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From Engineer to Entrepreneur

Steven L. Reid founded Industrial Environmental Systems in Marietta, Georgia, in 2001. With a BSE from the University of Alabama-Birmingham and an MEPP from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Reid has been an engineering professional for over 30 years. He recognized his entrepreneurial inclination at an early age. "As a teenager I preferred working at odd jobs like mowing lawns and doing day work, as opposed to having a steady job at, say, a grocery store," he says. "In engineering school, I was a cooperative-education student. I worked at a large research laboratory and that experience taught me I did not want to be a one-dimensional engineer."

After a 20-year career with an engineering firm in Atlanta, serving as engineering manager and chief operating officer, Reid still felt unfulfilled because he was not in a position to make important, strategic decisions for the company. As a result, he followed his entrepreneurial yearning to start his own company—a contract manufacturer of stacks, ductwork, pollution control, and noise control systems—where he (happily) calls all the shots every day.

In this interview, Reid talks about the business skills that engineers need to be a successful entrepreneur.

Steve, looking back as an engineer and owner of your own company, how did your education prepare you to be an entrepreneur?

First, I earned a BSE degree. As a foundation, that degree gave me equal amounts of electrical, materials, mechanical, and civil engineering courses. Then I enrolled in the MBA program immediately after completing my BSE. I worked as a sales (application) engineer during the day and attended business classes in the evening. There were no "executive" MBAs back then so I had to complete seven foundation courses including accounting, management, operations management, economics, marketing, and statistics. Although I did not finish my MBA, these courses gave me an excellent "technology-based entrepreneur" background.

In general, what would you say are an engineer's weaknesses when it comes to being an entrepreneur?

Two highly valued strengths of engineers can actually become weaknesses; intelligence and precision. Engineers are highly intelligent and can become frustrated when others with whom they interact are not as knowledgeable about their subject (entrepreneurs need to be flexible and patient). Engineers also value precise solutions that sometimes may not be worth the effort, time, or money necessary to complete (entrepreneurs sometimes need to make quick decisions and can't wait for precise solutions). Engineers also tend to devalue soft skills or visionary thinking. They may also resist change once on a given path—they want to finish something, even if it adds no more value.

How is the field of engineering changing regarding entrepreneurship?

The field of engineering is becoming more multidisciplinary. For example, UW-Madison's Master's in Engineering and Professional Practice (MEPP) degree teaches engineering management skills such as accounting, leadership, international relations, quality management, communication skills, and research—all vital skills for being an entrepreneur and establishing and running your own business.

Does being entrepreneurial make you a better engineer?

Key aspects to being entrepreneurial are vision and opportunity. Being entrepreneurial allows an engineer to be more strategic in a project or in an organization. This means he or she can wear different hats and contribute in multiple ways. Being involved at multiple, cross-disciplinary levels can give an engineer a broader perspective on the end result of the project, sometimes resulting in engineering insights and decisions that improve the final product.

Although an entrepreneur is generally defined as an individual, a group or an organization can also be entrepreneurial. Just as an individual can add other disciplines to his/her technical base, groups can do the same. When individuals of different skills come together and collaborate to pursue a common goal, the team can be entrepreneurial.

This is also a good time to be an entrepreneur. With the globalization of business and the uncertain economy, there are plenty of opportunities to evaluate and pursue. So, the global economy, with its chaos and disarray, is actually a target-rich environment for technology-based entrepreneurs. Recognizing and vetting these opportunities, often within constrained timeframes, are challenges more easily handled by entrepreneurial engineers.

Mark Crawford is an independent writer.

Two highly valued strengths of engineers—intelligence and precision—can actually become weaknesses when it comes to being an entrepreneur.Steven L. Reid, contract manufacturer

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