Innovators on a Mission to Change the World.

Written By: David Whitney


A s an instructor in the University of Florida College of Engineering, I work with many bright, ambitious and innovationminded students. It is a privilege to watch young people develop into world-changing innovative engineers. Their experiences reflect their ability to transform lessons learned in the classroom into actions applied in real-world situations.

In this column, I am pleased to share the commentaries of three talented Gator Engineers. Their comments relate to subjects ranging from innovation applied to women and the “glass ceiling.” The three — Natalie DeVarona, Jasmine Perez and Erin Winick — are seniors in the College of Engineering; all three are exceptional students, campus leaders, community volunteers and gamechanging women. Natalie, Jasmine and Erin are well prepared to positively change the world; as you will read, their missions have already begun.

Each epitomizes what it means, and what it takes, to be an innovative engineer. In the College of Engineering, we call it “powering the new engineer” — and I could not be more proud of Natalie, Jasmine, and Erin for what they represent and what they are doing to change the world.


I interned at Procter & Gamble in Boston this past summer. My position was in manufacturing, and I worked at the World Shaving Headquarters (WSHQ) for the Gillette Company as part of P&G’s Shave Care Business. The Boston site houses R&D and global manufacturing, so I learned firsthand what innovation success looks like at an industry-leading company like P&G.

My innovation journey has been a combination of personal growth and professional development. The journey involved interning at Microsoft this past summer — my second consecutive summer working at the company — in Seattle and took me on an up-close-and-personal, and professional, look at how innovation is applied in the technology sector.

As a summer intern, I worked with a team of other college students at John Deere. We were assigned a project of our own in which we were given responsibility of a large budget, a significant amount of time to produce desired outcomes and access to resources needed to produce innovative solutions to problems the manufacturing team experienced. Our team participated in weekly meetings led by engineering managers; we were required to update plant leadership with progress made and setbacks encountered. Plant leadership strongly encouraged us to propose problemsolving ideas by thinking — and acting — innovatively. We did that!


Innovation is woven into P&G’s culture. P&G employees (“P&Gers”) are keenly aware that innovation is effective at combatting the constant attacks competitors launch against the company. This is how I learned first-hand to continuously evolve — as an innovator — and be in a position to fulfill the needs and wants of P&G’s consumers. At P&G, being customer-focused is why innovation sits front and center — and delivers value to customers who use P&G products and services. I was fortunate enough to work at a site where new concepts, prototypes, and innovative processes are tested and brought to life.

Innovation at P&G is like being a highperforming
athlete: combining a competitive mindset with a passion for winning. That competitive mindset was not only exercised to rebuff competition, it was practiced to better oneself — and to improve employee work performance. P&Gers constantly raised the bar on themselves and their team(s). I was encouraged by this culture and adapted quickly to this kind of competitive, highperformance environment.

It was effective: I worked on four substantial projects and was given minimal information during each project’s lifespan. This vagueness and autonomy was intentional, as it gave my manager and colleagues the opportunity to see how I juggled multiple projects, handled “hiccups” along the way and utilized limited resources. I succeeded because I also effectively leveraged my engineering skills: resourcefulness, subject matter expertise, communication and critical thinking. Along with the help provided by well-intended mentors, I had a very successful summer internship at P&G Gillette.

My position was in Microsoft’s Cloud and Enterprise division. The project to which I was assigned, redesigning the user interface of a Microsoft product, involved a combination of engineering, innovation and teamwork. The last element, teamwork, was especially important, which is why Microsoft’s open-door policy makes it easy for intelligent people to join forces. Microsoft’s network of cross-collaboration expanded as I became the expert in the nuances of my project. As I developed, so did the opportunity to work with designers who helped me with the visual aspects of the innovation’s design. This allowed me to connect directly with customers in order to understand their needs better. The work was dynamic and placed me in a position where I was able to propose new ideas and receive instantaneous feedback from customers and users alike.

John Deere is a more innovative company than most people expect. The company continues to design and manufacture more automation into their product lines, which range from autonomous control of tractors to better ways of attaching attachments to the back of tractors with hitch-assist. In my experience, company managers encouraged engineers to work on new ideas aligned with existing products and services offered. Most consumers do not think of tractors as being high tech, but they are misinformed; the John Deere units I worked in were diligently focused on making the company’s products and services cutting edge and industry leading.

I was fortunate to work on a manufacturing team that was innovation-centric. My area involved continuous improvement (“kaizen”) and my responsibilities included figuring out how to make incremental — and value-enhanced — changes to existing product (and service) lines. Many American companies adopted continuous improvement methods from the Japanese’s success with kaizen. Kaizen is based on certain guiding principles, which include:

• Good processes bring good results;
• See for yourself to best understand the situation, opportunity and challenges;
• Leverage and analyze data, but manage using facts;
• Take decisive action when containing and correcting the root causes of problems;
• Work as a team — collaboration is highly valued and deeply respected;
• Continuous improvement is everybody’s business.


Fortunately, I did not experience — or observe — a “glass ceiling” at my work location. However, I learned such a ceiling existed in the past from a conversation I had at a P&G Boston Women’s Network event. There, I spoke with a woman who has worked at the company for over 20 years; she experienced the glass ceiling earlier in her career, and told me that both men and women pushed down from the other side of the glass ceiling. It surprised me that women pushed down against their fellow women! I also learned the glass ceiling was dismantled, and — according to the woman I spoke with no longer exists at P&G.

Openness and a collaborative spirit are pervasive at companies succeeding at innovation. Microsoft diligently follows this game plan, and the company’s innovation success also leverages an openforum approach that results in effective communication between colleagues, customers, users and partners. Microsoft also knows a playful experience is key to succeeding at innovation; that is why I participated in numerous events that centered on creativity, imaginative problem solving, collaboration, critical thinking and mindfulness.

I also found the company embraced diversity and gender equality. Microsoft leadership is acutely aware of the low number of women in the computer science and technology field. That is why the company went the extra mile in hosting a series of talks given by distinguished women engineers as well as hosting regular lunches and socials for women. Externally, they also actively supported clubs and programs for women in engineering. Microsoft’s goal is to empower women — engineers and non-engineers alike — by helping them remove barriers encountered at the company and beyond.

As a woman engineer, I saw that a glass ceiling existed. A very small number of female leaders — and engineers — were evident; none of my direct managers were women. In fact, I was the only woman in my department for much of the three months I spent working at John Deere’s manufacturing plant in Grovetown, Georgia, this past summer. Although a glass ceiling exists, I feel it can be broken as more people like me enter the ranks and pursue careers that lead to becoming CEOs of global, industry-leading corporations.

Also, as a woman engineer, I stood out among my colleagues. I stopped counting how many times during a group conversation (or in a group presentation), people would say, “OK guys (awkward pause)…and gals.” It was probably more because of Southern manners and politeness than anything else, yet I would have preferred everyone just said “guys.” Oftentimes, my gender was the issue, as is, “Erin, you may have trouble with this — so ask one of the guys if you need help.” I understand most women are not as physically strong as most men, but I also know that intellectual strength knows no gender.

To John Deere’s credit, many of the engineering interns who worked at my location were women. I was encouraged by this fact and appreciate that the company acted in hiring women instead of giving lip service to the issue. Doing so will continue to create a more diverse workforce and advance more women into leadership positions at John Deere. In my opinion, John Deere is making great strides in this area.


My summer at P&G’s Gillette Company was very valuable. I exercised my innovative mind daily in an environment that supported my skills and encouraged diversity in thoughts and actions. I had a fantastic experience and would be proud to start my professional career at P&G Gillette.

My experience at Microsoft strengthened my confidence in, and passion for, innovation. The result of collaborating with talented, open-minded innovators made me realize I will always be learning — and growing as a professional and a person — while working at Microsoft.

I learned a great deal from this experience, as well as from my entire summer spent at John Deere. First, I further developed my problem-solving abilities and my computer modeling skills. I took the position with John Deere because I wanted to combine hands-on experience with situations in which I was required to solve complex problems; that situation is exactly what I faced. I was assigned many open-ended problems that I had to solve; I learned to do so by talking to suppliers and subject matter experts working on the assembly line, shadowing equipment inspectors, and working with design and manufacturing engineers.

Natalie DeVarona is a UF College of Engineering senior majoring in industrial and systems engineering.

Jasmine Perez is a UF College of Engineering senior majoring in computer science while also earning a Master of Science in management from the UF College of Business.

Erin Winick is a UF College of Engineering senior majoring in mechanical engineering.

DAVID WHITNEY serves as the assistant director in the University of Florida’s College of Engineering Innovation Institute. Whitney previously served as the Entrepreneur in Residence in the University’s College of Engineering and teaches both undergraduate and graduate students in the College. The courses, Entrepreneurship for Engineers and Engineering Innovation, use real-world examples and the experiences of innovators and entrepreneurs to teach engineers how to change the world. In addition to his roles at UF, Whitney is the founding managing director of Energent Ventures, a Gainesville-based investor in innovation-driven companies.

Leave a Comment