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Leveling the Playing Field

Kip Hanson
By Kip Hanson Contributing Editor, SME Media
A meeting of the Wi3DP board of directors. Clockwise from bottom are Nora Touré, Dana McCallum (calling in), Sarah Goehrke, Kristin Mulherin, and Janet Kar. (Provided by Women in 3D Printing)

When Nora Touré graduated from college and took a job as a legal assistant, she had no idea that she would soon enter the additive manufacturing field. Nor did she have any plans to work for a startup firm in a fledgling industry, leave her home in France for the United States, and found a multinational organization that now boasts more than 30,000 members.

What she wanted back then was to become a criminal defense attorney, one that perhaps specialized in the international law sector. As we’ve all learned over the years, life likes to throw us occasional curveballs—for Touré, they were 3D printed ones.

Expatriate Blues

“I began my additive manufacturing career in 2010 as a salesperson for Sculpteo, which at that time was a newly-formed service bureau based in Villejuif, a small town near Paris,” she said. “Aside from a part-time job working in a clothing store during college, I’d never sold anything, but it was very interesting work and I did quite well at it.”

She did so well, in fact, that within three years, Touré had developed a strong sales team and built up a significant pipeline of customers throughout Europe and beyond. She and the rest of Sculpteo’s management team began to realize, however, that much of this business was coming from the United States, so in 2012, her boss sent Touré to San Francisco. Her mission? Vet the business environment there and see if it was something worth pursuing.

It wasn’t an easy assignment. Over the next two years, Touré attended numerous trade shows, knocked on countless doors, and learned the complex inner workings of American business culture. She was Sculpteo’s sole U.S. representative, separated from her French colleagues and corporate support by a nine-hour time difference. She was also just 24 years old. “Coming from Europe, I thought to myself, ‘Oh, I know everything I need to know about the United States. It’s going to be an easy sell.’” She laughed. “I quickly realized that was not the case at all.”

Nora Touré founded Women in 3D Printing in 2014. Since then, the organization has grown to include more than 10,000 members and 80 chapters in 36 countries. (Provided by Women in 3D Printing)

During this time of relative isolation, Touré wondered about the source of her difficulties in garnering new sales. Was it because she was a foreigner? Was she too young to be taken seriously, or was it a matter of her not being an engineer by trade? Or was it, as she suspected, due to her being a woman in what has long been a man’s industry? Whatever the causes, she encountered people who refused to shake her hand, and who were otherwise disrespectful and “very unpleasant” towards her.

“It was not a nice feeling,” she said. “In France, I didn’t consider myself to be any kind of rock star, but I was good at my job and knew where I stood in my business dealings. That wasn’t the case in the U.S., so I began to reach out to other women I knew here, to see if they were having the same difficulties. As it turned out, they were.”

Beyond Blogging

She soon found that a surprising number of her female colleagues had similar stories, ones they were more than happy to tell. Many reported the same feelings as Touré’s—that they didn’t belong in AM, and wondered as to the causes. Touré also discovered that, unlike traditional manufacturing sectors, many of the people in 3D printing—of both sexes—had disparate, unconventional backgrounds and educations, due in large part to the industry’s newness and the fact that schools were not yet offering degrees in additive manufacturing.

Touré felt it important to share her findings with a larger audience, and began posting her and others’ stories on a blog. Women in 3D Printing (Wi3DP) was born.

“That was in 2014, and I had no vision whatsoever back then as to what it would eventually become,” she said. “Going into it, I assumed that my situation was probably unique and that there weren’t all that many women in the industry, but just as it was with my preconceived notions of American business, I was wrong. What started as a one-year project to highlight a few of the women I’d come to know just grew and grew until I had women from all over the world reaching out to me for help with sharing their stories.”

Wi3DP was much more than storytelling, however. Members soon wanted to meet the people they’d been reading about in person, leading Touré to organize some official events. These initial “low-key, happy-hour meetings” in the San Francisco area evolved into national and then international speaking engagements, company tours, panel discussions, and even a Wi3DP job board (which is also open to men). Today, Touré’s organization includes 80 chapters in 36 countries and six continents, and has highlighted more than 400 3D printing professionals in what has since become a weekly post on the Wi3DP website.

Wife, mother of two, and 3D printing professional, Nora Touré continues to set a proud example for other women in the manufacturing industry. (Provided by Women in 3D Printing)

During this time, Touré’s original assignment to vet the American manufacturing landscape for additional business opportunities bore fruit. Sculpteo’s leadership in France gave her the budget she needed to build a small factory in San Leandro, (Calif.) and further expand her team of sales and customer support people, a task she worked on for the next three years. Having checked that very large box, she then decided to “go do something on the applications side” of 3D printing, and took a job as the vice president of strategy with Ivaldi Group, a California-based startup firm that specializes in spare parts solutions for heavy industry, maritime, mining, and construction.

Brief Pauses

Fast forward another three years. Her experience with Ivaldi Group’s digital services and AM offering led Touré to Fast Radius, a cloud-based manufacturing provider that offers much more than 3D printing, where she served as director of sales and service of factory operations.

“At that stage in my career, I felt it was necessary to go beyond additive,” said Touré. “Much of the decision came down to the fact that I kept hearing from customers who were looking for machined or plastic injection molded parts but, as an AM provider, we were unable to support them. Saying no is extremely frustrating for a salesperson, so for me, it became increasingly important to join a company offering a full scope of manufacturing services.”

Through it all, Touré found time to get married, give birth to two sons, and keep Wi3DP moving full steam ahead. She recently handed the presidential reins to Kristin Mulherin, general manager of powder bed solutions at Nexa3D, but Touré remains on as chairwoman of the board at Wi3DP and is still deeply involved in the organization’s day-to-day activities. And shortly after that, she accepted a job offer that brings her closer to her roots in additive manufacturing: director of enterprise sales for North America at Belgium-based 3D printing pioneer Materialise.

The Fight for Equality

When asked whether gender equality remains a problem in manufacturing—additive or otherwise—she suggested that progress has been made, but noted that less than 15 percent of today’s AM jobs are filled by women and that most of the glass ceilings have yet to be shattered. And sadly, diversity in other areas seems to be on the decline. The number of blacks in Wi3DP, for example, “can be counted on one hand,” she said, one of several unfortunate metrics that must be changed before the industry can consider itself truly “diverse.”

“More companies in the AM industry have begun to understand the basic premise that people matter, and if they really want to be successful, they need to have much more diversity, on a far broader basis,” Touré said.

Still, people are taking notice. During last January’s TIPE 3D Printing conference (Technology, Industry, People, Economics) there were 186 speakers, a 26 percent increase over last year’s event. Many of those women hold leadership and engineering roles in prominent companies, NIST, NASA, Ford Motor Co. and HP among them. Thanks to Touré’s efforts, those numbers will only grow stronger. “We’re getting there, but still have a long way to go,” she said.

Somewhat ironically, Touré suggested one way to help is for more men to get involved in TIPE and other Wi3DP events. “That would be a big step forward. We’d also like for more companies to participate in our DEI [diversity, equity, inclusion] workshops, so that we can educate others on what it is, why it matters, and how employers can begin to implement important programs like these.”

“The good news is that more companies in the AM industry have begun to understand the basic premise that people matter, and if they really want to be successful, they need to have much more diversity, on a far broader basis,” added Touré. “Yes, there are certainly a fair number of companies who understand this and are doing a good job, but I think that Women in 3D Printing still has a significant mission ahead of it, which is to help as many organizations as possible to achieve complete gender parity and ethnic diversity. Hopefully, we as an industry will achieve this goal soon.”

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