Terri Helmlinger M.B.A. '85

Engineering Change
Writer: 
August 1, 2005

Terri Helmlinger M.B.A. '85

A cheerleader Barbie doll in its original box stands on a table in Terri Helmlinger's office at North Carolina State University, a prominent counterpoint to the hardhats, design schematics, and other engineering trappings nearby.

Helmlinger adopted Barbie as a role model a few years ago when she was campaigning for the presidency of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). Despite the doll's often vilified anatomical proportions, she says she sees Barbie, in some ways, as representing the epitome of female success.

"Barbie has done everything women of my age could dream of," the fifty-one-year-old Helmlinger says. "She's been an astronaut, a physician. She's always hip."

But Barbie has never headed a 60,000-member organization of engineers. Helmlinger achieved that when she was named president of NSPE in 2003, becoming the first female leader in the group's seventy-year history.

Not content to be the answer to an industry trivia question, the blunt-talking Helmlinger used her year in charge to begin breaking the glass ceiling in engineering, NSPE Executive Director Albert Gray says. Less than 10 percent of licensed professional engineers are women (a similarly small percentage are members of minority groups), and so Helmlinger established a task force to devise ways for the profession to broaden its appeal. She also set up a committee to stem a long, slow slide in the organization's membership.

"She really sparked some significant changes that will benefit NSPE in the long run," Gray says. "Terri's a very experienced executive, and she inspired people to work with her."

Helmlinger's own inspiration came from NASA recruiters who visited N.C. State, where she was a disenchanted undergraduate education major, to encourage more female engineers.

After earning her industrial engineering degree, she started up the career ladder at Carolina Power & Light, now Progress Energy. Her M.B.A. accelerated her climb through the Raleigh-based utility's operations and marketing departments.

In 1999, she jumped at the chance to lead the Industrial Extension Service (IES) at N.C. State. The program helps manufacturers across the state become more competitive by solving production problems, which, in turn, keeps jobs in North Carolina. "I really wanted to get back out on the factory floor," she says, acknowledging that a female engineer elicited more than a few raised eyebrows among managers in client companies. "Achieving results promotes acceptance pretty quickly."

To achieve results within IES, she brought a corporate mentality and private-sector emphasis on execution to a sometimes slow-moving bureaucracy. Client surveys have shown the program returning more than $469-million in direct annual gain to the state since 2000, either in jobs saved or company profits. That success has helped IES survive state and federal budget cuts in recent years and earned Helmlinger the additional title of assistant vice chancellor of extension and engagement at N.C. State in 2002.

Saying she is disappointed that people still view engineering as a man's field, Helmlinger hopes her work can prevent young women looking to enter the profession from being dismissed.

"I've been the first woman for a lot of things, and that requires, quite frankly, a lot of guts," she says. "Going through all that gives me credibility, but I don't think another young woman should have to go through it."