Even Laura O'Donnell, BS ASE '90, didn't expect her aerospace engineering degree to lead her to becoming a top executive for the fastest growing personal HD camera company in the world. As executive vice president of consumer products at Contour Inc., O'Donnell has discovered the versatility of her degree and the value of her engineering education have eased her path to the top in ways that now feel as natural as choosing to go to The University of Texas at Austin in the first place.
Growing up in Temple, O'Donnell took an aptitude test that recommended psychiatry or astrophysics. When she chose astrophysics, aerospace was the closest she could find in a nearby school, so UT was the obvious choice. It was after she visited NASA in her introduction to aerospace class that the dream of becoming an astronaut really caught on, but a bad car accident the summer before her senior year made that dream impossible. Undeterred, the Friends of Alec Scholarship recipient looked at other options and branched out to take a business law class her last semester. It opened her eyes to the intersection of engineering and business.
"I found very quickly that an engineering mindset – the discipline and how you solve problems and how you get from step A to B – is the same regardless of the problem you're applying that process to," she said. "In the business world, you have to have an organized thought process: What is my problem? What are my options to solve it? How will I choose the options? How do I implement it and how do I check it?"
Those guiding principles have served her well from her first job after graduation, as an attitude controls system engineer with Hughes Space and Communications, to where she is now, pioneering hands-free recording and location based video that allow explorers to tell their stories of action, adventure and travel.
"The world is a system, and UT's aerospace program is a system program," she said. "Everything that you do in aerospace requires a lot of complex pieces coming together. To get a rocket to launch or a satellite into orbit or get an airplane to fly, you have to look at the bigger picture. You learn that people are part of the system, too, so every big challenge requires communication and creativity."
O'Donnell said she was always the communicator in her classes, the one who stood up to give presentations.
"Senior design classes and group projects were by far the most critical in shaping my ability to be effective in business. It teaches you to work with other people," O'Donnell said. "You have to learn to maximize the group output even if everyone isn't necessarily as committed or contributing at the same level."
Although O'Donnell enjoyed leading a team of 50 engineers in the development of three new satellite designs at Hughes, she reached a point where she was ready for a new challenge. An opening in Hughes' sister company at DIRECTV led her away from satellites into consumer products, and she has never looked back. As DIRECTV's vice president of product development, she led the deployment of innovative services like DVR, HD and Interactive.
O'Donnell would go on to bring the magic of satellites into millions of homes and cars as the founder of Synthese LLC, providing consumer electronics product usability and design for major clients such as Sirius Satellite Radio. Her entrepreneurial spirit then led her to Contour. She became the Seattle-based company's fourth employee, and now helps lead a 30-person team that brought in $7 million in sales last year.
Along the way, O'Donnell has stayed involved with the Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics Department. She served on the External Advisory Committee from 1996-99 and is a life member of Friends of Alec, endowing a scholarship for a current student in an effort to encourage their academic dreams. She hopes their dreams include exploring classes outside the standard curriculum because the experience can open their eyes to new possibilities. During a recent campus visit, O'Donnell shared this hope with members of Women in Aerospace Leadership Development (WIALD). She also encouraged the students to say yes to new opportunities, and to find their passion.
"When you find your passion, success will follow," she said. "I am passionate about giving a customer a great product and something they didn't expect. It's essential that you deliver on the promise you made, but what really brings joy to someone is when you bring them something more, and in many cases, something they didn't know they wanted."