To say that Linda Hicks’ tenure with Women & Hi Tech started off with a bang is a bit of an understatement. After years of being a leader and mentor in the chemical industries as a chemical engineer, Hicks was awarded the “Mentor Me” Leading Light Award in 2014. Since then, she has been a steady contributor to the organization, continuing to pursue her two loves: STEM and guiding young women.
“I was drawn to the organization because I like the way they nurture these young ladies. It provides a way for female STEM professionals to feel confident in themselves. Part of it comes from networking and being around other like-minded women, especially ones who are quite accomplished. But it’s also a personal development thing. It gives you the chance to zero in on what you really love to do, what you’re good at, and how to get yourself to that next level.”
As the Director of the Executive Women’s Forum, Hicks has done just that by building programming that is relevant not only to many STEM fields, but on an individual level.
“I want to make sure the programming is relevant and helpful to people, and that’s only done through communication and listening to other members and attendees. I hear about what they’re struggling with, as well as the possible solutions, and I go out and target the right relationships to find the right speakers,” said Hicks. “I leverage my own relationships, but I also leverage the relationships that other board members have, as well as ideas that I hear from our members. I try to meld all those ideas together, so that I can put something on that’s meaningful to our community.”
Hicks had an interest in STEM from a young age. Her father was an electrical engineer, and she grew up in a family that stressed self-confidence and self-discipline. Hicks said that, “He had a vision that me and my sisters would be independent, both financially and in our careers. He saw the possibilities in his own field, and he encouraged me to do something technical.”
Hicks would eventually pursue engineering, however she chose not to follow in her father’s electrical footsteps. Instead, she decided on a chemical engineering program. When asked what prompted her to study chemical engineering, she explained with a laugh that while she was already interested in chemistry, another factor solidified the decision.
“Frankly, the only reason why I chose chemical engineering is that I went to a class in high school at Carnegie Mellon where they introduced female students to a variety of engineering types. I saw that chemical engineers made the most. I figured if I’m going to be an engineer, that’s the route I should go.”
When she enrolled in classes at Grove City College, she was pleased to see that over a quarter of the individuals in the chemical engineering program were women. However, she’s first to admit that the sample size was perhaps a bit too small.
“Out of 11 of us, five were women. It was weird, we thought that the demographic would be the same when we entered the professional world. But those numbers dropped drastically once I started working. I immediately recognized that there were fewer and fewer women as peers.”
As Hicks entered the professional world at Reilly Industries (now Vertellus Specialties), she found not only was there a lack of women in her field, but also a lack of respect for women. While working her way up through maintenance engineer, process/project engineer, and eventually on the executive team leading global technology, she encountered unfair and unprofessional treatment from male counterparts.
“It was pretty scary,” said Hicks. “There were very few women and the environment toward women, particularly in manufacturing at a chemical plant, was pretty antagonistic. I always joke that had there been an organization like Women & Hi Tech in my life then, there would have been far less angst and crying.”
After a round of buyouts at her company in 2017, Hicks said she was ready to retire after 33 years. However, she was soon contacted by ECC Horizon, an environmental consulting firm focused on cleanup and investigations. Though most of her experience came from chemical manufacturing, Hicks said her commitment to lifelong learning on the job has helped her to become a leader in a very different industry than her primary one.
“I slugged it out for years and became obsessed with learning every single facet of chemical engineering. That included some levels of environmental work. When we started discussing me coming aboard as VP of Midwest Operations, it all came flooding back. This process of learning on the job and of being a life-long learner, have made me a more well-rounded engineer and leader.”
When Hicks reflects on her journey through STEM, as well as her time with Women & Hi Tech, she said she’s grateful for the chances given to young women by organizations like this one,” said Hicks. “I think number one, there are more women engaged in STEM and there are better ways to get women in STEM connected with each other. I love that. I wouldn’t have even known how to connect with other women when I was first starting out. There are so many ways that a young woman can get support that I never had.”
When asked what she thinks of the next 20 years of Women & Hi Tech, Hicks paused and did a little self-reflecting.
“I think it’s always good to mentor and to be open to mentoring and helping others. I think…I hope, that I’m seen as someone who is approachable, eager, and willing to help another woman looking to advance to the next level,” she said. “I hope the organization continues to grow. I hope the organization continues to find great pathways in the city so that the influence and impact multiplies. I hope we continue to stress diversity, and prove to others that the best teams are teams that respect and leverage differences.”