Alumna redefines what an engineer looks like, leading positive change for women in industry

Tina Larson at commecement
Tina Larson gave the commencement speech at the 2018 Spring Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering Commencement Ceremony.

Somewhere along her path to becoming one of few women executives in her field, Tina Larson found her voice. It didn’t come easily, but she’s working to make the engineering field a more welcoming environment for women.

“I feel compelled to help everyone understand why women are potentially going to be less successful just because they’re women,” said Larson, chief operating officer at Recursion Pharmaceuticals.

She wasn’t always aware of the unconscious bias that can lead to this type of inequity. Growing up, her father was an engineer. The majority of his coworkers were men, and most of her professors in college were men. Encultured to think that an engineer looks like a man, Larson didn’t give it much thought.

“As someone who’s been a mentor to other female engineers, it was a painful, deep realization to understand that when I think of an engineer, I think of a man,” said Larson. “But being aware of it has made me more compelled to figure out how to change it.”

Larson earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Colorado State University, and she credits CSU with prioritizing the undergraduate experience, making her feel invested in as a student. Though there were more men than women in the engineering program, she met several women across the different engineering disciplines, and didn’t feel like she lacked for female peers.

Working her way to the top

Equipped with research lab and internship experience, she entered the workforce as an automation engineer, and was one of only two women at her company in that role. She found her niche in the biotech field, working her way up into management roles. Years later, she’s so far the only female in the C-Suite of Recursion Pharmaceuticals, a company using technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence to disrupt the pharmaceutical industry. Larson wants to help develop better, faster, and more cost-effective treatments for a variety of diseases.

Larson continues to experience success in the engineering field, but the path that led to an executive-level role in the biotech industry wasn’t an easy one to forge.

“The most important thing I’ve done with the help of many amazing people is I’ve really had to find my voice,” said Larson. “I’m still on that journey. I’m still not comfortable talking about women’s issues with complete candor.”

Tina Larson at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Recursion Pharmaceuticals’ new headquarters.

Familiar with the challenges women in engineering face, Larson continues to educate others on gender gaps in the field, and to inform the issues in a positive way. And she’s learning to worry less about how others will react. Part of this effort is redefining who can be an engineer, and to Larson, it’s anyone. Once that engineering foundation is established, there are few limits to what one can do.

“One thing about engineering students that’s amazing is they’re taught how to think,” said Larson. “That technical foundation has a big impact, and from a career perspective it opens up access to jobs. There’s no substitute for that.”

Encouraging entrepreneurship

Rooted in a technical foundation, Larson’s diverse career path led her back to CSU, where she serves as a member of the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering Dean’s Advisory Board. Her experience working with entrepreneurs inspired her to give back to her alma mater by supporting the college’s entrepreneurship initiative. This is an opportunity that allows students to create and commercialize a business idea.

“A lot of young students aren’t looking to go work for a corporation for the rest of their lives. They really want to create something and have an impact in a different way,” said Larson. “Fort Collins has a growing entrepreneur community, and I would love for CSU students to have access to that.”

Larson firmly believes that science and technology can drive businesses, but those in leadership positions need to recognize and foster this capacity in their technically minded employees. This same encouragement should be given to women engineers, who need support from managers and peers. Entrepreneurs, women, and engineers (or any combination of the three) can expect Larson to continue to lead by example, and to drive positive changes in the engineering industry.

“Don’t assume you’ll just be recognized for your work,” said Larson. “Have the confidence to negotiate and ensure you’re getting the pay and title you’re worth.”