Female WPI engineering grad maps success in male-dominated industry
Posted: 04/Feb/2018

When Courtney Jones was preparing to graduate from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, she had two job offers and a meeting with her assigned mentor, Judith Nitsch.

One job, Ms. Jones recalled, offered higher pay, while the other offered a more exciting opportunity. During a meeting, she described her job-choice dilemma to Ms. Nitsch, a civil engineer and WPI alumna.

“When I talked about each offer, Judy could immediately tell my face lit up talking about the job with the lower salary offer,” Ms. Jones, an engineer at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, said in an email. “That was the job I ended up accepting, and I still love it after being there for 1.5 years.”

Mentor is just one of Ms. Nitsch’s roles these days. The 1975 WPI graduate and Weston resident was the first female graduate elected to WPI’s board of trustees and is founding principal and a director of Nitsch Engineering Inc., a Boston-based engineering and land surveying firm. She also sits on several company and business association boards.

With its second office at 120 Front St. in Worcester, Nitsch Engineering provides multidisciplinary engineering services in 21 states and five countries. What is noteworthy is that it has a reputation for drawing engineers of both sexes and giving employees respect and flexibility.

Ms. Nitsch, 64, started out as a math major at WPI. At the end of her freshman year, she switched to civil engineering. The decision, though made on a whim, marked the first step on her journey as an engineer.

“I was smart in high school, but I was normal at WPI,” she said. “That was a nice feeling. I had a good time and made lifelong friends.”

In 1989, Ms. Nitsch founded Nitsch Engineering after a civil engineering firm in which she was a minority shareholder was sold.

Being a woman in engineering, a male-dominated field, meant difficulties of all kinds. She struggled getting bank loans and had to use her personal credit cards to fund the business; people wouldn’t let her on the job site because they didn’t believe that she was an engineer.

“I worked for eight years until I worked with another female engineer,” she said. “And that was because I hired one.”

Nitsch Engineering is the largest woman-owned civil engineering firm in Massachusetts, as measured by revenue, according to Ms. Nitsch. The company posted revenue of about $16 million in 2017, has about 110 employees at four offices and is owned by 21 shareholders. Ms. Nitsch’s stake is about 5 percent.

The firm’s projects have ranged from civil engineering for an addition at Heywood Hospital in Gardner to improvements to a taxiway at Logan International Airport in Boston.

Starting a business is one thing, but keeping it going is another matter. Ms. Nitsch described herself as “persistent, advocate and passionate.” She specializes in getting the company’s name out to influential people, potential clients and referral sources. Her work doesn’t revolve around a desk: She spends most of her days on the go, attending meetings, giving talks and establishing connections.

“She (Ms. Nitsch) has a five-word job description — the ambassador for the firm,” said Lisa Brothers, the chief executive officer of Nitsch Engineering.

However, to Ms. Nitsch, being an entrepreneur who just happens to be female also has its perks. She sees her job as a blessed opportunity to be exposed to “fabulous clients, wonderful employees and terrific projects.”

“There were so many people who I thought were interesting and intriguing, that they way offset the problematic people I had to deal with,” she said.

Ms. Nitsch can't help but think like an engineer. Years after she had moved out of her parents' home in Southwick, the town was installing sewer lines. Her parents were informed that they had to install a grinder pump to service their home. After reviewing the sewer plans, Ms. Nitsch realized that the sewer line in the street was deep enough to allow the sewer line from her parents' basement to flow to the street without a pump. So she called the town engineer and said her father would like a gravity line instead of pumped service.

"He shouldn’t have to pay the ongoing cost for electricity for a pump or not have sewer service if the power was out," she said. "They did redesign the sewer service to his home."

At WPI, where she is now a trustee emerita, Ms. Nitsch has helped the university develop environmentally sustainable facilities on campus, including the campus center, the sports and recreation center and East Hall.

“I’m proud of the way the campus looks now because of the influence that I’ve been able to have,” she said.

She also leads a “coffee group” of WPI students that meets from time to time to discuss engineering projects, job opportunities and university resources.

“I make sure that they learn from each other, not just from me,” she said.

The ratio of men to women at WPI was 25-to-1 when Ms. Nitsch was in college. Women make up about 44 percent of this year's freshman class, making it the most gender-balanced class in school history, according to the WPI website. 

“We are still novelties, but we are less of a novelty now,” she said.

Ms. Nitsch is dedicated to helping other female engineers. One of the gender-based barriers in engineering is the lack of female role models. As a mentor, she encourages women to enter the field, offering the chance that she, as a newcomer years ago, didn’t have. As a sponsor, she uses statistics to advocate for women.

“I can say things that people in their 20s or 30s can’t say,” she said.

She is highly involved in “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day,” an event that Nitsch Engineering has been hosting annually since 2002. It aims to educate sixth- to 12th-grade girls about engineering and inspire them to grow up to be innovators and problem-solvers.

An estimated 12 percent of engineers are women. However, the figure is 38 percent at Nitsch Engineering, with women proportionally represented in leadership.

“We (women) bring different traits to the table,” Ms. Nitsch said. “The more you mix it up, the better the results are.”

Ms. Nitsch was raised in Southwick, the second of seven children. Her mother was a nurse. Her father was a pharmaceutical salesman. Inspired by her mother, who she said brought up her and her six siblings equally, Ms. Nitsch puts fairness and equity at the heart of the company.

She said she aims to create an environment that is conducive to all employees. In 2016, the company was chosen as the top place to work among medium-size companies by The Boston Globe.

“People don’t expect their engineers to be fun. They expect their engineers to be smart and professional. But people at our company are also engaged and interesting,” Ms. Nitsch said. “Who wouldn’t want to work with them?”

“I wanted a company that focused on making its employees happy, fostering innovative skills, and allowing them to go out and find their own paths, which Nitsch (Engineering) really does,” said Jessica L. Wala, who participated in “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” at 13 and is now a project manager at the company. “People here are passionate and spend a lot of their personal time contributing to the industry as well.”

In terms of giving advice to future female entrepreneurs, Ms. Nitsch highlights the importance of getting prepared on the business side before starting a business.

“It’s a different skill set,” she said. “For me, being a civil engineer and being a business owner are two very different knowledge bases. It’s a lot easier to be impactful if you’ve been trained on how to run a business.”

By Zijing Sang, Correspondent
Source: telegram.com