Breaking rules to explore new ways to help humanity
On her way to the Technical and Engineering Career Fair held on Cornell's Ithaca campus last fall, Georgia Crowther '14 was in agony. Her eye was swollen and infected and she says, "it looked absolutely disgusting." She imagined sitting down for an interview and realized that the old rule about making eye contact would not serve her well. Rather than go into the cavernous Barton Hall and tough out her internship interviews, she turned around and went back to her dorm, feeling a bit deflated.
Crowther was in the fall of her junior year at Cornell, majoring in mechanical engineering, and she knew that the internship a student lands during the summer before senior year often leads to a full time post-graduation job offer. She told her friend about what happened and he suggested she look into the Kessler Fellows Program at Cornell Engineering. Crowther had not heard of the program, but she went to an informational session and was excited by what she heard.
To understand her excitement, it is important to know about both her and the program. You get a sense from listening to her speak and watching her eyes light up as she talks about the things she loves that Georgia Crowther is all about keeping possibilities open. "Since I was a kid I knew I loved science. My mom used to do science demos for me at home. It has always been a part of my life," she says. "I chose mechanical engineering because it leaves the most doors open. From there, I can go lots of different ways."
The Kessler Fellows program aims to offer a year-long experience that would not otherwise be readily available to engineering undergrads at Cornell. Students accepted to the program are enrolled in a spring course focused on entrepreneurism, create a summer work experience for themselves with a start-up, and then participate in a symposium series in their senior year. It is a unique model where the students who are accepted into the program find their own opportunities. Kessler Fellows Program Director Tracey Brant says, "these summer placements are utterly personalized. Students work together with the start-up they are interested in to create a real project with real deliverables that really helps the company." Brant says the goal of these self-created summer placements is "to create projects that cross the business-engineering boundary."
When Crowther heard this, she was hooked. "Academics are important. But more importantly, you have to do what you love," says Crowther. "A traditional internship was not my thing. I wanted to get out there and do real things. Getting involved with start-ups is not the typical internship route, but it was what I needed to do." Brant helps Kessler Fellows identify their own beliefs, principles, and goals. They develop a personal statement that they then use to guide their search for a placement company. Crowther said the lesson she has learned from her work in the Kessler Fellows program is "you have to drive your own bus. When I do something, I do it with purpose. I want it to work and be useful and make a difference. I want to see that difference in the world."
After much research, Crowther identified the start-up she wanted to work with for her placement in the summer of 2013. "As soon as I saw the website for Social Bicycles, I knew they were the place for me," says Crowther, again, her eyes wide with excitement. "Their values lined up with mine perfectly." This emphasis on values is something Crowther returns to again and again. "Part of the beauty of engineering at Cornell is that is it very interdisciplinary. We talk a lot about ethics and values; we talk about customer service; we take a class on effective writing. Cornell is very different from other engineering schools."
"I called SoBi, talked with them about what I wanted, and they jumped at the chance right away." Crowther spent the summer of 2013 living and working in New York City. Social Bicycles is a start-up comprised of engineers, designers, and urban planners. Their bikes have a GPS unit and keyboard interface that allow users to find, reserve, and rent a bicycle from any location in a city or campus served by Social Bicycles. When a rider is finished using a bike, it can be parked at any bike rack in the hub location. Its whereabouts are tracked by an app that allows SoBi and its users to see where all available bikes are parked in real time. Crowther had a great summer and had the chance to work on all aspects of the company, from rolling out a program in Hoboken, NJ to designing and 3-D printing new parts for the bikes. This combination of business and engineering is exactly the point of the Kessler Fellows Program.
"I loved it. I got to do everything I wanted to do. And when it was over, they made me an offer for after graduation." (Here comes that word again.) "I am going to take their offer. SoBi's values align with mine so perfectly," says Crowther. Her excitement for the company and for the future is palpable. "These bikes and this business model open a city to lots of people. It's green, it leads to less congestion, and it is cheap. I cannot wait to go back and do more design work."
Before she can head back to New York and start making SoBi's bikes even better, Crowther has the small matter of her senior year to take care of. In addition to her classes, she will be the head of the Mars Rover competition student project team and she will be tackling an individual research project to design and 3-D print dielectric soft actuators, which can act as "muscles" in robotic motion. Eventually, Crowther would like to go to graduate school and start her own company. "Cornell has helped me see that as an engineer I have the opportunity to look at the world and see what works and what doesn't. I have the privilege to try to make it better." Crowther's eye infection has long since gone away and the future is looking bright indeed.