Cindy and Stephanie Richartz—Keeping It
in the Illinois Engineering Family

September 1, 2016

Cindy and Stephanie Richartz, keynote speakers at this year's WIE Orientation.

Mother-daughter duo Cindy and Stephanie Richartz, the keynote speakers at the 2016 WIE Orientation (August 16–18), are both Illinois graduates. Both majored in industrial engineering. One major difference? While mother Cindy has been in industry and at Abbott for a while, Stephanie just recently graduated (May, 2015) and began her journey in industrial engineering. However, despite the difference in number of years in engineering, both were delighted to come back to their Alma Mater to share about their respective journeys—Cindy’s years of experience as a woman engineer in industry, Stephanie’s more recent experience at Illinois and finding a job. Both are also committed to giving back to Illinois, especially the Women in Engineering (WIE) program, to ensure that Engineering keeps producing a steadily increasing flow of bright young women engineers through the Illinois pipeline.

For both of the Richartz, though, getting to where they are today was quite a process. Even with no pressure from Mom, Stephanie was considering Engineering at Illinois. She was deciding between that and business and shares about the deciding factors.

“I think the way my decision was made was more my passion for math and science,” she admits. Then, when you’re looking at what opportunities those could bring you, I was trying to decide between business and engineering. I just really liked the more concrete answers with engineering as opposed to the more philosophical and fake structure of business in that sense.”

Cindy and Stephanie Richartz share their stories during the 2016 WIE Orientation.

While Cindy stayed admirably neutral during the decision-making process between engineering and business, she definitely supported and helped her daughter once Stephanie chose engineering. Since engineering is such a large field with many different disciplines, it can be overwhelming to pick only one with little knowledge about the differences between disciplines.

But once Stephanie had chosen engineering, Mom gave her a big nudge toward Industrial, right? Stephanie says no.

“I don’t think that she pushed me in that direction.” Stephanie goes on to describe her decision-making process: “Once I decided I wanted to be an engineer, I needed to figure out what kind was most interesting to me. So that’s where I went through the different disciplines and looked at the courses that they study, and then also what positions I would potentially have after school, and kind of found that I would enjoy either industrial, general, or mechanical.”

So to help Stephanie with this decision-making process, Cindy held an impromptu “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.”

“I gave her an opportunity to come into work and meet with a number of different engineers just for the day. I think she met with a chemical engineer, a mechanical engineer, and maybe an electrical engineer, just to kind of learn about what they do in industry,” explains Cindy. “Because she was trying to make this decision on what she wanted to do, and I think that at least helped her understand what they do.”

Cindy admits that figuring out the different jobs that engineers in specific fields do can be an issue. “I think the biggest challenge that a lot of kids have is, ‘Okay I have a degree, but what do you do when you work in this field?’ So that, at least, gave her a first-hand look at what some of our engineers do at Abbott and different areas.”

However, while it was extremely beneficial to Stephanie that her mom could offer this opportunity, not every parent can help their child make their decision in this manner.

“The other thing Stephanie had brought to my attention is, not everybody has parents who are engineers,” Cindy reflects. “Not everybody has parents who work in industry, who have the kind of experience I have.”

Cindy Richartz shows off the WIE Champion award she received during this year's Orientation.

But while Cindy can’t take everyone’s daughter in to work with her to help them figure out which engineering discipline to go with, she can provide support to women through a couple of different avenues: for instance, through her outreach-minded company, Abbott, which is serving as a corporate sponsor for WIE, and by all of her work with Women in Engineering, for which she received the prestigious “WIE Champion” award during the Orientation.

“I’m fortunate to work for a company that really supports STEM in a lot of different ways,” Cindy explains, “and because of that I’ve been able to continue really my passion for outreach and helping encourage women into the technical STEM fields."

Cindy also hopes some of her work with WIE might make a difference in terms of retention of women in engineering. “If I can help share some of that information and guidance with other students who maybe haven’t heard it, then maybe that will make a difference for them. Because we do know that a lot of women come into engineering too, but then a certain amount may change majors or shift course, and if we could keep them here, that’s really better probably.”

Cindy was extremely excited about serving as a co-keynote speaker with her daughter during this year’s WIE Orientation and getting to speak to a large number of the women in this year’s freshman class.

“So the opportunity here was that I could come with my daughter, who’s a more recent grad and has more recent experience, and hopefully provide some little nuggets of advice and information.” Cindy's hope is that, in the future, “if they’re going through a challenge here while at the university, they think back and say, ‘Oh, maybe I shouldn’t panic, or maybe there’s other resources I can use.’”

For a part of their talk, Stephanie candidly shared with the group about one semester in her sophomore year at Illinois, where she was doing badly in several courses. In fact, someone had even suggested that she might want to change majors. But through encouragement from Mama and help from a number of resources, she turned things around, learned from her mistakes, and made it through with flying colors.  

Cindy was hopeful that by sharing with the girls some of Stephanie’s struggles, and how she dealt with them, the two of them could “help them understand that engineering is just an incredible career and not to let those little bumps in the road detour them from that ultimate goal of becoming an engineer.”

Some of those “little nuggets of advice” from Cindy are: “If you hit a bump in the road, don’t give up. Don’t change majors or do something if you really like engineering and feel that’s kind of where you want to be. Look for the resources that are available to help you through that challenging period of time so that you can first of all learn from that situation and second of all recover from it and get back on track to keep moving forward through the engineering education process.”

Stephanie Richartz (left) and her mother, Cindy, during their address to several hundred Illinois freshmen during this year's WIE Orientation.

Stephanie also has some advice for students going through difficulties:

“My favorite little mantra or saying (and it can be a little bit harsh sometimes) is,
‘I hate to ruin the ending for you, but everything is gonna’ be ok.’ That’s something that my teammates used to say to me, something that I used to share with my friends. When you feel like the world is ending, you just have to realize that, at the end of the day, it’s gonna’ be ok. So you have to just keep on keepin’ on.”

Stephanie also has a piece of advice for women regarding finding their niche in engineering:

“Try anything and everything. Like try it all. If there’s something that you see that sounds interesting and it’s completely out of your realm of normalcy, then try it! Because the worst that’ll happen is that if you apply for something maybe you don’t get the position. Or if you try it and maybe you don’t like it, or maybe you love it, or in the process, you learn something about your character, then you can take each of those pieces and form them into a career that you want and that will make you happy for a very long time.”

Cindy and Stephanie Richartz outside of the new ECE building, site of this year's WIE Orientation.

Not only does this mother-daughter pair share the same major, but they also share the same love for their Alma Mater, and they want other women to love it too. A very teary Stephanie professes that Illinois made her who she is today:

“I love Illinois, and I love—gosh—the person that Illinois has made me. And I just want to be able to give that to everyone else because I want them to love it as much as I do. It’s so recent for me still. My mom went to school a while ago, so she has like years’-worth of career and other experience that maybe give her a different perspective. But for me, Illinois is the most recent thing that shaped me into who I am.”

She also hopes that women who end up in Engineering at Illinois will have the same passion for the place that she does. “I loved everything about my experience. Obviously there are little things you would want to change perhaps, here and there, but I just want all the students to be able to fall in love with this place, and this campus, and this education, like I did, so that they can project that in their lives afterwards because I think that sense of community is so important.”

While Cindy may be far removed from her years at Illinois, she says her engineering degree from Illinois is still opening doors for her. “Something I’ve learned, especially being out in industry,” she admits, “is the prestige of having an engineering education from Illinois. I can go to an industry conference, and when people find out I went to Illinois, there’s a certain level of respect that you generate.”

Cindy adds that, as an alumnus, she’s also committed to keeping the reputation strong. “We have the top students from the top schools, and they’re really the future of this institution—they’re our future success. So anything we can do as alumni to help make sure they’re plotting a strong course for success, I think, is part of what we should all try and aspire to.”

Story by Alexandra Anne Peltier, I-STEM undergraduate student, and Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative. Photographs by Elizabeth Innes.

For more related stories, see: Engineering; Illinois Legacies; Women in Engineering; Women in STEM; 2016

For additional istem articles about WIE, please see:

For more related stories, see:I-STEM—Illinois Legacies