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The generation employed to save the world

Generation Z and millennial engineers are choosing unconventional career paths to satisfy their desire to create a more sustainable, innovative future

Becca Segel had two choices when finishing her undergraduate degree at Case Western University: pursue her passion project with the support of the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering or take the risk of failing on her own accord. 

Segel, a graduate student at the Swanson School, is now the CEO of FlowCellutions, a company dedicated to designing battery testing devices that improve energy storage technologies. Motivation for her project was born out of her love for orca whales, whose habitats are being destroyed because of climate change. 

“I decided the best way to get flow batteries on the market was through entrepreneurship,” Segel explained. “The best way to do that was through the support of the Swanson School and the Big Idea Center.” 

What’s the big idea? 

Many students, including those at the Swanson School, are opting to choose the route of entrepreneurship rather than a traditional career path. Universities are recognizing the need to support these students as the trend continues to grow.

To support aspiring entrepreneurs, Pitt offers the Big Idea Center, a division of the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (OIE) 

The interest in innovation and entrepreneurship is only growing. The OIE reported the number of start-ups, technology licenses and issued patents at Pitt have skyrocketed since 2018

Students from the Swanson School, both graduate and undergraduate, are some of the most involved and awarded at the Big Idea Center, Rhonda Schuldt, the director of the Big Idea Center, said. Swanson school students, both undergraduate and graduate level, have consistently placed high or won competitions that encourage innovative thinking. For the 2022 Pitt Innovation Challenge held by Pitt’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute, the Swanson School’s bioengineering and chemical engineering departments were its top projects, with one team walking away with $100,000.

Engineering and entrepreneurship are becoming more intertwined, and the Swanson School is creating a sanctuary for those wanting to dip their toes into it.

The Swanson School developed the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Community and offers an Innovation, Product Design, and Entrepreneurship Certificate program for students to explore the principles of entrepreneurship through hands-on experiences. 

Steven Little, department chair of chemical and petroleum engineering, carried what he learned from his entrepreneurial mentors to his position at the Swanson School – seeing some of his mentees go from student to CEO. 

Though Little and other faculty at the Swanson School support entrepreneurial paths for students, Little said that’s not always the case with the engineering field. Some industry professionals and educators even oppose young engineers pursuing entrepreneurship.   

“Developing your own invention takes a lot of time,” Little said. “It’s considered an extra in academic settings.” 

But why are students still choosing this path more and more? 

“Problem solvers and innovative entrepreneurs are our world’s change makers,” Schuldt said. “They not only define the problem, but do so by connecting with those who are affected by the problem they are trying to solve.” 

Chewing gum for a better tomorrow

Generation Z and young millennials are known for their social and political activism. For a lot of students at the Swanson School, their passions are changing the route of their careers. 

Emily Siegel, a 2019 chemical engineering and biological sciences graduate at Pitt, is one of those students. 

Siegel founded Trek Gum, a plant-based and functional chewing gum company, when she was an undergraduate student. While she was at the Swanson School, her project won the $25,000 grand prize at the Randall Family Big Idea Competition, a competition focused on teamwork and innovation held out of the Big Idea Center. Siegel pursued entrepreneurship because she feared a predetermined timeline of her life and career. She wanted control over her life: prioritizing schedule flexibility, autonomy of her work and the ability to make an impact on a large scale at a young age. 

“All those things can be obtained by running your own company,” Siegel said. 

Siegel also works as a workforce specialist at Catalyst Connection. There, she consults fellow startups and manufacturers in southwestern Pennsylvania to help them grow their businesses. From her experience, she feels technology is influencing the career paths younger people are choosing. Because technology frees up daily tasks and makes news from around the world accessible 24/7, it's giving individuals more time to reflect on broader issues.  

“This exposure has made it clear that the world needs improvements,” Siegel explained. “I think our generation is fed up with an outdated system of living and wants to be at the table where decisions are being made.” 

Entrepreneurship is still a challenging path, including for young professionals. Siegel said some views of entrepreneurship are unrealistic – making the lifestyle seem lavish and glamorous. From expensive cars to tropical vacations, it’s far from reality for most entrepreneurs. 

“What people don’t see is the high levels of stress from continual critical decision making, the loneliness that is rampant within the founder community, and the self doubt that likes to hang on our shoulders while we fail and reiterate over and over again,” Seigel said. 

Despite the mental taxation, Siegel said it is one of the most exhilarating and exciting career choices she’s made. 

“I highly encourage those with an interest to try it out, but surround yourself with supportive people – and maybe a good therapist – to help you balance your life and work in a healthy way.” 

Success in failure 

Pitt creates a safety net for students wanting to explore their own business ventures and inventions. Inevitably, some projects don’t go as planned. But, as Schuldt said, it’s a great opportunity for students to learn about and navigate the uncertain and ambiguous nature of innovation and launching a venture while still at Pitt – before stepping into the world outside of the University. 

“You’re still gaining something many students won’t,” Schuldt explained. “Stepping outside of the classroom to even try says a lot to those in the outside world. And whether you launch something or not, you understand deeply what it takes, and this sets you apart from your fellow students and graduates.”