Cultivating Gender Diversity in the Electronics Industry
For Women’s History Month, Connector Supplier spoke with Heather Fulara, senior director of interconnect and electromechanical for Digi-Key Electronics and longtime member of Women in Electronics (WE), about her experience as an electronics industry professional.
Women in Electronics attracts professionals from suppliers, distributors, and other electronics industry organizations.
Heather Fulara has been in the electronics industry for 11 years and most recently, joined Digi-Key Electronics as the senior director of interconnect and electromechanical where she focuses on supplier development, product management, and asset management. Through the last decade, developing talent and building relationships have been important elements of Fulara’s career. She has made these priorities in her workplace and through her involvement in the Chicago chapter of Women in Electronics (WE). Fulara joined WE as a member in 2018 and also held a position on the WE Advisory Board.
Growing a Career in the Electronics Industry
Fulara obtained her undergraduate degree in business marketing with a minor in psychology. “At that time I thought, if I know about what customers are thinking, then certainly I’ll be a great marketer! My first job out of college was in parts procurement with a manufacturer of heavy-duty trucks, school buses, and engines. That was where I first started getting into technical products as well as working in an environment with a lot of different SKU numbers,” she said. “I started in a development program. I was really fortunate to be able to experience different departments as I rotated through a manufacturing environment — logistics, marketing, and sales, and all their different functions. I spent time in national account sales before moving into product management. I’m not an engineer by trade, but I have a technical aptitude. I do like getting into the specs of things, why things work the way that they do.”
To focus on marketing and the growing area of e-commerce, as well as to work more globally, Fulara took a job as product manager in the electronics industry and went back to school for her MBA. “As I worked closer and closer with suppliers, I really enjoyed learning about how we connect this technology that they’re creating with the customer who is designing really amazing new things that are now in our lives. In the early days of this industry, for example, we talked about automation on a plant floor, something I didn’t often see, but now we see automation everywhere.”
Fulara got involved in WE to supplement her professional development and mentorship activities. Networking with other women in the Chicago chapter as well as the national WE Seminar allowed her to build a broader network of high-caliber women who advocate for each other and for women coming into the industry.
While attending a WE conference, Fulara learned the term “Personal Board of Directors” from speaker Lanän Clark, to define the combined mentorship each person needs to grow and develop. Hers, she said, is a mix of women and men. “Some of the women that have mentored me over time helped me figure out how to navigate being a working parent, which is a reality.” Today, she finds that men are modeling that work-family balance as well. Through their openness around juggling work and parenting responsibilities, they make it comfortable for everyone who has those obligations.
Fulara’s career path took her from the product management function into supplier account management, and then to a supplier marketing role, leading teams along the way. Throughout that time, she has attended many industry events where she’s interacted with people she refers to as the legends of the industry. As these people near retirement, she worries their knowledge and expertise will be lost. “That’s why I got more involved in development programs, to help the next generation quickly learn the industry and build their network so that they can continue to grow and develop in their own companies.”
Fulara has also found great partners among the suppliers she works with. “At the heart of this industry is really good people who actually care about their business in ways that you don’t always see. Some of the folks that I’ve interacted with own the company or their grandfather started the company, and there’s a huge investment in doing good work, with high integrity,” Fulara said. “They are really proud of the careers that they’ve built and want to make sure their business is in good hands. This makes them really effective mentors to the next generation as well.”
Impact of Women in Electronics
As Digi-Key has grown, so has its need to create opportunities for its people to develop leadership skills, including the ability to lead larger and larger teams. For a company in a more remote location — Thief River Falls is based in secluded northwest Minnesota — having women take some of those leadership roles is a wonderful opportunity, said Fulara. WE has provided a way for Digi-Key to supplement its development program. “The company has doubled down on its support of WE because it provides a significant learning and development program with very specific tools for women,” Fulara added. Under the leadership of Linda Johnson, executive vice president of operations at Digi-Key, the company started a local branch of Women in Electronics in 2018, that has grown to be a one-of-a kind inclusive program, not only open to all Digi-Key employees but to industry members in the local community who want access to experts, tools, resources, and support to develop women leaders in the workplace.
Joining Women in Electronics
One of Fulara’s passions is developing the next generation of talent for the electronic components industry, which is evident through her involvement in WE as well as the industry’s development program, SPARK. Supporting up-and-coming women in the industry has inspired Fulara to keep growing her own career and continue creating opportunities for others to develop. To anyone considering a membership in WE, Fulara notes a few things that have been exceptionally helpful to her.
First, the networking is priceless. Being able to learn from others in the industry, cultivate relationships and form both mentor and mentee relationships has helped her in her own professional development.
The programming allows members opportunities to improve their skills, learn from industry leaders, and supplement their development programs. These opportunities can translate into career advancement for women at every stage of their career.
Additionally, the mentorship program has allowed many WE members a confidential, personal connection to help navigate barriers. Combining a formal mentorship program with one’s own informal mentor relationships can allow members varied viewpoints to solve their unique career hurdles. Fulara recalled one especially impactful mentor counseling her when she was considering a role that would move her from an individual contributor to a management position. That person said, “You’re ready, even if you think you’re not.”
And finally, there are resources like the WE podcast and content library of all recorded training sessions. The podcasts feature industry leaders talking about important issues, industry trends and advice for professional development. “Host, founder, & CEO of WE Jackie Mattox does an incredible job moderating these podcasts and asking some very tough questions of the industry’s leaders. This is specific content that is valuable for people in our industry interested in developing their acumen and knowledge,” said Fulara.
It’s All About Relationships
Since the very beginning of Fulara’s career, she’s seen the power of relationship building and she will continue to invest in that for herself and others, now at Digi-Key.
She acknowledges the importance of supporting other women in the electronics industry and is encouraged to see progress made in the last decade she has spent in this business. She remembers some of her first meetings when there were far fewer women in the room, but fortunately, that trend is changing as her colleagues have also progressed in their careers.
“I do hope that we continue to grow the amount of diverse input from women, from people of color, and from people from all different kinds of backgrounds. Over the last decade, our business has changed a lot and we are continuing to grow, in line with our ever-evolving customer base,” Fulara said.
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