Susan Rani is at the top of her game. Rani Engineering is the state’s largest female- and minority-owned professional engineering firm. She recently attended trade missions in China and Korea with Gov. Dayton. Her 32-employee firm has handled projects from the I-35W Bridge Reconstruction, the Central Corridor and Hiawatha Light Rail to the Weisman Art Museum expansion.
But Rani, a Korean-American, doesn’t want to be a novelty. The 52-year-old says there should be more female and minority engineering leaders. Their scarcity in engineering concerns her-as does America’s lack of engineering prowess.
“China and India each produce half a million engineers a year-we produce 50,000 a year,” she said. “And we think of China as backwards but what was remarkable to me during my trip was their [gender] parity in leadership: They had equal numbers of women business leaders compared to men. We only had four women-run Minnesota businesses out of 43 visiting.”
America is graduating far fewer engineers than others and women earn 20 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in engineering, physics and computer science, according to a 2010 report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW). Numbers dwindle further at the graduate level and in the workplace, the report found. Numbers are similarly low for minorities; Minneapolis just saw its first African-American-run engineering firm [in recent history] open within the last two years, Rani says.
These realities “should make us stand up and pay attention,” she said.
The statistics were worse for women in 1993, when Rani and a business partner launched a start-up with $1,000 and some creativity. She had worked for others since earning her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at the University of Minnesota. Within a year, she and her business partner amicably separated. “There was just one female engineering firm. It was a very foreign [environment] because … it was very much a closed network of male businesses.”
Rani felt invisible-and that she was judged incompetent. She battled the misperception that she existed because of a government program that helps minority- and women-owned businesses. “You realize fast that if you’re dependent on the small percentage of set asides through that program, you can’t make it.”
One time Rani was in negotiations for a government contract with two men. The primary contractor suggested her $14,000 proposal should be $4,000.
“I looked at him and said ‘how is it fair that we should do it for so much less than you would? … Where is fair and reasonableness in this?’ I asked,” Rani recalled. “There was a presumption that we were going to be a lot cheaper because we were [minority- and female-owned].”
When Rani emigrated from South Korea at 11, she said, “it was very important that I knew how to support myself. Korean girls were encouraged to be infantile, beautiful and dependent on men. For me, that wasn’t acceptable.
“My stepmother instilled values of independence and financial self sufficiency … in the first two days of arriving, she taught me how to get to the library on the city bus.”
Rani had role models: Her stepmother was an educational psychologist, her father a mechanical and structural engineer. Her mother was an algebra teacher with a chemistry degree.
Learning English challenged her. “I was average and had to work very hard. … If you have the will, you’ll find a way.” Rani went on to earn her master’s in business administration.
“What makes me excited about getting up in the morning is our team,” she said. Half of her leadership is female; one employee has worked with her for 12 years.
Ultimately, Rani says, government programs don’t guarantee success-and being female and a minority don’t keep one from it.
“We are all held to the same standard. Money is still green, contracts are still contracts,” she said. “The market is a strict and swift disciplinarian when it comes to not delivering on your contract.”
Rani dreams of the day when female engineering leaders are commonplace.
“People say ‘I remember you-you were the woman in that meeting.”
She recommends nurturing girls in engineering. She’s talked to girls at math camp as well as young women in college about engineering careers, is a member of the Society of American Military Engineers and is the only female member on the present board of the American Council of Engineering Companies MN.
“Girls need to be encouraged,” she said. “It’s not intuitive. [Engineering] takes concentration, effort and work-something we are very short of in society.
“There aren’t as many women role models that have shown us this can be done,” Rani said. “But you also have to make sacrifices … you have to give up your family time. I hate to burst the bubble but that’s true.”
She’s had her share of family sacrifice. Daughter Sonia grew up “recognizing Kinko’s before she recognized the zoo” because that’s where she played with Legos while mom worked. Sonia now attends the University of Minnesota.
Rani is proud of her daughters and it appears they are of her, too. Her daughter Sylvia, 13, inquires about her mom’s projects. The result? She can tell you all about architect Frank Gehry. (She sent him a letter when she was 9 complimenting him on his “imagination” and got an autographed book in return).
“I do what I do, humbly with a lot of hard work and passion,” Rani said. “If that makes me a trailblazer as a result, so be it.”