesota to
to head down
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When President Clinton repealed that law in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.