Long before STEM was chic, there was Smita Shah
January 14th, 2018
There’s a reason Smita Shah works so hard to bridge the gender gap in science and technology fields. She remembers how difficult it was to build her engineering company in the male-dominated industry.
“They thought I was the marketing person. They couldn’t fathom that I was the CEO,” the founder of SPAAN Tech. Inc. said of those early days meeting with potential business clients.
Shah doesn’t have a #metoo story, per se, but she remembers vividly feeling patronized and being ignored by businessmen who sat across from her in boardroom deals.
She’d often bring along accomplished employees to those meetings–given the industry, most were men. Business execs on the other side of table would direct their questions to her colleagues instead of her.
“For better or worse, I looked at it as a part of life. And like a lot of women, I had to do what I needed to do in order to get my job done,” she says. “It was often more frustrating to the people who accompanied me to see that, than to me.”
Bringing along those male employees also helped Shah avoid uncomfortable situations.
“My dad early on pointed to professional women and how they would handle themselves to protect themselves, even before I really understood the issue” (of sexual harassment), she says. “So from the beginning, I was careful to take certain steps, including managing compromising situations.”
Shah is quick to add that over the years, the number of people who gave her a chance and respected her position “outweighs those who would disregard me.”
And that’s what she focuses in volunteer work away from the office.
Shah speaks often about why girls should embrace science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
She grew up a shy math nerd before starting her own company.
“There were only a handful of dark-skinned people in my school. So I knew what it was like to be different,” Shah says of her Indian heritage. “Being good at math and science allowed me to be part of a group of like-minded people.”
Women were also outnumbered in her classes at MIT, Northwestern and Oxford universities, where Shah studied engineering.
And when she founded Spaan Tech at age 24, Shah learned how to maneuver in a male-dominated engineering world.
The now-20-year-old firm designs infrastructure for roads, airports and buildings. Where architects focus on form over function, Shah’s team implements that function. ComEd, the U.S. Navy and the Illinois Tollway are among her clients.
Shah also sits on the board of the Museum of Science & Industry and is active on the civic and political scenes. She was a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton.
There was a time, Shah would walk into a charity event only to be asked why in the world an engineer would be interested in this cause or that.
“People used to think that if you were an engineer you were a train conductor,” Shah says. “Now they’re more familiar with the idea of engineering, science and technology. They actually think it’s interesting.”