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Alumna Kristen Graf '01

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Kristen Graf '01Kristen Graf '01 received her BS in agricultural and biological engineering, now the biological engineering major, from Cornell Engineering. She is now the Executive Director of Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE). We asked Kristen about her time here at Cornell and how it helped shape her career path, as well as her advice for young women who are interested in the field of engineering today.  

Can you tell us a little bit about WRISE and what path you took from Cornell to where you are today?

WRISE is a national nonprofit focused on recruiting more women to work in renewable energy, retaining and advancing the great women who are already involved, and then working with all of the great women and men across our network to change the way we talk about renewable energy at all levels and particularly in our local communities.  We have national programs like mentoring (both 1-on-1 and peer group), webinars, an annual leadership forum, and a national fellowship program to help cover the costs for students and recent graduates to attend major renewable energy conferences like WINDPOWER and Solar Power International.  We also do local work with over 35 chapters around the U.S. and Canada focused all on the same mission of promoting the education, professional development, and advancement of women to achieve a strong diversified workforce and support a robust renewable energy economy.

When I'm talking about how I got to where I am today, I often talk about two specific threads that I think became most prominent in my life while I was at Cornell and eventually wound together in the way that I couldn't be anywhere but here. The first is my passion for renewable energy. It started in high school and it was why I chose the program I did at Cornell, but I came in believing I would be able to find a technology fix that would make people want to build renewable energy everywhere. The more classes I took, the more research I did, the more I learned that the technology was pretty far along. There is always room for improvement but to me it wasn't commensurate with how much we were building — it seemed to me that if it was really based solely on technology we'd be a lot further along than we were. So I began digging more and more and became fascinated with energy markets, finance, policy, and public perception. That led me to Union of Concerned Scientists to work on energy policy.

The other thread was the role of women in technology. Before I went to Cornell I knew the history of not having many women in engineering but I really thought we were past all of that.  With so many women in my high school calculus classes it didn't even occur to me that it would be the same in college. There were just under 20% women in the engineering program when I was at Cornell and that was high compared to other programs, but as far as I was concerned it still felt like the dark ages — I was stunned and became pretty passionate about better understanding why women weren't going into tech programs. When I left and went to work for the Union of Concerned Scientists there were a lot of amazing women involved but I still didn't see many on the energy side and when you looked at energy committees in congress or at the state level, public utility commissions, etc. there weren't many women at all at these key decision-making tables and so it continued to be a personal passion until I decided to leave for the Executive Director role at WRISE (at the time it was called Women of Wind Energy — WoWE).

What opportunities did Cornell Engineering provide you as a student and after graduation? 

The opportunities were as many as I could find the time to seize — from friends and peers, to my co-op, which was massively important in my career path and self-confidence, to the wide variety of lectures and courses, all the different amazing work going on and off campus, opportunities for leadership, and the list goes on.  I thought one of the hardest things at Cornell was learning how to make decisions about what was worth your time because there were so many great things to do, people to see, and self to be/become.

Did your involvement in the Society of Women in Engineers (SWE) shape your career path and if so, how?  

Without a doubt, especially when you realize I'm currently running an organization focused on recruiting and retaining more women in renewable energy.  There were other ways it was influential though. I often wonder if I would have stayed in it without my sisters in SWE — some are still among my close friends continuing to share the challenges in and out of our evolving lives.  With them I had a great community and a lot of fun in the midst of all the long hours in the computer lab and working on problem sets all night.  I also had the opportunity as the Director of Career Development for SWE to work closely with engineering career services and learn about all of the value they had to offer and the wide variety of engineering roles that are out there.  There were also three amazing women in the office of Women's Programs in Engineering that always had an open door and were there to connect and chat and think through what options were out there and what was next — a listening ear in good times and bad.

What is your best advice for a young female who is interested in pursuing engineering? 

Do it! We need you and your ideas desperately — bring your friends.  

Take the time to know yourself and why you want to do it — regularly reconnect with that passion and it will keep you in it.

Build a strong community of diverse peers to hold you accountable and keep you motivated.

Find mentors that can give you honest and open feedback.

Do your best and build relationships with integrity so that when you need someone to go to bat for you they are ready and couldn't see it any other way.

If you don't fail in some big ways you maybe aren't trying hard enough — get outside of your comfort zone, challenge yourself, be humble, be vulnerable when you can, and always learn from everyone and everything around you that you can.

Never discount your own voice — it is needed so speak up and be counted.  Don't ever be afraid to ask for what you need and want.

Never discount your own power — things that may seem so small at one time truly ripple through our lives and whether we like it or not change often comes incrementally at least at first.

Don't let people tell you “you are the future” — that may very well be but you are already an active part of the present - a leader now - possibly with even more power to create change today than you realize.

Always look for the other voices that are missing — call it out and help make room for them at the table too — our best ideas and decisions come from getting the most diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and talents together.

At the end of the day don't take yourself too seriously — it is the laughter and community that have meant the most to me.

What were some of the activities you involved yourself in as an undergraduate at Cornell?

SWE was a big part of my undergrad days.  Freshman year I was a rower and sophomore year I rowed for the local club team.  I was part of a group another friend started back then called — CURES — Cornell University Renewable Energy Society.  I also joined a group of friends that helped another friend kick off the Cornell chapter of Engineers without Borders.  Another important activity group for me was the Protestant Cooperative Ministry over at Anabel Taylor Hall.

What was your most memorable experience at Cornell inside and outside of engineering?

I really can't pick just one — there are sooo many here are a few:

  • my capstone project senior year designing a net zero energy home and getting to go with another member of my team to Canada to present our findings and report;
  • watching the Kyoto Now protests on campus and slowly learning the importance of not just working for technical solutions but knowing overtime how to be a part of a broader voice for change;
  • my co-op with Corning Inc.;
  • SWE exchange trips to UVM and touring IBM and then to College of NJ and touring Merck;
  • SWE exec team dinners senior year;
  • living in the basement apartment of the brick building on the edge of Cascadilla Gorge senior year;
  • watching the pumpkin on the top of the clock tower freshman year;
  • walking or running back and forth all the way to Riley Robb;
  • Cornell Dairy Bar ice cream breaks;
  • Dragon Day;
  • hiking and swimming at Six Mile Creek;
  • hanging out at the Farmer's Market and exploring Upstate New York.