Zara F. Larsen
Director, Controls and Externals Product & Module Center
Pratt & Whitney, United Technologies Corporation
For her outstanding accomplishments as a leader and a creative force for change within three multinational corporations, the Schools of Engineering are proud to present the Distinguished Engineering Alumna Award to Zara F. Larsen.
On her Purdue experience
For me, the question wasn't how to fit extracurricular activities into academics but how to fit academics into the other growth experiences Purdue campus life offered. I was the first undergraduate student appointed by the governor of Indiana to serve on the Purdue Board of Trustees, and I was active in my sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta. My three summers were spent interning with Chevrolet in Detroit, allowing a very tight and early linkage between learning and really gaining experience in engineering. My first assignment was in computer-aided design, although I found out that was what I didn't want to do. Via serendipity, I fell in love with the automotive industry. A native of Indianapolis and a true car-racing fan, I realized later how lucky I was to have been "paid" for playing as hard as I did at General Motors. In the automotive vernacular, I had my "foot on the floor" during my Purdue years and didn't lift up. During my senior year, when all the coursework was coming together, four of us blitzed through the engineering program. We had a motto: "collaborate to graduate." We covered for one another, did projects together, and studied together. That was a high point: the recognition of the power of the team. The end result is I have always been focused on teams in my professional work, a tenet that shaped my leadership style over time.
On career changes and career challenges
As a student I imagined having a successful career within the same firm. I have subsequently shifted three times. The single toughest professional decision I made was to leave General Motors after 15 years to assume responsibilities in a small multinational division of Emerson Electric Corporation. Branson Ultrasonics provides ultrasonic welding and cleaning equipment to broad industrial markets around the world. Backed by early career experiences in international automotive program management and German-language fluency, I found the move to international business exhilarating. In 1994 I moved to the Otis Elevator Company of United Technologies Corporation as director of technology, leading product-development programs for Asia, Europe, and the Americas. We had seven major engineering centers based around the globe. From horizontal to vertical to airborne transportation, now at Pratt & Whitney, I've come full circle back to a major manufacturing company. We're currently undergoing the largest restructuring in the company's history, and I'm having a ball working on the merging of engineering and manufacturing, commercial and military jet-engine programs. My experiences in three former companies and very different industries have equipped me well to be part of this team effort-to know how to go after this one brick at a time to effect a corporate culture change and deliver business results.
On her personal and professional involvements
By far, being a wife and being a mother have been the top "promotions" in my life. For all the wonderful commendations I might get professionally, everything else pales next to Ted's and my active son, Jacob, and newborn daughter, Jordan. Also, from the get-go, I have been extremely involved in mentoring young people. I have had people do the same for me, and I do it for the next generation. When you talk about agents of change, I think I continue ahead of the curve in working to develop people. I have grown up in classic industry cultures that don't do this well: to empower people and let them fly. The message I send from a leadership standpoint is to pursue a career where your hand is always on the product, your eye is on the process, and your heart is with the people.
On engineering education
As a member of the School of Mechanical Engineering's Advisory Board, with others I have pushed for the availability of internships for all students. The new Office of Industrial Experience, which facilitates internships for Purdue ME students, was one outcome. There's an obvious distinction in performance between students who have had the opportunity to work and those who have not during their college career. I won't entertain interviewing anyone who hasn't gotten foundation work experience in engineering.
- 1998- :
- Controls and Externals Product & Module Center, Pratt & Whitney (of United Technologies). Leads development from concept through manufacturing and field service of all commercial and military jet-engine control and external systems.
- Director of Technology, Otis Elevator Company (of United Technologies). Oversaw engineering project management and systems engineering of the world's largest high-rise elevator program.
- Outstanding Mechanical Engineer, Purdue.
- Vice President of Engineering, Branson Ultrasonics (of Emerson Electric Co.). Directed innovation of plastic-joining and precision cleaning industrial equipment.
- Assistant Chief Engineer, Camaro/Firebird, GM. Championed design for assembly and synchronous manufacturing for all-new sports car program.
- Executive Engineer, Vehicle Assembly. Led three vehicle platform and two technology departments for general-assembly tools and equipment.
- Systems Manager, Safety Restraints, introducing innovative passive systems.
- Program Manager, Corvette Airbag System. Multinational program management.
- Senior Design Engineer, Body Systems.
- Design Engineer, Camaro and Caprice Chassis Systems.
- Vehicle Development Engineer, Camaro and Caprice.
- Product Planner, Corvette, for all-new sports car program.
BSME '79, Purdue; MSME '80, U. of Michigan; MS Management '85, Stanford, Sloan Fellow.