Katie Zombro: Engineering Superstar to Girls-In-STEM Advocate
Katie Zombro left university with a degree in electrical engineering and within a year was managing projects all around the world, but something was tugging deep inside her. She wanted to do something more important.
In engineering school, she was often the only female in her classes. Her experience is driving her to advocate for girls in STEM and looking for opportunities to improve education for all kids.
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Shea Oliver: Hi Katie, thank you so much for joining us today here on The Priority Paradigm. I'm really looking forward to hearing your story. We're going out and talking to people that have been in kind of a normal mode of life, looked at their lives and said something's more important and then made a change and I understand that you've got a story to tell about doing that yourself. So, if you'd like, go ahead and kick right into your story.
Katie Zombro: Sure, so my very long story is that I went to school to be an electrical engineer, so I went through college and if you know anything about electrical engineering, there's not a lot of women and I happened to be a woman.
Shea Oliver: I have a son in electrical engineering.
Katie Zombro: Oh, okay. So you're familiar with what it's like? I went through four years of school, there were times that were more challenging than others. Not always because of my gender, but a lot of times I felt like I was being ostracized. I was being ostracized because I was different. One of my favorite stories is that I used to sit in, it was a woman who taught the class, but there would be empty chairs all around me and all of the guys would sit in all of the chairs that weren't right next to me. So yeah, so college was challenging. I mean, like electrical engineering is challenging, but then on top of it add that you're not like everyone else and it makes it even more challenging. So, I graduated in four years. I worked super hard. I got out, I had it, I had my degree. I started working like two days after I graduated. Yeah, it took no time in between, and everything was fine. I moved up really quickly. I was, you know, I was getting raises and bonuses and getting to do this job and that job. And I ended up, I found myself in Bangalore, India managing a construction project I was working for, in parallel I was also in Singapore managing another construction projects. And then I was basically named the Asia Pacific project manager, so regional project manager for this. And I was 22.
Shea Oliver: That's incredible.
Katie Zombro: So like if you talk about like what people say in terms of success, I had made it very quickly and into corporate success, and then, you know, things kinda changed. Opportunities came and I moved to Colorado a few months after closing my India project. So once the construction was over, I got another opportunity came to Colorado. So I've now been in Colorado for three years. I started out again as an electrical engineer and construction and then kind of moved into a project management role, and the reason, the reason that we're talking is because I made a huge change last summer. So after managing a $20 million dollar construction project in another country in parallel, managing another construction project like I. Yeah, it's Hilarious. I learned how to manage like super, super complex problems all at the same time. And so with my day job call it, I wasn't, I wasn't finding that I was challenged enough and it's not because I wasn't busy. I have like 10, 15 projects, construction project I was managing, but there was something missing. And I felt like I was just going through the motions of getting up and going to work and maybe sometimes I would go to the gym and like, you know, I would eat lunch two days out of the week because I was just busy doing whatever.
Katie Zombro: And life didn't seem right for me. I'm. So, a bunch of serendipitous events happened. First I read this book called You Are A Badass by Jen Sincero, which is actually where this quote came from, but she basically, she turned her life around and is now a New York Times bestselling author and just, you know, as a life coach, but teaches people to like, harness whatever it is inside of them, even if it doesn't seem like you're going to make a lot of money from it and just make it happen and joy will flow. So I read that three times and by the third time I was like, something's got to change. So I was looking for a local boulder life coach that had a similar philosophy to her, wasn't finding it. I was googling, couldn't find what I wanted. And then, one day a coworker suggested that I do acupuncture and I was, yeah, it was super random, but I was in this acupuncture session, and I swear to you it was like I became Buddha or something like relaxed, like started coming to me.
Katie Zombro: I was like, oh my gosh, like I love working with kids and I care about girls in STEM and you know, like my situation where I was alone in school, like that shouldn't happen anymore. And like I have these tools that I want to like bring all together and like everything, I don't know what it was. There was like 20 needles in my back so who knows what it was about that, but like, everything came together right then and there, and then I don't know, I don't know the sequence of events, this was all last August, but like within days of that happening, I was still googling for this boulder life coach and I found this woman who is local and has this bad ass mentality that follows with this Jensen Chiro. And I connected with her. I sent her a message, we had like a 30 minute call and then it was like I've got to get the money to pay for this woman, like I need her in my life now.
Katie Zombro: So all from like August first to August 31st. I had like all of this come together and I started my own business and I didn't know what I was doing. Like I am an engineer, I know nothing about business and I filed for an LLC and I started this company. I started as Katie's Zombro LLC, but it's Doyenne is the project, and it's all about empowering girls who would not otherwise see the connection between their interests in STEM and, and making that connection. So someone who's, they like to explore, they like to create, they're artistic. They ask questions like those are qualities of a good engineer and if they don't they're tied to math and science, they're not going to make that connection. So like project is around supporting those girls. And I have just, I've been abundant and opportunities and excitement and like things have just flowed ever since I started.
Shea Oliver: That's awesome! So what exactly do you do with your new company?
Katie Zombro: So it's still kind of like, I volunteer a lot, through my work I volunteer a lot and then outside of work, so I do like, girls in STEM camps and a lot of mentorship and, what else? Educational programs and you name it, I've been there, I've done presentations and workshops and all kinds of stuff. So I do a lot of volunteering, which obviously isn't making me any money. You know, like I'm getting my name out there, getting no or whatever and it. And like I said, it's abundant. Like I've had to say no to more opportunities than I've said yes to. So my name is out there. It's super awesome. So there's that piece and then while I was trying to just do market research and get to know, like what is it in this area that people want and what do parents actually want? Because what I think, what I know that they need is different from what they're saying that they want. So I was trying to find translation and a mom that I met asked me to coach her son and his friends in Destination Imagination, which is a STEM competition. So for the last three, four months I have been coaching a group of fifth graders for the science competition and it just concluded last Saturday. So we just, we just ended our season, but it was super awesome. Like, you know, I'm not gonna lie and say that it was perfect. Working with 10 year olds is difficult, but I saw each and every single one of them grow like socially, emotionally and then in terms of like intelligence and their maturity and I'm not going to give myself all of the credit for that. But I mean like I, you know, I had that influence on these five, three, four months now and it broke my spirit on some days. But overall there was a, you know, motion and I can't do something like that again. I'm super excited and already the kids are like, can we start for next year? Like, can we start doing our competition already?
Shea Oliver: That's a good sign! So what's your big dream for, for your company now? Because you've said parents kind of see one thing, but you have a vision of what you think you want to do. So are you going to get there?
Katie Zombro: I'm trying to figure that out. So one of the things that I've noticed is that the parents that can afford to pay me to help their kids don't need the help as much as the parents that cannot pay me to help their kids. So I'm kind of at a crossroads where, my dog just put his face on my desk. Sorry, I'm at a crossroads where I'm like my mentee, she needs my help and not only does she need my help, her mother needs my help, like her mother needs help to know how to support her. So I'm trying to figure out like how much volunteering do I want to do and how much business do I want to do. So I'm at a crossroads there. But for the future I think I want to lobby for education and I don't know if there's like a lucrative business behind that necessarily, but I could see myself moving up into lobbying because I'm going to flat out say it. I'm from California and the education system in Colorado is subpar in comparison to California and I don't even think that necessarily my education was that great public education was that great, but I know for a fact it's better than what I could get here in Colorado. So. And that's sad because Colorado is not the worst state out there. There's other states are not doing as well.
Shea Oliver: No joke
Katie Zombro: Yeah. So I don't know. I started out thinking that I wanted to work directly with kids, but I think I have better skill capability and understanding of working with the adults that have the influence on education.
Shea Oliver: Very cool. That's actually very cool. I'm really excited just hearing about your enthusiasm to go about everything that you're doing, you know, helping the kids, changing the system. One little question, just kind of came up as you were talking. Have you always been as open to whatever direction things are going to go in life? Because as I listened to you talk, I hear a very open spirit. I mean you very much are, I'm not sure, but you know, you're going to get there. You have this confidence about you're going somewhere, but you're not exactly sure where.
Katie Zombro: Yeah.
Shea Oliver: Is that part of your personality or is that something that's been developing as you've done this?
Katie Zombro: It's been developing. I am a planner and in the fourth grade I think fourth or fifth grade I got my first planner and like I would write my friends' birthdays and I, like, I had my friends birthdays memorized. Actually I didn't need to write it down but I was still write it down. But anyway, the point being this is my planner from 2015 and I can't dare throw it away. Like I can't do it. This planner, like years of my life and I have here, I don't know, 10 journals because I have journaled daily, like there are a couple of years now. So like, to answer your question, I'm very rigid and I like to have no, I like to know what's coming next. I like to plan and I, and I'm able to kind of swing with the punches. No one could have prepared me for electrical engineering. I had no idea what I was getting into. So, I've learned over time though, that I become very anxious if I try to stick too closely to my original picture. And so over the last couple of years, I've learned like, Hey, relax if you're late, if you're not on time, if you don't make it to everything, if you have to cancel plans, that's okay because I've become successful because of these ups and downs and not always knowing what I'm getting into. So I think maybe it's a little bit of maturing, but also just from trial and error, I know better than the thing that I'm going to stick to my original plan anymore.
Shea Oliver: You've figured this out at a young age because a lot of us bang our heads against the wall for decades. Trying to stick to a plan so that, that's actually really, really cool. So what would you, so where you're sitting today, if you could go back and talk to yourself as a freshman in college, knowing where you're going to end up today, what would you tell her?
Katie Zombro: You know, it's funny, the one thing that I would change. So I've learned how important your community is. Like you're saying you're the average of the five people you hang out with the most. I, first of all, I didn't live in the engineering dorms my freshman year. And so in terms of being the only female plus not living with engineers, that's super difficult and I lived in my own bedroom so I didn't have to share room ever. So in terms of community, I kind of shot myself, not by my own intention. I didn't sign up to be in that room, that's just what I got assigned. But, I kind of shot myself in the foot in terms of community and I was so, like I'm not joining a sorority and, you know, I had this preconceived notion that I would be some sort of different person if I had joined a sorority. So if I could go back and talk to 18-year-old Katie, I would correct all of those. I don't know what that was, a belief that I could do it alone, that like independent was the way to succeed because now I realized that I do rely on people for their input and their validation and their ideas and I dunno, you copy what you see other people doing, you, you mimic that success. And I, I really did. I did close myself off from a community. And now I'm having to slowly pick up my community again.
Shea Oliver: Totally, totally agree with you on that. There's a ton of wisdom and actually understanding who you're hanging out with, what you're doing and where everyone you're going. That's a valuable lesson to learn. And some that takes us a long time to figure that out. So, if you were to sit down with a group of people right now who were in a position like you were a few years or a year ago even, or even at the beginning of the summer, unhappy kind of trying to look around. So what am I going to do with my life? I think I want to go do something. What would you tell them?
Katie Zombro: You have to like remove yourself. So one of the things that drives me nuts in my day job currently is there's people, not necessarily the people themselves, but there are people that have been in the same role longer than I've been alive. And so when I try to say like, Hey, let's do something this way, or like, let's try this tool and see if we can be more efficient in this way. They're like, no, no, I'm not going to open my computer to figure this out. Or like why do it that way I can do it in email or you know, that. So if, if we transfer my knowledge of how people work at work to how people work in life, it's no different. And so if someone is sitting there miserable and they're trying to make a change but not removing themselves from the situation and like trying to see the whole picture, you're not going to make a change big enough to actually like make that shift or pivot. I'm like, for me, I had to think like outside of just applying for a new job because I could keep applying for the same PM job or same electrical engineering job. But, even if I was at a different company I wasn't going to make that shift. So I had to completely remove myself. Like what could I do entrepreneurially, what could I do with kids? And then it kind of just morphed to where it is now. But I would never, I never would have seen like I didn't want to work with kids. That wasn't, that wasn't my intention. So you really got to like, I don't know if you find yourself in the mountains or if you, you know, need to go on a trip or just like lock yourself in a library and write down every idea that you've ever had. I read, I dunno, 12 books last year from Memorial Day to Christmas. So I made it my personal mission to inundate myself with new information and that's how these ideas were flowing is because I was changing who I was or at least what I thought on the daily.
Shea Oliver: Very cool. So if we could go back to the August when all of this began to really start rolling for you. How long from the time that you said, or even before August, where you said, I have to do something different to the point where you did something different during that period of time. How long was that?
Katie Zombro: I did a three week backpacking trip through Europe, April to May. I needed it. When I got back. From there I was like freedom and the ability to explore means too much to me to not do this more often. And it was at that point that I was like, I've either got to find another stream of income so that I can support this or I've got to pay off my student loan debt so that I can make things work. And so that was kind of like money, honestly was the beginning of this whole thing. It was like I, I'm a slave to the bank right now. Like I am paying my student loans, I have a car, I own a house, I don't live freely. So from what I got back in May, from May to August, I was like trying to figure out if I wanted a new job, if I wanted two jobs, if I wanted to go into sales because then I could drive my own income. Like I was, you know, it took me all of these ups and downs and reading that book. So the third time that I read that book, that's when I finally clicked for me, all at one time.
Shea Oliver: Once you started, and August hit, how long did it take before you actually got your LLC up and running? And were starting to do something.
Katie Zombro: So how old am I? My birthday is 26th birthday was August 14th and by August 31st I had hired my coach, and by I want to say October first, October fifth, I had my LLC, registered in my website was mostly I had created most of my website.
Shea Oliver: Awesome. So you made the decision. I'm doing it and it took you four to six weeks and you were rolling?
Katie Zombro: Yeah.
Shea Oliver: That's fantastic. I love hearing that. That's awesome. That is so awesome. So, with the direction you're going right now and kind of a very open spirit that you have about seeing where you end up, what do you think would have happened to you if we went back to July and you decided not to do anything?
Katie Zombro: I would have applied for a new job. In fact I did do this. So in parallel I did apply for new jobs and I did get an offer and it was like a slamming offer. I would have gotten, I dunno, a 15 percent raise or something like that. I would have gotten to travel, which I thought would somehow fix my wanderlust, which looking back it wouldn't have fixed it, but I would have found a new job, started a new job and then, I dunno, maybe a year two from now, I'd be like, "hi, I'm in the same hole that I was a couple of years ago." And then, I'm noticing now that I find myself complaining just to complain, like it's very negative. Some of my thoughts when I, when I can't get something the way that I wanted, instead of like proactively trying to flip it and make it positive, I sit there and wallow in my own sadness. And if I hadn't created Doyenne, if I hadn't met my coach, if I hadn't done all of these things, I would have continued this perpetual cycle. So I don't know how long it would've taken me to get out of it, but I would have continued to focus on these negative things instead of finding the off... It doesn't have to be positive, but the opposite of negative.
Shea Oliver: Where do you. So you're very, I can see you're very open to change. You're very open to whatever is going to be coming toward you, but if you were to say, okay, I want to draw a picture of where I'm going to be in five years, where would that be and what would you be doing?
Katie Zombro: I don't know, because I don't like... as much as my career I guess defines where I would be in five years. Like Katie five years from now. Well Gosh, like my, my mentee will be in college and I'll have successfully, you know, spent the last four. Well if it's five the last five years helping her get into school and she is going to be an engineer and I'm so excited for her. I have a personal goal to make it to six of the seven continents on the passport that I have currently, and I currently have five on it now. So it expires in 2020. So five years from now Katie will have gone to South America. I don't know. I'll be out of student loan debt. I'll have the freedom to actually save instead of like this false savings account that I have right now, and I'll have the freedom, I mean like, I'll have the freedom to pick up whatever comes my way. It's not like, no, I don't have to rely on my single income to make me float every month. Then I can take a lower paying job if it means that it will make me happy because it's something that I can support. I love helping people, and you don't make a lot of money helping people.
Shea Oliver: Depending on what you're doing, you can or some don't depending on what you do. I keep hearing in the one thing come up, which is travel. It's very obvious that you like travel. What is it about travel that you, like? What is it that's important about travel to you?
Katie Zombro: if you haven't picked it up already? I love to feel awkward. I like to be an uncomfortable situations because I know that you grow from those uncomfortable situations. I love going to the undeveloped places are developing places. India, I was in Morocco last year, so I love to experience culture that I haven't otherwise experienced. I'm a huge Foodie, so I love to eat, to eat new cuisine and try things out. And, you know, I have a lot of allergies, food allergies, so I like to see how other people use food and how to make it, make it work even if you do have, because in America my allergies are very prohibiting and in other countries it's not very prohibiting.
Shea Oliver: Can you give an example of that?
Katie Zombro: Yeah. So I'm allergic to gluten. It makes me ill immediately ill and you know, here you can't have pizza, you can't have sandwiches, a powdered in that everything. So that's one. Another one is I'm allergic to red dye, which makes it super difficult for me to like in a rush, eat something processed. So when you add red dye and gluten together, and then like in terms of medicine to a lot of medication for whatever reason comes in red capsules or red syrup or whatever. So, you know, just like experiencing how people like different medicines that people use and alternative ways of healing and not relying on prescriptions for everything and not. So I digress, but basically I love traveling because I love culture and I love seeing other people's appreciation for art and architecture and communicate... if I can't speak a language, then like being able to communicate and have that exchange and I pick up language pretty quick. So I've been, I've been able to make it through French and Spanish and I never took French in school and I only took Spanish early part of high school.
Shea Oliver: Very cool. Yeah. So in all your travels, can you say there's a favorite place you've been?
Katie Zombro: So Seville, last year was my favorite city that I went to. It's very relaxed. The food is amazing. You can walk everywhere. that my favorite? It's hard to say that I have a favorite cars everywhere, so different. I know where I don't love, I know places that I didn't love.
Shea Oliver: That happens! I could sit and talk about travel forever. But let's, if we could shift back just for a second, back to that period of when you were deciding you're going to make this change and you're going to do something very different and pivot. What was the biggest setback that you hit? And how did you overcome it? Or did you hit any setbacks? That might be even better, but my guess is you did.
Katie Zombro: Well, one big setback is like I said, I'm, I have student loans, I have a car loan, I have my house, so money. While I make enough to live like that, I'm not living in abundance of a savings account or something like that. So, like I had to let go of my business coach after three months, which, you know, in terms of progress, I don't have someone pushing me to get content out and all of that. So, I guess the overarching theme is money. It takes a lot of money to start a business. It takes a lot of money to sustain a business. And as anyone knows, the first couple of years as an LLC, you're not making peanuts if you make anything at all. Like you're really, you're in the hole. So I'm my, I guess, yeah, like my, my roadblock is money. But in parallel and like all of these serendipitous exchanges that I've had, I've found this facebook group called the Denver Boss Babe Collective. And it's all of these entrepreneurs. Yeah, it's amazing. There's, I think there's like 1600 of us on this local facebook group. Yeah. And we all like, it's all, it's mostly women entrepreneurs are just like bad-ass women. And, why am I telling you this? Oh, so, through like these random exchanges on there, I've met all of these random women and one girl was like, I'm in a bunch of debt. I don't know how to get out of it. And so I was reading through the comments and this lady who's an author, who's from Denver, she was working for the state of Colorado and paid off like $24,000 of debt in a year in a calendar year. So she has a book which I have over here. I read it and now I'm on my, we call it a spending fast. I completely pivoted my mentality around money and how I was like, oh, woe is me. I'm in debt and I'm never going to get out of debt to like, I know that next May I will be 100 percent out of debt except for my house. My house isn't going away, but you know, like I have a plan and I dunno, just shining light on it and not making it so shameful because it used to be like, Oh God, I have a car payment. I have my student. Like now it's like, yeah, whatever, like I'm going to get paid off anyways. I'm good
Shea Oliver: That's an awesome attitude. I love it. Very cool. So as you've, you keep talking whether or not you know, what about big changes that you've made? A lot of times that's difficult, not necessarily for you, but the people that you're closest to. How did the close family and friends deal with.. were they supportive through your changes or were some people "wow, what are you thinking here?"
Katie Zombro: So like my boyfriend is super supportive. He's on this fast spending fast with me. Not In the same degree that I am, but he too, he too is trying to pay off his debts as well. He's going to beat me because he has less debt than I do, but that's okay. So like he and I obviously have a very close relationship and we are open and we communicate and whatever. So that's been great. I don't think that our relationship would work if, if we weren't able to struggle through this together. I've gained some friends through this, you know, girls have reached out, there was a girl or a woman at my gym who reached out on facebook and was like, oh my God, I love what you're doing. I'm an engineer. And I'm like, she was just this woman at the gym that I knew. And so now her and I are super close and I have that friendship. But then on the flip side, I've also, like, I, my mom and I are super, super close. I have grown up, you know, to become best friends with my mom, but I've had to set a boundary in the last few months of like, you know, your life panned out this way and these are your values. My life mirrors most of your values. But we don't see eye to eye on everything and that's okay, but like I can't disclose everything to you because you have an opinion that doesn't line up with my opinion, and I'm going to find success my way, and you are welcomed to find success your way. So that's hard because I do love my parents. I love my mom, but that's also part of growing up. And then there have been some friends that are like, you're lame. You don't go out with us all the time or like, you don't talk to me all the time and you know, Oh, well,
Shea Oliver: That is so awesome. I am really excited for what you're doing. I will tell you, my son who is an electrical engineering, electrical and computer engineering student right now in his sophomore year has repeatedly said, I wish there were more girls in my classes, might be for a different reason. But, I think what you're doing is great and very admirable of you to take such a huge leap of faith at such a young age to try to go out and make such a big difference in the world. I am absolutely impressed with what you're doing. And I hope that you kick ass! I hope that you actually can help change funding levels, change attitudes about education. Not just for the girls, but for the boys too, for every kid that's out there because you are very correct. We could do better, not just in Colorado but everywhere in the country. And um, actually everywhere in the world. I mean we sometimes forget how important it is for our children to have a positive future and to give them the tools and to give them the support and to give them the, you know, the ability to look at the future and say, I can go change it. I can go make it what I am. And I see you doing that for them and doing it for yourself too. And it's really exciting to, to sit and listen to you talk about this. I can feel your passion coming through even here, you know, just in our short conversation. So one last thing as we wrap up here, so the people that are probably going to be watching this video are people who are either have made the change and are just looking, you know, to find other inspirational people or they're going to be people who are banging their head against the wall saying, "I got to do something different." What's the one thing, just one step that you would advise them to take today.
Katie Zombro: Write it down. Whatever is up here that you're stuck in that you can't seem to figure it out. Like putting pen to paper and it doesn't have to be like, you know, well written or grammatically correct. But it out. Write it down. If you want to type it, if you need to draw whatever it is, get it on a piece of paper, come back to it, look at it again, you know, run it by some people that you trust or that you know, you value their feedback, but get it out of your head. You have to write it down. And try it out and feel what it looks like to for it to like live on a piece of paper.
Shea Oliver: That is some awesome advice. Thank you very much Katie. I really, really appreciate your time today. And if people want to learn a little bit more about you, where should they go?
Katie Zombro: My website is KatieZombro.com. My business facebook is facebook.com/katiezombro. Or you can email me at Katie @ KatieZombro.com [remove the spaces]. Very easy.
Shea Oliver: Awesome. Well thank you very much. I really, really, really appreciate your time.
Katie Zombro: Yeah, absolutely. This was fun.