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Cornell Engineering

Alumni share thought process behind early career paths

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Hilary Renison ’05, M.Eng. ’07, M.B.A. ’09
Digital and Strategic Marketing, GE

Hilary Renison ’05, M.Eng. ’07, M.B.A. ’09, flew her first airplane when she was just 12-years-old. Growing up on Long Island, she had enrolled in Nassau County’s Aviation Operations program for high school students with the dream of traveling the world as a commercial airline pilot.

By the age of 16, Renison was already flying solo and had enrolled at Cornell Engineering to study mechanical and aerospace engineering, becoming part of the first generation in her family to attend a four-year university. With her eyes on the sky, Renison was on the fast track to achieving her dream. But once at Cornell, she would discover a new passion for engineering that would have her navigating a new course, eventually leading to her strategic marketing career at General Electric (GE).

Renison was just beginning her undergraduate education at Cornell when a physics professor asked the young student an enlightening question regarding her ambition to travel and experience the world. “My professor said, ‘why would you want to get an engineering degree so you can be a glorified taxi driver? You’re going to fly to a city, go to sleep, if lucky, wake up the next day and fly out,’” recalled Renison. “I had never thought of it that way,” she added. That was the moment she first started to think about engineering as a career, as well as the global impact she could have with a technical discipline.

Renison decided to explore the areas of energy and health. She joined the Odysseus space exploration team, published research on 3D printing and biomedicine, and contributed to the winning designs of the world-champion Formula SAE race car team. She eventually decided to focus on energy. “I recognized the interconnection of access to energy and economic development,” said Renison. “To reach one’s full potential in the world we know today, I felt it was critical that communities would have access to electricity. You could study longer at night by light, improve health with refrigeration for food and a reduction on dependency on biomass for cooking or heat—things that are paramount to any developed society. So I focused on energy because I wanted to make a positive difference in the world.”

Renison worked full-time for Cornell Engineering’s Office of Diversity Programs while taking two years to earn her master’s degree. Wanting to learn more about commercializing energy technologies, she then went on to obtain a M.B.A. from Cornell’s Johnson School. During the summers she would intern at oil and gas giant BP.

Seeing oil and gas operations first-hand, Renison developed an interest in cleaner technology and opted to pursue the topic while studying abroad at a French business school during the last fall of her M.B.A. While the experience was invaluable, the time away meant Renison had missed the full-time recruiting cycle. Finding a job outside of the traditional cycle would have been challenging, especially in 2009 at the start of the Great Recession.

Renison say she doesn’t regret her decision to study abroad. Rather than accept a job that wasn’t the right fit, “I decided to make the most of my summer and explore something I was passionate about,” she said. Before entering the job field she spent her last summer interning abroad for the Indian company Duron Energy, which focused on bringing point-of-use solar products to rural communities. The experience reinforced Renison’s understanding of the role energy plays in socioeconomics. “I observed poverty where there was no social system to aid the poor, the disabled, the sick. It was a wake up call for me and it made me really appreciate the blessings I had been given,” she recalled of her time in rural India.

It was during those eight months that Renison found her way into a high-visibility technical development program at GE Renewable Energy. There, she would focus on sales, product management and technical customer support, giving her the opportunity to climb and troubleshoot wind turbines. Within three years, Renison had learned how the technology was designed, manufactured, installed and operated.

After gaining a ground-level perspective of how renewable energy technologies are produced, Renison graduated from the program and moved on to become a power economics consultant for GE Energy Consulting. During those two years, she gained a better understanding of how renewables fit into the broader power-generation picture, modeling power plants and generating data on power demand, fuel prices and profit forecasts.

Renison felt her work experience had provided her with invaluable technical knowledge about the renewable energy industry, but soon she wanted a job that would more formally apply her business degree toward commercialization. That’s when a fellow Cornell alum working at GE invited her to apply for the position she currently holds at the company, within an executive readiness program. GE’s Experienced Commercial Leadership Program places promising employees on a two-to-five-year trajectory for an executive-level position. Renison is specifically focused on digital marketing and building new platforms that change the way GE works with its clients. “I find myself now in the commercial space but I bring that engineering mindset of looking at a complex problem, breaking it down into manageable components and solving each as you go, day-by-day,” said Renison.

Her term in the leadership program will end in June and that’s when she’ll be looking for her next opportunity, hopefully still along the lines of digital marketing and analytics, says Renison.

She has navigated the career field with a certain confidence thanks to the educational foundation she received at Cornell, but in moments of doubt she also thinks back to when she was 16, sitting in the cockpit waiting to fly her first solo flight. “I was scared like you would not believe. Knots in my stomach, stiffness in my chest. And in that moment I realized I was never going to get where I wanted to go unless I took off,” said Renison. “And I see the parallels in that experience to where I live and work today, where even if there is doubt or I find myself asking ‘will this work,’ I’ve always jumped in with two feet. It’s calculated and I make sure I have the experience required to be successful, but despite the nerves, you have to push through and take off.”

Looking back at her career path, Renison says every step of her experience brought value to her life, from flying airplanes to living abroad, having great mentors to missing her M.B.A. recruitment cycle. “Even some of those bumps and bruises, I needed them to be who I am today,” said Renison.