This is part of our series of articles, written by Penn Engineering alumni, about their experiences at Penn and how it shaped their lives. Our next article is written by Chloé le Comte, who graduated with a master’s in Systems Engineering in 2016. She currently works in Seattle as a Marketing Analytics & Business Planning Analyst at the major outdoor recreation retailer REI.
When I was 5 years old, my parents took my brother and me to a remote cabin in Maine for a different type of family vacation. Perhaps to my dad’s dismay, my mom forgot to mention there would be no electronic connection to the outside world while we were there. But in this week, our family learned the simple pleasures of being outside and disconnecting from the world.
I spent hours on the beach collecting shells and wading waist deep in the cold water admiring starfish in tidal pools. Moments like these were only the beginning of my love for the outdoors, and this appreciation has been solidified over the years with skiing every winter, going on bike trips in a few countries, hiking in both the desert and snow, and spending thirteen summers on a boat where TV was replaced with card games and books.
I now work in Marketing Analytics & Business Planning at REI in Seattle, and while this connection may seem obvious given my childhood in the outdoors, I’ve had an uncommon path to get to where I am now.
I grew up in Bedford, NY, a suburban town about an hour outside New York City. From a young age, my dad was always testing me on my math skills or helping me build projects in the woodshop in our garage. I was a curious kid and loved being challenged by problems that seemed unsolvable. As I got older, my love for math and physics overtook other subjects, and by the middle of high school I had set my sights on going to engineering school. I had no idea I’d end up at Penn, or that I’d complete two degrees in the engineering school, but life is full of happy surprises!
As an undergrad at Penn, I was eager to find my “calling” within Penn Engineering and the larger Penn community. I got involved in a number of extracurriculars to meet other engineers in my community, such as Theta Tau Professional Engineering Fraternity, the Engineering Deans’ Advisory Board, the Electrical and Systems Engineering Advisory Board, and the Advancing Women in Engineering Advisory Board (AWE). Outside of engineering, I was also involved in Class Board 2016, which planned both new events and old traditions to bring the class together throughout the year. These groups exposed me to people of varying majors and backgrounds, and this all started to help me figure out what I wanted (and equally as important, what I didn’t want) to study for the next few years.
After exploring my options my freshmen year, I decided that Systems Engineering would be a good fit given the versatility of the major and the flexibility to explore math theory through multiple lenses. There are many definitions of systems engineering, and most of them will include words and phrases like “optimization” or “efficiency” or “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” but without real-world context, it’s often hard to make sense of what exactly a systems engineer might do. The truth is, a systems engineer can be brought into a variety of different situations, from transportation to manufacturing to computer systems to electrical systems, and so on. My experience is just one example of the path a systems engineer might take, and there are certainly many other paths.
While a student at Penn, I worked in Transportation & Logistics for Urban Outfitters, Inc. (URBN) doing analytics, modeling, and strategic improvement projects. I ended up in this role through another Penn student a few years older named Hilary Grosskopf, who I met through AWE. Hilary worked at URBN and was coincidentally also majoring in Systems in both undergrad and grad at Penn Engineering. Not only was Hilary an important role model at work, but she also became a role model for me in my academic career, giving me encouragement and ideas for classes to take within the major.
Over the 15 months I spent at URBN, I worked on assignments related to furniture import network modeling and planning, packaging optimization and domestic omni-channel analyses. Some of the business problems behind these analyses included optimally shipping furniture from overseas manufacturers into the U.S., solving the issue of shipping small products in oversized packages from URBN distribution centers, and distributing product SKUs across stores in an efficient way based on regional preferences for the purposes of shared inventory (i.e. when distribution centers and stores can fulfill an online order). My experience in logistics at URBN added color to my systems engineering education because it started to give me a sense of a real world application of my major and why systems engineers can be crucial to a business’s operations.
Retail has always been a passion of mine — much to my credit card’s dismay — and so I enjoyed combining my fascination with creating transportation efficiencies with the retail business. Around this time, during my sophomore year at Penn, I had applied to be a submatriculant in the Systems Engineering master’s program because I wanted the opportunity to further explore the major as it related to my career interests. Through the master’s program, I was able to take classes related to optimization theory, transportation networks, retail supply chain management, simulation modeling, and independent studies with transportation/operations research professors, amongst other things. The master’s program broadened my scope of things I could explore, so much so that I started to consider whether retail was the be-all and end-all career path for me after graduation. This led me to the next step in my uncommon path.
After graduation, I went to work for Deloitte Consulting in their Technology service area in New York. My goal in joining Deloitte was to gain exposure to a number of different industries to see if anything else peaked my interest, or at the very least, to show me that retail might be my area of interest after all. In my time at Deloitte, I worked on projects and proposals in a number of different areas, from supply chain, to consumer products, to retail, even to the audit industry. In tandem to the career soul searching I was doing, I was doing my own soul searching in terms of where I wanted to live.
The more I stayed in New York, the more I realized that the person within me who loved the outdoors truly did not belong in such a concrete jungle. I always told my friends that my dream job would be to work for REI in a retail analytics position because it would combine my three top interests: the outdoors, retail and math. So when the opportunity came up to apply for a job at REI in marketing analytics, I took a leap of faith, and that leap landed me 3,000 miles away from New York City in Seattle.
The lesson in all of this is two-fold. Systems engineering is versatile and can be applied to a variety of different industries simply because so many industries struggle with process inefficiencies — that’s how I’ve worked in logistics analytics, technology consulting and now marketing analytics. But perhaps more importantly, an education at Penn Engineering is both challenging and interdisciplinary, and this creates an environment where students continually need to adapt to new areas of study. This ability to adapt to new situations and learn as I go has been incredibly helpful for me in transitioning between new careers, new skill sets, and even new cities.
Following your passions can be hard. At first, the idea of combining my love for the outdoors with my engineering degree seemed confusing and honestly impossible. But if engineering school teaches you one thing, you’re often asked to solve the impossible. And by attempting to solve the impossible, I’ve landed in a job where I finally feel like I belong — and equally as exciting, where I also get a discount on outdoor gear.