“I’ve been told that it’s rare to find an engineer who loves ballet, but it’s more common than you’d think — it just doesn’t fit the stereotype we were all raised with,” says Amanda French, co-founder and CEO of Emme, a healthcare company that is revolutionizing birth control.
Amanda French was a 2016-2017 Innovation Fellow at the Stanford-Byers Center for Biodesign, where the idea for Emme was born out of contraceptive research. Prior to founding Emme, she developed breakthrough heart valve technology as an R&D engineer with Edwards Lifesciences, where she also held roles in program management, manufacturing, and marketing through the Technical Development Program. She also was on the team at Earlens that developed a revolutionary hearing aid which was recently honored as one of Time’s Best Inventions of 2020.
While some people hold the stereotype that engineers are solely devoted to all things logical, French finds that her strong passion for creative arts, including dance and musical theater, nicely balances her love of math and science. She did not become aware of engineering until late in high school. Initially, she was on a quest to find a career where she could help make a difference in people’s lives with math and science. It was while she was visiting prospective colleges, though, that she learned about the field of biomedical engineering.
“And I immediately knew this was the right industry for me,” she says. “Engineering is the perfect balance of creativity with rigorous science, and I am so drawn to the impact technology can have on improving lives around the world. It is so rewarding to invent a new product and have the tools and skills to build it from scratch. I think the most fun aspect of engineering is to see the impact of the products I’ve designed on the lives of the people who are using them.”
While there were engineers in her family, such as her grandfather, the lecture on biomedical engineering that she attended during that college visit was what really influenced her career choice.
“The professor was teaching about haptic robotics and neural prosthetics, and I found it fascinating that human-made technology could be wired to be controlled by the brain. That experience is what led me to pursue engineering, so that professor played an influential role, even though we’ve never met. But I am also inspired to know that I’m following in my grandfather’s footsteps.”
Making a difference
A large number of women are drawn into engineering because they see how they can make improvements and changes in the world that benefit many. That’s one of the reasons French co-founded Emme — to improve lives. The mission of her healthcare technology company is to drive innovation to bring the birth control pill experience into the 21st century. The goal is to put women’s health in women’s hands, addressing some of the problems women find when using the birth control pill.
“We recently launched the patented award-winning Emme Smart Birth Control System — a smart case and app that work together to automatically track the pill, provide custom reminders to reduce missed pills, and offer personalized support through health information and experience tracking. I am so proud of the diverse team of talented experts we’ve assembled to bring this product to market. We are working together to raise the bar in the industry overall.”
As mentioned earlier, French has worked on a number of innovative products, including the Earlens hearing aid system. Of course, each product has its challenges during different stages of the design process.
One challenge she recalls came up in the product development during the design verification testing stage. This testing entails stress testing the device to make sure it can withstand a durable lifecycle.
“When product failures are discovered at this point, it’s important to think creatively to find solutions that can be implemented without having to start from scratch with the design. I have found that the best way to overcome these types of challenges is to work with a team that brings unique perspectives to help accelerate a deep understanding of the problem and the solutions that can be considered. For example, I once solved a design issue by introducing a new manufacturing method based on knitting, which was something nobody else on the team had experience with!”
While French brings out-of-the-box thinking to solve design challenges, she also takes different approaches to leadership.
“I have learned that the best way to lead is to bring your authentic self to work and lean into what that means for your specific leadership style. I am empathetic by nature and motivated by working to understand the goals and needs of my team in order to align that energy with the broader company mission. I think a great leader helps others see their strengths and structures organizations in a way where each person is utilizing their strengths and clearly understands the impact they are having on advancing the mission of the company overall.”
French has focused on building a company culture that embraces experimentation and quick cycles of testing and learning. “Hopefully this empowers every member of the team to feel supported to test out new skills and ideas without the fear of failure, which enables the entire group to grow and innovate as quickly as we can,” she says.
Of course, failures are part of the engineering experience. Viewing them in the proper context, though, reinforces good engineering design principles. For French, engineering failures reinforce the importance of a growth mindset.
“Discovering an engineering failure is critical towards accelerating a full understanding of the product or problem in question, so I like to view engineering failures as valuable information that can help everyone improve the next iteration. In my first role at Edwards Lifesciences, our department celebrated failures formally to reinforce the critical importance of failing to accelerate learning and drive innovation forward.
“I believe that if you are not failing, you are not taking big enough risks. To push boundaries in the industry, by definition, you need to be willing to test things that are not proven to work out. It might take 100 “failures” before finding the one winning formula, and if you seek to avoid the failures then you’ll also avoid the big wins. I think my background as a dancer has helped me embrace this mindset because it is an art form where you are constantly seeking opportunities to adjust and improve and it’s hard to perfect a new technique without first trying and failing countless times.”
Speaking of culture, though, here too, French offers a unique perspective where employees come from all kinds of backgrounds, not just engineering.
“Our team at Emme brings together a very diverse group of experts, who have experience from fashion, beauty, technology, consumer products, healthcare, education, and beyond. If instead, we had built a team of all like-minded individuals with a narrow set of experiences, we’d have left a lot of opportunity on the table, and had a much smaller chance at succeeding in launching a revolutionary, award-winning product.”
For French, diversity helps engineering teams be more successful. She has experienced firsthand how diverse teams make better decisions, are more creative, and ultimately drive higher profits compared to teams that lack diversity.
“When you build a team that brings a broad array of perspectives, you are going to drive more innovative results.”
Paying it forward
Many women engineers become mentors to younger engineers, often through STEM or STEAM programs. French is no exception.
“I think it’s so important to pay it forward, and so I dedicate time on my calendar to regularly offer mentorship to people early in their careers. Some of the formal ways I seek to give back to the engineering community are through my roles with non-profit organizations including the Stanford Biodesign Alumni Association as well as MedTech Women. I’ve personally benefited from the “mentorship” that can be gained just by listening to the stories of others, so I enjoyed recently sharing my story with the SWE Podcast.