By Sarah Han, Jan. 26, 2021
To some, alumna Emma Kalayjian (‘18, computer information systems) was a cheerful student who loved decking out in pink and exploring the city with her sorority gals. To others that know her, she is also an ambitious automotive lover who now works as a user interface designer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a car culture advocate at Auto Conduct.
Growing up as the only child in a traditional family, Kalayjian’s childhood days were full of ballet, piano lessons and musical theatre practices, but everything changed when she branched out from her routine lifestyle to pursue her passions. Merging the automotive and aerospace industries, Kalayjian strives to spur confidence and a sense of belonging for younger women interested in the industry — a goal that contributed to her latest accomplishment: being featured on Forbes 30 Under 30 for enterprise technology.
Kalayjian, discussing this achievement, also touched upon her journey post-graduation and how she intends to use her platform to promote self-empowerment.
How did you react to featuring in Forbes 30 Under 30?
I was really surprised. They gave us two notices. The first one was, “Hey, we got your application. You made it to the next round.” I was really excited but tried not to think about it too much because it’s one of those things where you don’t want to get excited over something that isn’t for sure yet. And then on Dec. 1, I was on Gmail to clear my inbox, and I see an email from Forbes. But just from the headline, it looked like spam at first, so I almost didn’t read it. But I thought maybe it has something to do with the list, so I opened it and it notified me that I had made it. I think I just blacked out for a couple of seconds, and then I was like, “No, this is real.” It was really cool.
What would you say is your greatest achievement?
If I had to answer this a couple of years ago, I probably would’ve said something academic or career-related, but now, the biggest thing I feel is an accomplishment so far is recognizing that your accomplishments don’t need to be based on merit or what’s on your resume. It was an accomplishment for me to learn to be more present and take things as they go and not let external things define me.
What do you think is the factor that got you recognized at Forbes?
Overall, the goal of what I’m trying to do in my career is relatively different. I haven’t really met anybody who tried to do something similar. Up until college graduation, all my experiences were in automotive. I love cars, the design and knowing how they work. That was the field I thought I wanted to get into, but the universe had other things in mind. Now, I’m at JPL and understanding that the things happening today in aerospace are going to define automotive in five to 10 years. Seeing that crossover has been really engaging for me. I want to be able to, one, help make that understanding more mainstream that these industries are super connected and, two, provide more space for young women or people of color or people who go underrepresented in the automotive space and give them more confidence to speak for themselves. For example, I was super girly. I was in a sorority, and I was not the typical car person. I think sometimes by even just seeing someone in that space — to see someone who wears a ton of pink and girly in that space — helps people think, “Okay, I can do that too.” I think that kind of mindset resonated with someone on the panel.
How is the transition from working at NASA to creating content about cars?
I guess the crossover is that some of the things I learn about in my day job with NASA, like learning how to do UX research, I get to use that when I’m working with Auto Conduct and looking for new articles or content to write about. I can turn those articles into teaching moments and explain why this product or this car is coming out with a new feature, why this is a really good idea because of this concept or why this is just noise with features that aren’t really useful. So, I take what I learn and try to teach other people.
What kind of characteristics or qualities do you need to succeed in your field?
I would say having a form of an elegant and graceful tenacity. Aerospace and automotive are two super masculine, mechanical industries. From my experience, I think what has worked for me is balancing the masculine and feminine sides. That’s something we, as women, have in advantage. We can be predominantly feminine, and it stands out. People don’t always know how to react to that, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s kind of an opportunity for us to have a teaching moment to help people understand this is how women fit into this space and this is how we can improve the product. I think the tenacious side is more masculine with self-confidence, drive and thinking, “I’m going to see this project through, and I’m not going anywhere so get used to it.” But the elegant side to that is not being so aggressive all the time and being able to relate to people and build relationships at the same time but also just making sure everyone knows you’re here to stay and deserve the fair opportunity like everyone else.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I have no idea. Whenever someone says to figure out your five-year plan and I try to, it never turns out that way, which is good. The five-year plan I had versus what ended up happening was so different, but the reality has been so much better than what I could’ve ever imagined for myself. So, in five years from now, I don’t know where I’ll be, but I’ll probably be really happy with wherever that is.
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