Leanne Cushing is an accomplished engineer and inventor with more than 18 years of robotic systems experience — having designed systems for automotive, entertainment, automation, and consumer-electronics applications. Cushing also happens to be the captain of the BattleBots team Valkyrie. In a recent exchange, she shared with us her passion for and perspectives on mentoring young innovators and creating meaningful solutions to global challenges with engineering. Here’s what she had to say.
What first drew you to engineering?
I was fortunate that engineering was introduced to me pretty early. In middle school we students participated in a simulation program to encourage us to think about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I’ve always loved watching planes take off, and I thought aerospace engineering would teach me how humans figured out how to defy gravity and fly.
Were there influential engineers who helped shape your decision to become an engineer?
On the FIRST Robotics team to which I belonged in high school, one of our mentors was an engineer at Smiths Medical. When he saw how I was working through ways to design a box-stacking mechanism for our robot, he taught me about the various means to achieve linear motion … and ultimately helped me design a system for box stacking employing plastic chain and sprockets.
But as a freshman, I found my first year on that robotics team to be socially difficult. Part of the challenge was that I had so much to learn: At that point, I didn’t even know the names of most of the tools I was handed to use. Having a mentor with whom I could openly ask questions (when the boys on my team were out of earshot, of course) contributed to the success I had on the team … and ultimately helped prepare me for the hands-on work I found at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).
Describe your involvement in a product launch that went well.
I’ve joined a number of startups as one of the first employees to sort out some degree of organization in chaos. For example, in one position at American cybersecurity and data-backup company Datto, I completely overhauled the organization’s approach to hardware sourcing and management by establishing partnerships with Intel, Gigabyte, and others. Working at an organization that grew into an incredibly successful company taught me a lot — and also gave me a lot of confidence in my abilities.
My current R&D role at OnePointOne focuses on opportunities to change the way farming is currently done — and I’m really excited for us to show what we’re working on. I currently can’t say much more than that … but it’s a world changer. I have a hard time not working on the weekends because I love what I’m doing and believe in our mission so much.
How did you get involved in BattleBots?
On the year of the show’s return in 2015, my roommate was working on the first design of the robot Overhaul. I was only mentoring a FIRST Robotics team at the time, so the idea of getting to design robots again rather than just support seemed really exciting. I joined a team in the 2016 season, but we were disqualified. I vowed I’d be back on the show: I wanted to start fresh with my own team, one that wouldn’t need to feel the stress and chaos of my 2016 experience. Valkyrie is about to go into our third year and my team members have become my family and best friends.
The most satisfying part of working on BattleBots from an engineering perspective is seeing material science up close and in action. A lot of theory you learn at a university level is hard to witness day-to-day — so every time you have a material or component failure, you’re learning and growing as an engineer.
Describe your biggest engineering challenge to date.
My biggest challenges have been adjacent to engineering but not actual engineering problems that couldn’t be conquered. When starting my own home-appliance company, I had to balance both engineering and fundraising. It was the hardest two years of my life. I was stressed, broke, and underslept most days. We completed our invention (and it still lives at my cofounder’s house) but we couldn’t close our funding round — and had to find work elsewhere.This year has thrown a pandemic, a heatwave, and wildfires at me and it is still better than most of last year.
What more can be done to increase participation of young women in engineering today?
After a few internships and interactions with sexist professors and peers, I realized that the engineering world and its traditions were established without considering the fact that other people besides men might actually be fit to do design work. In fact, a few of my favorite engineering lectures from the 1970s refer to engineers solely as He. I believe judgmental Alpha Female personalities that act as gatekeepers are one of the largest social and career challenges that women face in industry. In high school (and part of college) I was definitely that type myself. There are structures in engineering that are already against us, so as women we should support each other.
The “women in _____ engineering” societies are set as more of a networking placeholder, like ASME or IEEE, and don’t actually provide an environment to get past a handshake and LinkedIn request. These societies encourage those already engaged in STEM but there aren’t many ways to support or expose more passively interested individuals which could make or break their decision to pursue a more technical career. So far I’ve only found my startup network and various robotics competitions to be the means of finding younger women/non-binary builders and engineers to take under my wing.
Also: Trading eyeliner tips and then fabrication recommendations all in the same conversation is pretty rad.
What unique perspective do you think women bring to engineering?
When first approaching an engineering challenge, I say: “There’s always another angle.” Humans are an incredibly diverse bunch, and diversity uncovers new solutions — which in engineering is ultimately a good thing. Women and those who have nonbinary gender identities have very different life experiences than men. Most of the women in engineering I know have had at least one call with a vendor or supplier who’s asked to be connected to the boss or the lead engineer on the project. I could have a male receptionist make these calls for me a hundred times over, and he’d never be asked the same thing.
Sour stories aside, diversity and inclusion in engineering uncovers the limitations of existing designs — and the lack of diversity can end up being exclusionary. One of my favorite examples from the past decade is Microsoft’s Kinect release — with a camera system that struggled to detect people having dark skin tones. It’s an example of how (generally) white male engineers tend to look at the world as how they experience it and then design to that standard. It’s surprising that a whole team didn’t have one person raise the concern that their testing dataset was relatively limited. Dialogue and inclusion would have prevented that issue — and likely would have resulted in a better engineered product.
How can those new to engineering develop confidence in the workplace?
My advice to those new to the engineering workplace is to identify easy wins, allies, and areas you are passionate about. Easy wins are projects I’d recommend to any engineer in their first three to six months. Allies — men who won’t see you as a Female Engineer — will help you have confidence and support you in meetings and design reviews.
Also: Be careful to never take things personally — and don’t be surprised when colleagues occasionally do. Politics especially over the past few years have shown the emotional range allowed for men versus women is very skewed.
If you had unlimited time to apply your engineering background, what challenges would you tackle?
I’ve become increasingly daydreamy about improving technologies for those with mental and physical disabilities but I don’t have that “a-ha” moment yet. Similarly, I think the life science and biology fields tend to struggle with communicating some of their archaic practices that need improvements to engineers to solve some of the reachable problems. I also expect climate engineering to grow increasingly important, but some of the problems we’ll need to solve still haven’t presented themselves.