U.Va. Engineering Grad Takes Her Analytical Skills to Fashion and Finance

May 17, 2010 — Brittany Williams, a graduating University of Virginia engineering student, is comfortable being in the spotlight.

In March, alongside comedian Bill Cosby, she co-hosted the 30th annual Jackie Robinson Foundation's Gala at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. As Williams was introduced to the audience, Cosby took every opportunity to tease her with his folksy quips.

He playfully joked about her major, systems and information engineering. "So are you going to drive a train?" he asked.

Cosby then posed a hypothetical scenario in which Williams would be called on as an engineer to fix a broken sink. She explained that systems engineers could help design a better sink, but that they wouldn't fix it. He continued the line of questioning, asking her if she would be bringing any parts with her.

Without pause, she politely replied, "No, but I can hire someone who will bring those parts."

The crowd erupted in cheers and applause.

Whether verbally sparring with one of America's greatest comedians or presenting a business proposal to a group of venture capitalists at the Engineering School's Entrepreneurial Concept Contest, Williams has shown her ability to stand and deliver.

She built her confidence over the years. Growing up outside of New York City, Williams honed her stage presence by participating in piano recitals and beauty pageants in front of large audiences. Although public speaking ranks as one of Americans' top fears, Williams enjoys it.

Her decision to apply that confidence to an engineering school was the result of her family's encouragement and example. Her father, Edmund, is an electrical engineer who runs his own electrical contracting business. Her mother, Melanee, has a chemistry degree and works with New York Blood Center as a clinical assistant.

"I really grew up in a science household," Williams said.

Throughout her childhood, Williams' parents enrolled her in camps to build her aptitude and interest in science and technology. As a child, she attended NASA space camp in Alabama, and in high school, she went to the NASA Summer High School Apprenticeship Research Program at the University of Michigan.

Each summer between seventh and 12th grades, she attended the Science and Technology Entry Program through Purchase College State University of New York. The program allowed her to visit college campuses and take science enrichment courses to prepare her for coursework she would face in each of the subsequent school years.

"My parents guided me, but they also let me find my own way," Williams said. "My mom found different programs that allowed me to learn about science and engineering and also be motivated by my peers."

Her confidence and analytical skills have grown at the U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science. She is a Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholar, a Rodman Scholar, a Jerome-Holland Scholar and a Lawn resident. This spring, her systems engineering capstone thesis team placed second in the 23rd annual Undergraduate Research and Design Symposium with their project, "Supporting Food and Exercise Monitoring for Overweight and Obese Children."

Williams is also helping to launch FOJO – the fashion dojo – an online social networking site for fashion-forward consumers and professionals. The company is gaining attention from people such as Isis King of "America's Next Top Model" fame. R&B star Ginuwine plugged the site in a promotional video.

Starting in July, Williams will begin working as a financial analyst at Citigroup in New York City.

"The Engineering School prepared me with strong quantitative and problem-solving skills that will be very useful in my career at Citigroup," Williams said. "I am now very comfortable working on team projects where we are not given a definite problem or told how to solve it. The Engineering School has taught me how to solve problems with very little, and at times incorrect, information."

In addition to her job with Citigroup, Williams plans to remain involved with FOJO. Over the past year, she has worked with 2008 U.Va. College of Arts & Sciences alumnus Malcolm Jones to assemble a nine-person team that includes software engineers, marketing assistants and business analysts, many of whom are current U.Va. students or alumni. The website is now in beta stage and the group plans to launch it in August.  

As part of her engineering business minor, which is run by the Engineering School's Department of Science, Technology, and Society, Williams learned how to create a business plan and present it to potential investors. At the Engineering School's Entrepreneurial Concept Contest held in fall 2009, she and Jones were awarded $500 to support FOJO by a panel of venture capitalist judges after a round of tough "live-fire" questioning.

"The questions ranged from our exit strategy to asking us about the validity of some of our assumptions in our revenue projections and break-even analysis," Williams said. "We really had to know our concept inside and out. Overall, it was a great experience because we had to think on our feet and really have a good grasp of our concept."

The engineering business minor is one example of the unique, broad-based curriculum offered at the Engineering School. Due in large part to the Department of Science, Technology and Society, the school strengthens students' analytical and technical skills, as well as building their communications skills and understanding of humanities and ethics.

"The Engineering School taught me the intersection between engineering and many other disciplines," Williams said. "Engineering ethics is something I have learned that not only will prepare me for a career in finance, but it has prepared me for life."  

— By Zak Richards