Heather Konet always has been a tinkerer. When she was a young girl, she says her mom, a teacher, would encourage her to build things—go karts, haunted houses—using “junk” from around the house. “It got me interested in being creative—and that interest in building things led me to engineering,” she says.
Today Konet is the HMI and connected vehicle engineering manager for Nissan Group of North America. Her interest in creating and tinkering never ended; she’s proud to be the owner of more than 25 U.S. patents. And that’s the unique advice she offers to any young woman interested in the engineering side of the auto industry.
“First, get an engineering degree,” Konet says. “But when you start in your first job, look for an opportunity to come up with a new idea on your own, and file for a patent. Companies are always looking for more intellectual property. In my first couple of months of work in the industry, I came up with an idea, and in my first year got a patent on that idea. And that was one of the best things I did to build my confidence in myself.”
That kind of confidence is critical in the advanced technology side of the industry, she says. “If you’re going to be in this kind of work, you need to continue to innovate,” she says. “You need to keep thinking of better ways to do things.”
Konet attended Northwestern University’s engineering school on a soccer scholarship. She always knew she wanted to do mechanical engineering—and cars, she says, “are the most exciting, complicated consumer product.” In addition, the automotive industry is in her blood; her Scottish great-great grandfather was one of the first workers at the Ford Rouge Factory.
After starting her career at Ford, in 2004 she moved to a job in advanced engineering and emerging technologies at Nissan, where she’s been involved in a variety of high-tech projects: for instance, working to create the vehicle sound the Leaf EV makes to alert pedestrians when it’s nearby.
She says her first day on the job as a young woman in the auto industry 20 years ago was “eye-opening”; she wasn’t prepared for the male-dominated culture she encountered. And although she’s seen the number of women in the industry increase, she says the business can benefit from even more women employees and managers. “Women tend to be holistic thinkers. That ability to take a step back and look at the big picture is really valuable in coming up with new solutions for problems,” she says.
In addition, she says, “Women in general often have different life experiences than men do. So when you’re in a position to develop new features for a vehicle, the more perspectives you can add to that development, the better.”
Konet thinks the key is getting more girls interested in the industry and in engineering at a younger age. The mother of a 6-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son, she took it upon herself to spread the word about STEM careers by writing a series of children’s books. The L’il Booger Buddies Inventors are cute space aliens that turn piles of scraps into fun creations.
“Kids don’t have to have a special STEM kit or go to an expensive camp. They just need to start getting their hands dirty,” she says. “Grab some cardboard boxes and create a space station. Make something with building blocks. It’s a good way to develop confidence, and the thought processes you need to solve problems.”
Her kids are her first test audience for a new story. “They like my stories, think it’s fun. I give my books to their friends, and donate them to schools,” she says. “And now they’re interested in writing down their own stories, too.”