Sebnem Tugce Pala is a public policy professional with deep experience in the field of sustainable transportation. She has worked as the Energy Grant Strategy Director for Miami’s first unicorn startup, REEF Technology and led AmpUp’s Public Policy and Government Affairs team. Sebnem attended the Professional Diploma Program in Business Administration and Project Management at UC Berkeley and received her MA in Development Studies at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva (IHEID) as well as an MA in International Political Economy at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom.
We sat down with Sebnem to learn more about her career, interests and plans for the Mentorship Program.
Q: How did you become involved in the autonomous driving industry?
While studying at UC Berkeley, I conducted policy research on autonomous drones and autonomous vehicles at the Transportation Sustainability Research Center. My policy research on autonomous vehicles was an eye-opening experience, and I became more involved in the autonomous driving industry. I believe that sustainability in transportation starts with autonomous vehicles; this pandemic has been a game changer for autonomous vehicles in every aspect and has highlighted the significance of the deployment of this technology.
Q: When did you join WIA? Why did you decide to join?
I joined WIA in 2019. I was attending WIA events regularly before the pandemic. Women in Autonomy is a great platform for female leaders where they can educate, inspire and guide each other. Thus, I decided to join and am so happy to be part of the community.
Q: How has mentorship influenced your career?
I wholeheartedly believe that mentorship is a long journey. As for both parties (mentees and mentors), mentorship is an amazing learning experience. That being said, I learned more about myself through the WIA mentorship program. I enhanced my active listening skills and I better understood the importance of giving and receiving feedback, as well as asking the right questions and expressing appreciation and gratitude. Without a doubt, this has been a huge contribution to my career.
Q: Why did you decide to participate in the WIA Mentorship Program?
Thanks to the WIA events before the pandemic, I knew that the organization is full of female leaders and I have always enjoyed meeting female executives, policy makers, engineers and academics who are interested in autonomy and technology. Once WIA launched their Mentorship Program, I signed up for it right away. This Mentorship Program has given me the opportunity to meet inspiring female leaders and to discuss the common challenges that we are facing in this challenging industry and grow together.
Q: What inspired you to take on the role of Mentorship Program Director?
Just before the end of the previous term, we (mentees and mentors) were invited to a happy hour event where we had the chance to provide feedback and learn more about the experiences of other mentees/mentors and the peer mentoring groups. I previously participated in other mentorship programs so I had some suggestions for developing WIA’s program further. They really appreciated my feedback and offered me the role of Mentorship Program Director. As I am passionate about autonomy and women's leadership, I decided to take on this role and see the impact of my suggestions directly.
Q: What are your goals for the program?
First and foremost, I would like this program to be an enjoyable experience for everyone. I aim to create our own Mentorship Guidebook, Checklist and Agreement Template. I plan to have more regular check-ins with our mentors/mentees and peer mentoring groups and share suggestions for books, TED Talks and articles. More importantly, I hope to offer my guidance, feedback, and make sure that everything is running smoothly and is in line with WIA’s mission.
Q: What are you most looking forward to in this new role?
I would love to empower female leadership in this new role. I have previously worked as the Program Director for other mentorship programs, however, this program specifically enables women to grow their careers and network, sharing invaluable experiences with each other. Despite being the Program Director, I am still part of a peer mentoring group. I am most looking forward to inspiring my fellow participants and to continue to be inspired by them.
Experienced guidance is a key tool for career advancement in any field.
When it comes to achieving career goals, it’s easier to realize individual success with the guidance of a helping hand.
Even as more women enter the tech industry, mentorship is still lacking — according to a recent survey, more than half of women report never having a mentor, even though 67 percent rated it as highly important to career advancement. For those who have been able to receive mentorship, however, it has proven to be an invaluable resource for professional development.
During the most recent Women in Autonomy digital event, members cited mentorship as a way to build collective knowledge that is especially valuable in emerging fields such as autonomous driving. It also provides a space to regularly discuss career goals and common professional challenges.
According to workplace research institute, Coqual, these benefits ring true for many women in STEM fields. In a 2019 survey, the organization found that women who reported having a sponsor in the workplace were 37 percent more likely to ask for a raise and 119 percent more likely to have their ideas developed.
These relationships don’t just have a positive impact on those directly involved. Research from leadership consulting firm Development Dimensions International shows that companies as a whole benefit from strong mentorship programs, with improved internal communication and employee retention.
The Missing Link
Despite the visible benefits, a gap in consistent female mentorship throughout the automotive and tech industries persists.
One cause is the lack of supply of potential mentors. Just 8 percent of executives in the top 20 automotive companies in the Fortune 500 are women, while female workers account for about 18 percent of both mid-level and senior-level manager positions.
For those looking to start their own business, finding female founders to emulate can be just as difficult. Among the thousands of publicly traded companies, just 20 are founded and run by women.
To be sure, male mentors can be just as valuable, and mentorship is an investment on both sides of the relationship that provides value for both professional and personal development. However, having female role models who have surmounted similar obstacles, from executives to founders, helps promote the “if you can see it, you can be it” mentality among women early in their careers.
Additional challenges specific to women in the automotive and automotive tech industries include lack of time and flexible schedule for additional responsibilities outside of dedicated job roles, and, in some cases, an unpleasant work environment, according to a joint study from Deloitte and Automotive News.
Flipping the Script
Though obstacles persist, there are still ways women seeking mentorship can build such relationships as well as instill lasting systems of support for those who come after.
Women in Autonomy is dedicated to empowering women in our industry, launching a Mentorship Program last fall. If you or someone you know is looking to share their knowledge, skills and journey to rising women in the automotive or autotech industry, or if you're looking to learn from those who’ve walked before in order to grow your career and network, apply to be a mentor or mentee today! Applications for the 6-month Spring 2021 program are open through January 31st.
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