An Industrial Engineer Shares Her Story and Career Advice

June 22, 2021
Dr. Mansooreh Mollaghasemi combines practice and academia to forge her own path.

Dr. Mansooreh Mollaghasemi is the CEO of FleetZoo, where she leads the strategic direction behind the company’s cloud-based route planning and optimization software. She is also CEO of Productivity Apex, Inc., a solutions provider for major transportation and government customers and a tenured associate professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Systems at the University of Central Florida. In this video chat, Mollaghasemi is candid about her reasons for venturing into her own engineering business, talks about coping with work-life balance and offers advice for women who wish to follow in her shoes.

Video Transcript

Rehana Begg: Hello everyone. My name is Rehana Begg and I'm a senior editor with Machine Design and Hydraulics & Pneumatics. Our exploration of how manufacturers can do better at using their resources to promote systemic change and decrease the barriers that lead to the attrition of women engineers continues. Today, we're joined by Dr. Mansooreh Mollaghasemi, founder of FleetZoo, where she leads the strategic direction for the software company. She's also chairman and CEO of Productivity Apex, a solutions provider for major transportation and government customers. Thank you for joining our conversation, Dr. Mollaghasemi.

Mansooreh Mollaghasemi: My pleasure.

Begg: It's such a pleasure to have you. I'd love to hear exactly how you got started in the field. Why did you choose engineering?

Mollaghasemi: So as as we talked earlier, I was born and was raised in my mid-teens in Iran. I actually got my high school diploma pretty early at 16. And as you know, on that side of the world, math and science is extremely key to kids' education. So if you are good in math and science, engineering was the way to go. So naturally, and I had a lot of engineers in my family, so my role models were engineers. And it was just cool as a girl to be good at math and wanting to go into engineering.

So I started as a chemical engineer because I was good at chemistry. And chemical engineering arguably is the most difficult field of engineering, and I like challenges. So I started as a chemical engineer, got a bachelor's, got a master's. And you know, I think now I have a 22-year-old. Kids, you know, they choose their path a little bit more than my age. At that time you kind of started changing was taboo. So even though I didn't love it, but I did well in it.

And then I after my master's, I worked for a few years and realized I'm a people person. I don't want to be in a chemical plant, I want to work with people. And just by accident, I got introduced to industrial engineering, fell in love with it, so decided to pursue my PhD in industrial engineering. Best thing I ever did for myself, both in terms of getting into field of industrial engineering because it's so vast and so varied and so diverse and getting a PhD because I sincerely believe it opens doors that you otherwise don't open for yourself. At least that was true for my case. And I love teaching.

So naturally when I got my PhD, now, more and more students are going into industry at the time. Really top of your list was academia. So I was very, very fortunate to end up in Orlando because Orlando, unlike what people think that this is, you know, House of Mickey, there are so many different industries here that you can take your pick. So that's a long-winded answer to why I wanted to be an engineer and how I ended up there.

Begg: But you went on and used that knowledge as well in a very practical way with which leads to Apex Productivity [Productivity Apex]. Tell me about that experience.

Mollaghasemi: Yeah, so I was always an applied research person. I always wanted to use what I know to solve an actual problem. A lot of my colleagues wanted to do a National Science Foundation to do basic research, and you do that in your PhD dissertation. I knew at a young age, fairly young age, I didn't want to just sit in my office and do really basic research, nothing wrong with it. It's amazing for people who do it to advance their state of knowledge. I just wanted to make sure that I help someone solve this challenging problem. So all of my grants and contracts through UCF from the very beginning was focused on solving industry's problem. So I got my tenure fairly early.

After four or five years, we went up and then graduated PhDs did graduated, got a lot of grants, published a book, published papers and I was out of challenges. So I thought OK, what can I do to challenge myself further?

So I started Productivity Apex, my first company, in 2001, and the coolest thing happened. My first customer was, of course, NASA, and you may have seen. So I did a lot of work 13, 14 years worth of work for an NASA. at the time, and they continued to remain a customer until things changed a little bit and commercial space took off. So that's how I got started with running a business and it's a lot of fun. You actually see the effect of what you do in everyday work and life.

Begg: So tell me a little bit about FleetZoo. What exactly is it and what do you do in that space?

Mollaghasemi: My background within industrial engineering is modeling and simulation, so which falls under this area called operations research. So we use technology and tools to solve a really complex problem. We model them, you know, we collect data, we, we see what kind of things we can do to improve them. So along the way in Productivity Apex, one of my customers was Department of Transportation and the problem pretty soon to all the congestion that goes on in various ports in the United States specifically, now you're hearing it more and more in L.A. Long Beach Ports.

So from those grants, multiple years of grants that we received to try to fix that congestion by building route optimization, connecting the stakeholders, making sure the routes are efficient, they don't wait too too long in the port and so forth. So we had this idea that, OK, so truckers essentially these containerized, they call them drayage, it's just one aspect of this problem we can we can solve. The problem is much larger than that. So think of all the services, plumbers, electricians, pest control in addition to cities and municipalities who go and do residential commercial inspection. All of these people or Amazon who delivers our packages, they all have fleets on the street that someone in the morning says, Joe, you go there, Mike, you go there. I mean, how does this happen?

So we built FleetZoo with an artificial intelligence brain so that in the morning you get all of these jobs all of the constraints of this driver starts from here. That's their skill. You know, here's where the congestion may be. You put all of this into this AI brain, and it gives you an optimized route so you can optimize your entire fleet of vehicles.

Begg: Very, very exciting work and really relevant today for sure.

Mollaghasemi: Very.

Begg: But of course, we're connecting today in recognition of International Women and Engineering Day, which is on June the 23rd. Let's let's talk about current trends in workforce development. Where are the gaps for women in engineering and what are the opportunities really for women?

Mollaghasemi: You know so when I started back in the 1970s and 1980s, I was the only woman in chemical engineering. There was one math professor who was a woman in the entire College of Engineering and sadly she wouldn't talk to me. And you know, if there were other women in a lecture, there may have been one in electrical, one in civil. And she was kind of, you know, she didn't connect. That was the way it was with women.

Now, maybe because of that, maybe times have changed. Industrial engineering, first of all, we have at least one third women. There are four or five of us women. There have been more. There are many more in the College of Engineering now. And we view ourselves as role models. Like they saw me when I had my first child. I would take my daughter to school and keep her in the office sometimes. Sometimes I had to take her to class. And they I think they kind of saw me as, OK, she has a full life. She's married, she has a child. She's happy, she has fun. She does things. Oh, by the way, she has a great career, too.

So I think it is upon us women who are professional to kind of show them it doesn't have to be this or that. You can really have it all and you can manage your time. You can structure your job. Yes, the burden. The burden of child bearing, child raising does fall on us whether we like it or not, but it's a role that a lot of us cherish. So I see more and more women advancing, more and more women coming into Ph.D. and in engineering and master's and bachelors. So I think times are changing at least from the time I was a student.

Begg: OK, so I want to take that even further and talk about the fact that companies still struggle to engage men in these discussions. What do you see as some of the shifts in in in gender issues? How do we change the conversation now about exactly that, about gender balance and getting them on board to to be open to more women in practice?

Mollaghasemi: I can talk to you about that from my experience. A lot of my colleagues who are my age now, they're having daughters who are going into the workforce so they're seeing firsthand what these young women are faced with, how they're being treated or mistreated, if they're, you know, in some cases. And I think because it's hitting them home, I think they're changing gradually.

I think younger women these days, I see in my own daughter, she just finished our masters at UF, and they're so confident they hold their own. This issue that my generation saw and in some cases focused on these girls. Young women do not focus on that. And sometimes I tell them it's better just to ignore it. You know, I was never very sensitive about these things. I you know, when people occasionally would ask me, oh, give me a give us a situation when you were discriminated against, I didn't look for it. It was just full steam ahead, head down, do the best work you can do. If there are ignorant people around you, just ignore them.

So, you know, this may not be the right answer, the politically correct answer, but that's been my experience, and it may have been a product of the environment I grew up in Iran, because unlike what people think, women are professionals. A majority of people in universities are women. Workforce has been full of women. Aunts, you know, mothers, when we were growing up were actually working women. So we didn't grow up focusing on that. So I kind of brought that in my life here. And I really didn't look for it.

Begg: That's a great answer. I want you to go forward now and talk about specific advice that you have, perhaps some things to do or things not to do for someone who is navigating a career in science and engineering?

Mollaghasemi: Build your skills as I advise my own daughter. Do not whine. Do not, you know, sit there and complain, build your skills. And as I tell all my students, knowledge is now open to everyone. There's LinkedIn Learning, there's Coursera. You can all these online universities that are freely teaching. MIT, Stanford, all of these universities that, you know, professors are kind enough to put these lectures on online, go learn things on your own. Sadly or sadly for universities, people don't even have to go to school to learn skills. They can teach it to themselves. That knowledge is the best thing they can do for themselves to make themselves competitive.

And the guy who is reviewing resumes, maybe I'm a woman and I don't pay attention to these things, I seriously don't think they look at it and say, oh, this is a woman, this is a man. I'm going to pick the man. My daughter has had interviews for the last three weeks that she started every single day multiple times. So if you've got skills, if you've got knowledge the world is at your fingertip.

Begg: Well, that's great advice. Any final thoughts?

Mollaghasemi: Just building on learn, teach yourself things. Put yourself, you know, don't say no to anything. You know, there have been times that I didn't want to do something, but just by saying yes, I position myself, got myself out of my comfort zone, put myself in a position that opened their doors. Even if you don't feel comfortable doing things, jump in both feet.

Begg: That's great advice. Thank you so much. It seems to talk to you, Dr. Mansooreh Mollaghasemi is the founder of FleetZoo and an associate professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Systems at the University of Central Florida. Thank you for to our audience for joining us today. And we'll see you next time.

Editor's Note: Machine Design's Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) hub compiles our coverage of gender representation issues affecting the engineering field, in addition to contributions from equity seeking groups and subject matter experts within various subdisciplines. Click here for more.

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