Grad student profile: Toyin Shodiya
This aerospace engineer wants to provide a lift for underrepresented innovators and entrepreneurs
Try as she might, Toyin Shodiya was just not interested in biology.
As a high school student living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., her lack of interest in the subject did not go unnoticed by her AP biology teacher.
“One day after class, she pulled me aside and told me she’d noticed I seemed to be much more passionate about my AP physics course than I was about biology,” Shodiya said. “She told me her friend over at the NASA Goddard (Space Flight) Center had let her know about an internship opportunity there.”
With her teacher’s support, Shodiya applied and was accepted into the program, which would be a transformative experience that set her on a trajectory to the MS/MBA program at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Harvard Business School.
At Goddard, the teenage Shodiya modeled the trajectories of satellites and worked on the development of a carrying system for a Venus rover as part of NASA’s Adept mission.
“Being able to talk to these scientists and engineers at NASA about different atmospheres and different planets really impressed upon me how space is the next frontier, and this really untapped resource,” she said. “That was something I felt like I wanted to plant my feet in, an industry that had so much room for innovation.”
So Shodiya chose to major in aerospace engineering as an undergraduate at Georgia Tech.
She immersed herself in engineering courses and looked for ways to make an impact on problems she was passionate about. As the daughter of immigrants (her father emigrated from Nigeria and her mother emigrated from Ghana) she wanted to use her skills to make an impact in the developing world.
Shodiya found a good fit for her passions and expertise in an aeroelasticity lab.
“I wanted to explore how the aerospace engineering community could help speed up the pace of innovation in renewable energy,” she said. “Ninety percent of my family still lives in Nigeria and Ghana, and those areas are heavily plagued by the energy crisis and still subject to rolling blackouts. I wanted to see if renewables could be something that could benefit those regions of the continent.”
Shodiya applied her aerospace engineering training to redesign wind turbine blades that could optimize the amount of energy generated. She poured herself into the project, but she and her professor couldn’t come up with a design that worked with such low wind speeds.
Shodiya was intrigued by the world of research despite those setbacks. But she decided to switch gears and gain experience in the air transportation industry, joining Boeing after graduation as a product design engineer for the 767 tanker and 787 Dreamliner.
She was particularly taken with the Dreamliner, Boeing’s only fully composite plane, and became curious about what happened to the aircraft after it left the factory. So Shodiya transitioned to the customer support team, which brought a host of completely different challenges.
“Whenever there was damage to the wing, tailfin, or landing gear, I would get a call from an airline, any time of day or night (it always seemed like everything went wrong at 3 a.m.), and I would work with them through the repair,” she said. “I would design the repair for them, and if it was really bad, I would fly out on site and work with them, 12 hour days, seven days a week, until we did re-flight certification with the FAA.”
That work put Shodiya close to Boeing’s customers, and showed her firsthand some of their biggest grievances about the aircraft. She started to see opportunities for innovation all around her.
One of the biggest customer complaints had to do with airplane windows.
“That was a huge no-go item. If they saw any protrusion in the seal around a window, they would have to ground the flight and fix it before they could put the plane back in the air,” she said.
Never one to shy away from a problem, Shodiya developed virtual windows software that could help identify potential problems and reduce the need for repairs. She took her idea to the head of product development at Boeing, and he was impressed.
The exploratory nature of product development piqued her interest, and she joined the group as chief engineer on the new markets and autonomy team.
There, she led projects to study disruptive mobility that could help Boeing break into new markets, everything from drones to autonomous cargo handling systems. She worked alongside some of the company’s most accomplished subject matter experts.
“I was by far the youngest person on the team. It was reminiscent of my time at NASA, where I felt like a little fish in a big pond, but I just soaked up everything,” she said. “They had all built up this wealth of engineering and industry knowledge, and I was able to learn so much from them.”
As part of her product development work, Shodiya found herself pitching a new innovation to the company’s capital arm. The people she was trying to sway would decide whether her team would receive more money to conduct flight tests.
“I really wanted to understand what was going on behind those closed doors and demystify the venture funding process,” she said. “I wanted to understand the business implications that were driving these decisions. And I also noticed that a lot of those people had an MBA.”
So Shodiya enrolled in the MS/MBA program, which has enabled her to combine her engineering background with business training to actually build the ideas she is passionate about.
One perfect example of the strength of the program is the Technology Venture Immersion course, where students complete the hardware design for a product, but then also learn to market that idea, target customers, and do customer discovery, she said.
Acquiring business acumen is important, but Shodiya is laser-focused on developing strong leadership expertise. She worked at Boeing in 2019 during the 737 MAX crashes and is looking to build on the hard lessons she learned during that time.
“That taught me the price that you pay when you put engineering on the backburner for stakeholder gain, or profitability. It taught me the type of leader I want to be in the aerospace industry, and that is someone who always puts people first,” she said. “I want to be a well-rounded leader who is constantly making ethical decisions.”
To Shodiya, leadership and mentorship go hand in hand. The mentors she’s had throughout her life, many of whom she encountered serendipitously, have led her down a path where she now has the opportunity to set an example for others.
“Doing that high school internship at NASA, and sitting in a room when I was 16 years old with men and women in their 50s and 60s talking about orbital science showed me that I can enter any room and offer value,” she said. “It gave me the courage to set out on a path, and be a Black woman in space science, even though I didn’t see a lot of Black people or women. Some would say the race, gender, and age demographics are stacked against me, but I’ve been able to leverage my background and enter spaces where I can offer unique perspectives.”
She now wants to use her skills, experience, and perspective to invest in people, just like her mentors invested in her. Shodiya is passionate about working in the venture capital community to empower voices that are typically marginalized, and help underrepresented innovators bring their ideas to the forefront of the venture funding process.
Adam Zewe | 617-496-5878 | firstname.lastname@example.org