Celina Mikolajczak, 50
Vice President, Battery Technology, Panasonic Energy of North America
Location: San Carlos, Calif.
Education: B.S., engineering and applied science, California Institute of Technology; M.A., mechanical engineering, Princeton University
What drew you to the auto industry? I was in the oil industry, and I got to see how much work it was to extract the petrochemicals we use to basically fuel our economy and our cars. So when I went to grad school, I studied combustion and mechanical engineering, because I thought that we worked so hard to get these petrochemicals out of the ground, we better figure out better ways and cleaner ways to burn them and be more efficient.
First automotive job: Senior managing engineer, Exponent, 1999.
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Big break: Starting to look at lithium ion cells and batteries at Exponent was the big break. The technology was super new, and it wasn’t a space with a lot of experts in it. So I learned with the industry, and slowly built an expertise in an area that wasn’t crowded. Tesla hired me (in 2012) because I was already prominent in the field. What Tesla did for me was ignite a passion for manufacturing.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? Engineering is still dominated by guys. It’s not possible to be a female engineer and not face a lot of discrimination. I’ve watched a lot of great female colleagues just give up in one form or another because they get tired of it. There’s a lot of people who don’t want to see you succeed. You are the girl in the room, so you are the stupidest person in the room by default until you prove otherwise. You fall down a lot. Sometimes you get pushed.
You’ve been in the industry 21 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? Electric vehicles, these are things that change society in a lot of ways. The safety is so much better, and it’s so much better for society. The efficiency is amazing. The safety performance is amazing. There’s so much technology in the car. There are so many things that become enabled by that technology.
What work achievement are you most proud of? I started studying fires at Exponent, and a bunch of us with laptops realized that if you have a bunch of cells stacked one next to the other, that once one went into runaway, all the others would go as well because of heat transfer. I’m visiting Tesla as a consultant in ’05-’06, and I saw their first pack design. It had a whole bunch of cells smushed together. I said, “Well, you are going to burn a bunch of cars to the ground.” They didn’t want to hear that, but they did. They started developing countermeasures for propagation, which became foundational to Tesla’s design. A few years later, I was talking with Uber people making battery packs for scooters in China, and they talked a whole bunch about propagation resistance. Having that permeate the industry, I thought, “Wow, that’s success.”
What have you learned from the COVID-19 crisis? Usually as a leadership team, you are worried about shipping a product and profit and loss, quality. Not “If I open this factory too early, are we going to overflow emergency rooms or have our workers pass away?” There was a period of time where our leadership team met three times a day to work through this together. We’d spend most of a day debating all the factors we thought were important and come to a consensus and conclusion. It was profoundly humbling and instructive to see how all those voices came together to a decision that we could all get behind.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career? I languished in graduate school too long. I would have had more fun if I’d gotten out earlier.
Tell us about your family. My son Peter is 14 and in high school. My husband stays home and takes care of us. He’s very happy that way. He worked for many years. At some point, when I was at Tesla, he said, “You know, honey, you really like your job and are really good at it. I’m kind of tired of my job. Why don’t I stay at home? Peter’s at an interesting age. Let’s see how it goes.” Best decision we’ve made.
Are you able to achieve work-life balance? When I started at Tesla, I started dreaming about lithium ion cells, and I thought, “God, I should be disturbed about that.” But then I thought, you know, I’m good with it. Now I’m working with this Japanese company, and their view of work-life balance is very different than an American view of work-life balance. Really different. It gives you perspective that there’s no one way.
— Pete Bigelow