We at HARMAN pride ourselves on our amazing employees who bring diverse backgrounds and perspectives to their work. This month, we put the spotlight on Brianna Leonard, Vice President of Program Management & Quality at HARMAN, for a candid conversation about the importance of claiming one’s intelligence and confidence as a woman in a STEM career, her varied path from repairing hearing aid amplifiers to overseeing the sound quality of HARMAN car audio products, and how she learned to listen to music through a “Golden Ear”.
Tell us a bit about your background and the career path that led you to HARMAN?
I’ve loved science all my life. An electronics course at my high school was how my love of science manifested itself. My teacher helped me get a part-time job at a hearing aid company, where I’d repair tiny microphones and amplifiers that go inside hearing aid devices. It was a tedious but super cool, fun, nerdy job. I was pretty much hooked at that point.
I went to Michigan State, got my Bachelor’s, then my Master’s, and then I started work at Lear Corporation as an electric engineer before eventually becoming a program manager, working on some of our competitor amplifiers. While there, I worked with Ford, one of my favorite customers – at the time we did most of our engineering in Germany. It was there I learned what a “golden ear” was – I thought it was a joke, but it was a legitimate thing.
I eventually took a job for a lithium ion battery company before coming to HARMAN.
Now, I run the global program management team, overseeing value engineering, test engineering and sound quality. It is a fun full circle – 15 years ago, I never would have thought I’d be working at HARMAN, responsible for the sound quality of our car audio products.
What is a Golden Ear?
The “Golden Ear” is a term I learned when I program managed my first audio amplifier program. Golden Ears can hear, notice and attend to the most subtle details of sound through years of practice and trained listening. An acoustical engineer sat in a test car with me and taught me to listen for specific sounds. Artifacts in music I’d never noticed became obvious! There was so much I was missing all these years.
We hear a lot about the lack of diversity in tech and STEM fields – as a woman in a highly technical field, what is your perspective on the matter?
It’s a tough question to answer. Sitting in a room, and there’s not another woman, and it can be like that for all six meetings I have scheduled that day.
It’s easy to be intimidated for whatever reason when you are a unique person in the room. It’s unusual, but I’ll be honest: I don’t notice it. I don’t notice it anymore. I think part of working through that unique experience of somehow being different from the other people in the room – the way of working through being unique – is to be okay with it. I’ve always felt as confident and capable as every other man in the room, because I am.
Are there any initiatives or programs you’re involved in within the community?
The Michigan Science Center is one of my favorites in Detroit – they have a program called STEMinistas which is absolutely phenomenal and pairs female role models with children and young women so they can see that you can be this type of person.
What does it take to get girls more interested in STEM careers – do you think there’s more that we could be doing?
Women and girls need to see other women in society in STEM roles for them to know that it’s okay. If all you’re exposed to are male leaders in STEM, then it won’t come as naturally to you that this is something that you can do. When you see people that you identify with, it increases your confidence that you’re capable of something.
I try to encourage the women I work with to provide positive reinforcement to children who are interested in science – especially if they’re girls – to say, “that’s great you’re interested, you’d be fantastic at X and Y. I also like X and Y, and have a lot of fun at my job, and you’re fully capable of it too.”
I’ve had coworkers who have unbelievable degrees in engineering and if I ask, “Do you think you’re smart?” they’ll say, “Well, I don’t know – there’s a lot of guys here that’re smart but I’m okay,” and these are women who are unbelievably intelligent! So for them not to proclaim their intelligence, how could they pass that on as an example to youth? You have to claim your intelligence and your capabilities and you have to express them and encourage others to do it.
Brianna Leonard is a Vice President of Program Management & Quality at HARMAN. For readers based in the greater Detroit area, Brianna will be hosting STEMinista Social – an event created by the Michigan Science Center’s STEMinista initiative, dedicated to bringing together STEMinista girls with adult STEM role models – in July. To attend, or to find out how you can become involved with STEMinista, please visit http://www.mi-sci.org/steminista-project/