‘Year of Women in Manufacturing’ Highlights Aixa Lopez
There is a disconnect in the manufacturing industry. Business leaders continue to struggle finding qualified professionals to fill their ranks but historically, these companies were only looking to recruit a specific kind of individual. As society progresses, it is absolutely critical to show young women the vast array of career paths that are available in the manufacturing space. These careers provide sustainable income with nearly limitless vertical potential. This is one of the goals of NJMEP’s ‘Year of Women in Manufacturing’ initiative. It is an industry-wide effort to highlight trailblazing women leaders that have broken the mold and give these individuals a platform to share their stories and be role models for the next generation of women manufacturing and STEM leaders.
Aixa Lopez, P.E, is currently Operations Oversight for the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey but she wasn’t always in that position. She began her career in the manufacturing space and took the time to share her personal experiences with NJMEP. Her story provides an incredible look into the value of this professional field. Lopez provided amazing insight into her career path and was willing to offer guidance on how the next generation can get involved in the field.
Come explore Aixa Lopez’s story of how she found herself in the industry and the valuable lessons she learned and applied to her work outside manufacturing.
Aixa Lopez – ‘Year of Women in Manufacturing’
Aixa was born and raised in Puerto Rico. She went to the University of Puerto Rico-Engineering School and graduated with a bachelor’s in industrial engineering. Lopez knew that the best path to find a sustainable career was to head to the manufacturing industry with her newfound knowledge and degree. She interviewed with the J&J subsidiary, Ethicon where she was offered a position as a production supervisor and technology transfer. She was just 21 years old when they put her in charge of 75 production associates.
Using her engineering skill set, she had the opportunity to observe and analyze the production process she was now responsible for directing. Every day she would spend a few extra hours working with the IT Department to develop a spreadsheet algorithm that received production throughput data to calculate shift productivity. The company was massively impressed by the initiative and its value and promoted Aixa from her 3rd shift position to 1st shift. She went on to implement a manufacturing planning software company-wide and was directly responsible for helping the organization rectify its severe backorder issue. After J&J, she moved on to work for Medtronic, where she expanded packaging output and implemented a pull system that ended the raw material shortages the company was facing. Aixa was and still is a problem solver. Her engineering experience and her creative approach to problem-solving are an asset in the manufacturing industry and can be applied to any other line of work.
The Path Forward – Manufacturing and Beyond
Her journey ultimately led her to become an accomplished and trusted engineering and operational consultant and volunteer her time to the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of NJ. The skills and experience she has acquired throughout her career allow her to excel in both positions. A few questions remained about how she found herself in a position to explore the manufacturing industry which she was happy to answer.
Mike Womack, Marketing and Communications Manager from NJMEP asked (MW): “What led you to become an engineer? Can you share some examples of hurdles you had to overcome, personally and professionally?”
Aixa Lopez (AL): “I never thought I was going to become an engineer. I loved numbers, but I also loved fixing things. When I was researching career fields, I found industrial engineering. I loved how it was described. It was the interconnection between machines and people.
The biggest challenge I see is that people like to put boundaries on career fields. For example, when people think about engineering, they only think about manufacturing, design, or construction. I’ve worked in all of them and in marketing, business development, and nonprofits. There are no boundaries in engineering. You can apply it to anything.
Being a woman in the industry has also been difficult, especially in the 90s when all production supervisors were male. In the year 2000, I made a shift and entered the Public Works/Construction industry, which was a challenge. I was the first woman Director of Public Works in the municipality and the first non-civil engineer in charge of almost 300 employees. However, I stuck to what I knew; managing and communicating were my “go-to” skills, and when the employees saw the results and transformation of the processes, the paradigm shifted. Suddenly, a young female industrial engineer didn’t seem odd.”
This led to the next question, and just as in past ‘Year of Women in Manufacturing’ interviews, female role models in the industrial space were nearly impossible to come by. Instead, Aixa has become a strong, talented, and accomplished role model for the next generation of young women entering the field.
An essential aspect of a role model or mentor is passing down advice that came out of years of personal experience. The next question focuses on the advice every young woman considering her career path should hear.
MW: “What advice would you give to young women that are exploring career opportunities?”
AL: “I would say that they should think about what they like and explorecareer fields they can develop and thrive in. Also, to look at their career as a moving target and a universe of possibilities.
I’ve had many people in my career believed in me and encourage me to “go for it”. You need those people in your life.
We need to teach girls not to take things personally, to open their ears and eyes, and embrace opportunities even if they feel unsure. We have so much potential to lead, grow, and make a difference.”
Manufacturing is a much different field than it was a couple of decades ago. Aixa shared her perspective on why there were so few women in the manufacturing industry historically; The field is demanding and before the internet, cell phones, and remote technology, people had to be on the shop floor around the clock if an error occurred. It was impossible to balance this environment with starting a family. Flexibility and support are still a challenge that need to be addressed to attract and retain more women in the industry. However, it is much easier to achieve today on both the business owners’ side and the employers’ end.
Studies have shown a diverse workforce leads to a productive and profitable business. Aixa has seen this firsthand. She stated that “Diversity triggers synergy. The interaction of diverse agents produces a combined effect more significant than the sum of their particular parts.” When she worked in public works, she had departments and teams that were made up of individuals whose ages ranged from 18 to 75 years old. When she tackled a project, she would consult the young and old to use their unique perspective to find the best possible solution. The same goes for gender diversity. When people grow up and experience the world differently, they can bring that unique experience to their work. The benefits are impossible to ignore.
“Embracing diversity and everyone’s strengths brings the best outcome possible to any organizational goal. Result-driven organizations execute, adjust, and grow by allowing their diverse workforces to pave the path toward a business thriving. There’s no automation, machine, or AI that can replace what a diverse and motivated workforce can attain,” Lopez explained.
The Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey (SHCCNJ) is the largest Chamber of Commerce in the state. It represents over 120,000 small business owners from all sectors, contributing over $20 billion to the state’s economy. Manufacturing is of particular interest to the chamber. They have a significant number of entrepreneurs involved in manufacturing, importing/exporting, logistics, supply chain, and other critical aspects of the industry.
SHCCNJ works extensively with NJMEP’s Pro-Action Education Network to help individuals in local New Jersey communities gain the necessary skill set to thrive in a manufacturing career. The chamber supports the entrepreneurial side by running an 8-week program for Latina business owners which is completely free and sets out to help women scale up their businesses. At the same time, the instructors help guide these professionals better address women-related issues they face while conducting business. The Modern Latina event is another way they support this demographic. It provides a platform for professional women to speak about their experiences and discuss women in any industry.
When Aixa began volunteering at the Chamber in 2014, her engineering hat kicked in. She began identifying ways to improve the organization, address critical challenges, and became an unstoppable force elevating the SHCCNJ to new heights. All her work culminated in an efficient, and effective Chamber of Commerce that gives back to the local community and supports all its members in a multitude of unique ways. Her approach to addressing challenges head-on, creating plans of action, and measuring results are a direct result of her work in the manufacturing space. Sharing Aixa’s story should serve as an inspirational message to any young women as they explore their career options. Engineering, manufacturing, and industrial work of all kinds provide sustainable income and exceptional foundational skills.
2022 is NJMEP’s ‘Year of Women in Manufacturing’ for a reason. Stories like the one shared here are instrumental in encouraging more young women to explore fruitful careers in the STEM space. Throughout the year NJMEP will be connecting with more women business leaders and giving them a platform to share their experiences and shine a light on these incredible individuals through articles and speaking events.
More women are entering the field than ever before. These incredible people need role models to look up to and learn from as they’ve already walked the path and can now help guide others. If you’re a woman in manufacturing, engineering, or any STEM discipline or know of one that has a story to share, reach out to Mike Womack, NJMEP Marketing & Communications Manager to set up an interview or learn about upcoming Women in Manufacturing-focused speaking opportunities, today.
Mike Womack, Marketing & Communications Manager