Two Tech Women Pave Their Own Way in Automotive Industry
Women make up just 24% of the automotive industry, but Georgia Tech graduates Jenn Voelker and Julia Vorpahl haven't let statistics stop them from paving their own way in a male-dominated field.
Both Voelker and Vorpahl work for Karma Automotive, a luxury electric vehicle manufacturer based in California. Beginning with their time at Tech, they've never let gender bias stop them from pursuing their passion.
"It's math," Vorpahl, a visualization and digital design modeler at Karma, said. "You either get the question right, or you get the question wrong. I think that attitude really helps when you get into a professional environment. It teaches you to have tougher skin where if you are the best for that job, you will get the job. That's what Georgia Tech instilled."
Vorpahl grew up in the industry watching her family operate what is now the oldest independently owned Mercedes-Benz dealer in metro Atlanta after her grandfather, an engine designer for the German automaker, came to America and opened the shop in 1967. She arrived at Georgia Tech unsure if she'd follow in her family's footsteps, but ultimately, she landed an internship at Daimler, the nation's largest commercial vehicle manufacturer.
While other interns came in with a background in automotive design, Vorpahl’s willingness to learn and tireless work ethic landed her a full-time job as the only woman in the company's design studio.
During her three years at Daimler before accepting her position at Karma in 2022, she'd occasionally make the drive from Portland, Oregon, back to Georgia. Along the way, she crossed paths with truckers, who often expressed surprise that Vorpahl was among those behind the scenes designing their rigs. She often heard questions like “Why do you work there?” or “How did you end up there?”
And her response was simple. "Women like cars, too.”
That rang true through Voelker's childhood as well. When the senior director of program management for Karma arrived in Atlanta for her first year at Georgia Tech, she knew she'd found a place that could help her turn an aptitude for math and science, and a fervor for cars, into a career.
"Best move I ever made," Voelker said on her decision to enroll at Tech, although it wasn't just the Institute's stellar reputation that lured her from her home state of New Hampshire. "I visited campus in February. There was 6 feet of snow on the ground and then I came to Atlanta, and the flowers were blooming."
After changing her major from mechanical engineering to industrial design, Voelker got her foot in the door through an internship with Masterack, a commercial cargo vehicle equipment manufacturer based in Atlanta. She attended Tech at a time when women made up around 27% of the undergraduate population, so when she entered the workforce, she wasn't fazed. "It never bothered me. I have always felt like I fit right in, especially when it's the right school, the right class, or the right company where everybody appreciates learning from each other and working together towards a common goal," she said.
In fact, her experience on North Avenue taught her to always keep learning and never give up, a piece of advice she now passes along to other women entering the industry.
"Don’t be afraid to give your opinion in meetings, speak up and use all of the knowledge that you've learned over the years toward whatever project you're working on," said Voelker, who worked her way up the ladder at Masterack for 18 years before seeking a new challenge at Karma. “That's one thing that I haven't backed down on. If I have a strong opinion about something, I have no fear of saying it.”
Vorpahl and Voelker each commended Karma for their dedication to promoting hard-working women and a culture that fosters diversity — a principle that Vorpahl especially values after completing two study abroad programs at the University of Singapore and the University of Strathclyde.
“One of the biggest advantages was seeing how people from different countries approach design and how different schools approach design. You don’t want a bunch of people who all think exactly the same way. Otherwise, we’d all be driving around in the exact same vehicle,” she said.
Leading Karma’s commercial vehicle product line, Voelker noted that she has continued to see more women in leadership positions and at industry conferences, and she hopes that momentum carries over to the next generation. Highlighting the importance of igniting both young girls’ and boys' interest in STEM, Voelker recently spoke to a local second grade class to share her experiences.
"I've been really fortunate to have had some great mentors over my career, so I love to pay it forward to the younger generation," she said. "They were so excited, and I hope that stays with them and excites them to learn more about engineering."
In addition to providing an example to young women of how to succeed in a competitive industry, Vorpahl also hopes to share the technical aspects of what she's learned in the field with her alma mater and offer future graduates a roadmap to a career in automotive design.
"The students would thrive in this industry because it is so nitpicky, and Tech minds would just love it," she said. "There's not really a direct path from the Georgia Tech studios into car studios, so I'm hoping that I can show them that path."
Voelker and Vorpahl are bonded by their employer and their alma mater, but it’s their shared passion for seeing their hard work hit the pavement that continues to drive them.
Jenn Voelker showcasing Karma's commercial product line at an auto show.
Julia Vorpahl working on a project in the Karma design studio.