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Female engineer angles around the obstacles

Sophie Penninck Purdy ’01, an electrical professional engineer and president of Fort Worth-based Axxis Building Systems, finds challenges, success and fun in a male-dominated industry.

Female engineer angles around the obstacles

Sophie Penninck Purdy ’01, an electrical professional engineer and president of Fort Worth-based Axxis Building Systems, finds challenges, success and fun in a male-dominated industry.

Sophie Pennick Purdy '01 is the president of Axxis Building Systems in Fort Worth. Photo by Leo Wesson
Sophie Pennick Purdy ’01 is the president of Axxis Building Systems in Fort Worth. Photo by Leo Wesson

Although she was enjoying a successful career as an electrical engineer, Sophie Penninck Purdy ’01 never lost sight of her dream to start a business.

She and husband Ezra Purdy ’03, a mechanical engineer, came up with all sorts of ideas.

“We talked about gourmet foods, a car dealership, a movie tavern and then finally decided we might as well do what we’re good at,” she said.

In 2011, the couple, both licensed professional engineers, launched Axxis Building Systems, a Fort Worth-based automation and engineering company that employs 49, including 11 Horned Frogs. Axxis provides engineering design and construction and automation system design and installation for commercial facilities and the oil and gas industry. The more difficult the project, the better.

“We like to do the more complex, challenging, intellectual projects,” she said. “We find them more entertaining. We like the challenge.”

Born in Belgium, Purdy moved with her family to the U.S. when she was 4 and became a citizen at 23. She speaks English, Flemish, Spanish and German.

Purdy is at the top of her game, but it took a lot of hard work and determination to get there. As a woman in a male-dominated industry (women account for fewer than 10 percent of full-time electrical and electronics engineers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), she learned many lessons along the way. Among them:

You have to stand up for yourself. There are many challenges to females in the industry. Sometimes people assume you’re not capable. We’ve had meetings where we go into our conference room and the potential client only says hi to the men. So I go with the flow. You have to stand up for yourself and prove you’re just as capable as anyone else.

Confidence is a learned trait. When you come out of engineering in college, you are sometimes overconfident. I graduated and felt like I knew everything, and then I got out in the world and realized I didn’t know anything. I had learned a ridiculous amount in college, but there are so many different industries you can go into that what you learn about your industry ends up being very small. I found out that what I learned in college was how to utilize my resources and to problem-solve.

Engineering is a great major. It’s a hard major. You study a lot, but when you get through it, it’s extremely rewarding. When I started, I was discouraged by grandparents who told me I was going into a man’s world. I was determined to prove them wrong. There were days when I called home crying, but my mom told me, “You can do this. We know you can.”

I really enjoy hiring college students as interns. They get to experience us and see if they like us, and we get to experience them and see if we like them. You find out pretty quick when someone is working in your office for a whole summer if they are a good fit.

Being a woman in the industry is fun. Sometimes people will look at you and say, “Really, you’re an electrical engineer? That’s amazing.”

When we started Axxis, I really had no clue what we were getting ourselves into. I knew what a full-time time job entailed, but this is more than a full-time job. It has become my life. I think about it 24/7. It’s way more stressful than I ever imagined. But it is extremely rewarding. If I look at it in hindsight, which is 20/20, would I do it again? Yes, for sure.

I’m not afraid of sticking my neck out and saying, “Hey, this is the way it needs to be.” You have to take risks to succeed in anything.

Sometimes we have to prove ourselves as women, but once we prove ourselves, we get the respect. I’ve had experiences where men don’t believe a woman should be in a managerial or executive position and they will ignore you. You just have to ignore them and move on and say, “Oh well, that’s their loss. I’m just going to keep on trucking.”

I actually find that being a female has helped me in leadership. I’m more of a feeling type person. I’m probably not a typical engineer — I’m a chatterbox. I can usually tell when people aren’t happy with something quickly. I find I’m more in tune with what employees are feeling than some of my co-workers. That’s been helpful.

There’s a big difference between being a boss and being a leader. We lead by example. I made a mistake years ago when I told a young man, “Well, they don’t want you to do this project because they don’t think you are capable of it,” and that really hurt his feelings. I should have never said that to him. In management, you have to realize everybody is usually capable, but you have to teach them how to get there and help them grow.

Balancing work and life is probably the hardest thing I do. I have to make sure I do everything I can to not work on weekends. I try to stay busy with our two kids on the weekends and go do fun things with them. I take them and pick them up from school almost every day. Having a full-blown, crazy career is OK, but my family is most important.

When we go on vacation, we try very hard not to do work the entire vacation. But being business owners, we can’t turn it off for two weeks straight. So we work to dedicate an hour in the morning to get stuff done and then go have fun. We try to force ourselves to be very structured to turn it off. Sometimes that can be very challenging.

Being a husband and wife working together, if we have a bad day, we have a bad day together. If we have a good day, we have a good day together. So our life is a roller coaster with higher highs and lower lows.

I run during lunch. I don’t have to rely on anyone or schedule anything. I just put on my shoes and go.

I’ve continued to find ways to grow my career and be a stronger person by getting more education and more certifications and becoming a professional engineer. Looking back, I’m very proud of it. [Purdy earned an MBA from Baker University in 2007 when the couple lived in Kansas and earned the prestigious Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, accredited professional certification.]

 

— As told to Rachel Stowe Master

Edited for clarity and length