Keep Saying “Yes” to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)

Betty Baker was the only female mechanical engineer to graduate from her college class. She was also the first female product engineer hired at Ashley Furniture Industries, Inc., over 35 years ago. The company is headquartered in Arcadia, Wisconsin, and manufactures and distributes home furniture products worldwide.

“There are inherent challenges in being the only woman in the engineering department,” says Baker. “I had to work extra hard initially to earn respect and prove myself.” Things have changed a lot over the years, and Baker freely admits that she likes working in a male-dominated field. “I have become ‘one of the guys,’” laughs Baker.

Finding Direction

Right out of high school and with no clue about what to do next, Baker started out on the Ashley Furniture factory floor as a fabrication catcher, which is exactly like it sounds: Baker “caught” parts as they came off a machine, checked them, and piled them on a skid. From there she moved up to machine operator.

Her initial plan was to stay at Ashley for a year, figure out what she wanted to do with her life, and move on. However, Baker really liked the environment, the people, and the work at Ashley Furniture, so she stayed longer than anticipated. Soon she was drawing parts by hand, and that got her thinking about going to college for mechanical engineering. Then the company started a tuition reimbursement program, so Baker enrolled part-time at a local college and took a CAD class. “From that point on I was hooked,” she says.

Learning and Mastering 3D CAD

“When we first got SOLIDWORKS® at Ashley Furniture, I was terrified,” Baker remembers. “I was used to working in 2D, so it was intimidating. But after I started using SOLIDWORKS, I liked it right away, and so did other engineers at our company.” Baker now works in the domestic case goods department; the company also leverages SOLIDWORKS in its upholstery and robotics division. “You can use SOLIDWORKS for everything,” Baker enthuses.

After a couple of years with SOLIDWORKS, Ashley Furniture started an internal SOLIDWORKS user group, and an external user group followed. Today Baker is the president of the La Crosse, Eau Claire, and Winona Area (LEWA) SOLIDWORKS User Group, and she is also the Midwest U.S. representative for the SOLIDWORKS User Group Network. Baker has been a speaker at many SOLIDWORKS events and is an advocate for women in engineering and manufacturing. She has also taught SOLIDWORKS for two summers at Western Technical College, using her vacation time to do so.

Always Say “Yes” to Opportunity

On a lark, Baker became a FIRST Robotics coach.

When the automation manager at Ashley Furniture asked her to coach, Baker was hesitant at first. She knew nothing about FIRST Robotics, so she relied on a tried-and-true personal philosophy when new opportunities present themselves: “Just say yes.” To dip her toes in the proverbial water, Baker attended a FIRST Robotics competition.

“I had only planned on being there 15 minutes,” says Baker. “Four hours later we left the competition and had already decided that Ashley Furniture needed to sponsor its own FIRST Robotics team.” Because of timing, Baker had to register their “team” right away, even though they didn’t have a team, or a team name, or any students to populate the team.

Now What the Heck Do We Do?

“We were so disorganized and clueless about what we were doing,” laughs Baker. Being from a smaller community, Baker and other FIRST Robotics mentors from Ashley Furniture needed to reach beyond their city’s borders to find enough kids. They traveled to area schools hoping to recruit students for their FIRST Robotics team. They eventually convinced twenty students to sign up.

“I remember coming into one of our very first team meetings about building a robot. One of our adult mentors was teaching the kids ‘righty-tighty, lefty-loosey.’ And I remember thinking: Oh, brother! Seriously?! We are going to have the very first FIRST Robotics team where the kids don’t know how to tighten a bolt.”

The kids dove headfirst into the project heart and soul.

Pulling Out All the Stops

Amazingly, at their first official robotics competition, FIRST Robotics team #7021, coached by Betty Baker, Andy Baker (no relation), and a host of mentors, won first place! That same year the team qualified for the FIRST Robotics World Championship. “We have great resources at Ashley Furniture,” says Baker. “Of the three years of competition, we have qualified for the World Championship twice.”

Baker continues: “Anyone can join our team. I mean anyone. It is not just for engineering nerds. We need a variety of kids that bring different talents and skills to the table.” The team needs kids for fundraising, a key component to their continued survival. “We teach the kids not to rely on just one big sponsor (like Ashley Furniture), so the kids helped us find additional sponsors. They sent letters, asked for money, and went to talk to companies in-person to ask for support.” Students are needed for programming, accounting, travel arrangements, marketing, and more—it is just like running a real business.

The team also held a steak fry to raise money. The kids served the food and washed the dishes. “We currently have 50 sponsors thanks to the students hard work,” says Baker.

The Uncomfortable Zone

Baker wants kids to step outside of their comfort zones. She continually encourages the FIRST Robotics students to say “Yes” and to try new things. “I personally never had a role model, so if I can help someone get on their career path before high school graduation, that makes me happy,” says Baker. “Our first year, we had a senior who knew CAD so he did the design in SOLIDWORKS. Our second year, a young female student wanted to learn SOLIDWORKS 3D CAD. She learned it quickly and loved every minute of designing the robot.”

Baker is in her fourth year of coaching FIRST Robotics. And Ashley Furniture now also supports a middle school STEM program called Vex Robotics. Trempealeau County Robotics also started their own middle school Vex Robotics team where experienced FIRST Robotics students mentor their Vex Robotics students. “We believe in giving back so to reward graduating seniors for their hard work in the FIRST Robotics program and help them to the next step of their career, students may apply for a $1000 scholarship from the team,” says Baker. “We are so proud of our students, and they really do have a leg up in college because of their participation in the robotics program.”

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Mitch Bossart is a technology enthusiast and loves to write about product development and innovation. Whether working with Fortune 100 companies or feisty startups, Mitch finds every story unique and often inspiring.