Seeking Success: How McMaster EcoCAR is Empowering Women in STEM Leadership

Written by: Rida Khan and Kyle Wyndham-West

Diversity is a crucial component of the McMaster EcoCAR team. Diverse backgrounds, opinions and leadership are important to the team’s performance as the students take pride in fostering an inclusive and fair atmosphere where all members feel welcome. Gender equity and empowerment are two important areas of focus for the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Subteam this year.

Through community outreach and engagement, the McMaster EcoCAR team strives to empower women by highlighting opportunities for women in STEM in order to gain experience and facilitate an increased representation of women in leadership roles on the team. We sat down with the Project Manager and Mechanical Lead of our team to gain insight into how McMaster EcoCAR has impacted the lives of young women. 

Nilou Keshmiri first joined the McMaster EcoCAR team in May of 2022 as the team’s Project Manager. Currently taking on the combined role of Project Manager and Engineering Manager, Nilou is an integral part of the team’s success. Her role entails overseeing the project schedule from beginning to completion, ensuring that the team of over 170 members have the necessary resources to succeed. At a higher level, she manages and facilitates between the technical leads and competition management, offering her support and expertise where it is needed. 

Nilou’s interest in STEM-related activities was first sparked in High school, where she discovered her passion for the subjects of Math and Physics. Pursuing this passion into her undergraduate studies, she strategically picked McMaster University as her academic institution of choice to take advantage of its general First-year Engineering program. Upon completing her first internship at Eaton Aerospace in 2019, Nilou resolved about continuing her learning and growth even further. According to Nilou, “I realized how much I don’t know and just how much more I want to learn.”

Her interest in power electronics and electrical engineering only grew further as she continued to pursue graduate studies at the McMaster Automotive Resource Center (MARC), under the supervision of McMaster EcoCAR’s Lead Faculty Advisor, Dr. Ali Emadi. When asked about her continued evolution she said, “Pursuing a Ph.D would not only enhance my knowledge in power electronics, but also give me the expertise required to lead a group of people.” Nilou has made her goal a reality, now guiding the Technical, DEI, and Communications teams towards success in the EcoCAR competition. 

As she looks toward the future, Nilou strives towards ambitious goals of a career involving both technical and managerial aspects in the EV industry, similar to her role in EcoCAR. She attributes much of her experiential learning to her involvement in McMaster EcoCAR. Nilou described the importance of having a support system to navigate the world of STEM. “There is a huge support system at McMaster and within EcoCAR. It’s important to interact with mentors and use them as a role model” she says. “Don’t let the fear of “what if” stop you from pursuing what you want to do – if you enjoy it, go for it.”

Nilou serves as a role model to the women on the McMaster EcoCAR team, inspiring confidence and leadership. One of those women includes Carolyn Visser.

Carolyn’s interest in STEM was sparked when she was only 10 years old after joining the FIRST Lego League, a program that guides youth through STEM learning and exploration at an early age. She was intrigued by the idea of robotics and mechanics, a subject she continued to explore at her all-girls high school. Her experience in an all-female learning environment grew her confidence in a typically male-dominated engineering industry. “To grow up in an environment where women were doing everything, I learned that we can do everything. It was an interesting perspective to bring going into an engineering program.” 

Her EcoCAR journey started 4 years ago, when she first joined the mechanical team as a general member. “One of the reasons I joined EcoCAR was because it was one of the more inviting clubs in engineering. I was drawn to its supportive and inclusive environment,” Carolyn said.

After years of dedication and growth, Carolyn, now in her final year of undergraduate studies, manages that same team in her role as Mechanical Lead. She recounts her EcoCAR journey as a unique and distinct experience, unlike other extracurricular groups. “EcoCAR has been the only place in my engineering career so far where I haven’t felt different for being a woman,” says Carolyn. She attributes her confidence in her choice of program in part to her role in McMaster EcoCAR’s mechanical team. “It really solidified that I wanted to continue to be in engineering. I love the work that we do on this team” she says. Carolyn aims to capitalize on the skillset she has built upon through her tenure in McMaster EcoCAR to pursue a leadership role in the future. 

Currently, 22% of the McMaster EcoCAR team identify as women, while 20% of leadership identify as women. The McMaster team believes the solution to attracting more women into STEM is through promotion and appreciation. It’s about capturing young women’s natural curiosity about STEM subjects and making them an integral part of their academic and personal growth. The team firmly believes this will lead to greater diversity in STEM in the future and a higher degree of inclusivity.

To tackle the first step in greater diversity, the McMaster EcoCAR DEI subteam is setting up the Committee on Creating Women Spaces (CCWS); this committee will be fully voluntary, women-led, and drop-in style. The purpose of the committee is to create a list of changes that need to occur within McMaster EcoCAR to make the team more inclusive and diverse, create peer support for women members of the team, and hold leadership accountable. The committee will be instrumental in creating a more inclusive space at McMaster EcoCAR, providing leadership opportunities to new members, and creating a stronger reputation for being equitable.

Additionally, the McMaster EcoCAR team is excited to host both internal and external initiatives such as outreach events, speaker panels, and networking events that serve to highlight the stories of incredible female leaders in the community and empower young girls and women interested in STEM to join the cause. 

Most recently on January 17th, the team hosted its first-ever Women in STEM Conference, a community event featuring strong women leaders from organizations such as General Motors, RBC, BrightDrop, Mastercard and more. Attendees had the privilege of hearing from these independent leaders about Carmela Trombetta VP at RBC, Heather Sheardown the Dean of Engineering at McMaster University, Sahar Kokaly a Software Safety Engineering Leader at General Motors, Amanda Kalhous an Engineering Manager, Data & Analytics at BrightDrop, and Shreyasi Khopade the Lead Software Development Engineer at Mastercard.

We hope to further highlight the importance of women in STEM and the impacts their contributions have made on both our team and in industry.

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