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Athena Award finalist: Jill Tietjen

Maria Cote //May 1, 2010//

Athena Award finalist: Jill Tietjen

Maria Cote //May 1, 2010//

ATHENA_JillTietjen.jpg

The list of career achievements and honors from nonprofit organizations is nearly long enough to fill a book.

Just a few: a certificate of honor from the Colorado Engineering Council, a distinguished service award from the Society of Women Engineers and a distinguished alumni award from the University of Virginia.

The latest award for Jill S. Tietjen is a big one: In March, she was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.

“I have family coming into town for the ceremony, so I’ve got to prepare for that,” says Tietjen, shuffling through a stack of papers at a coffee shop just days before the event.

It’s obvious that the 55-year-old never wastes a moment.

The two-time Athena Award nominee has worked for 34 years in the male-dominated utility industry, and she’s determined to ensure she won’t be a rarity in her field for long.

“I was halfway through my first semester, and I knew what I wanted to do,” Tietjen says. “I wanted to be an engineer, though nobody had encouraged me. I called home from my dorm phone – collect of course – and got my parents on the phone. I told them I had big news. Naturally, they thought I was pregnant.”

Tietjen chuckles and says, “My father (a NASA engineer) was ecstatic. My mother, said, ‘Oh no,’ though she denied it later.”

That was part of her inspiration to reach out to other women.

“I’ve worked for 30 years to teach young women that tech careers are very viable options. I helped judge a sixth-grade essay contest with the Society of Women Engineers, and here’s what I learned: Many sixth-graders lie. And few could name a significant woman in the tech field.”

One of her proudest moments, she says, was being at the White House when Admiral Grace Murray Hopper was awarded the National Medal of Technology. She accepted the award for the elderly woman, and later nominated her to the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Hopper was the first of many women Tietjen has nominated for the honor over the years.

A conversation with Tietjen quickly squashes the stereotype of an engineer – the socially awkward male with bad fashion sense, likely sporting a pocket protector and an ugly tie. Her artful gold earrings and a deep blue and brown sweater complement her dark hair and eyes. She’s a nationally renowned speaker and the author or co-author of more than 10 books. They’re as much a source of pride to her as her work in the technical industry. “Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America” (HarperCollins, $29.95) is her latest, and she’s on the road frequently promoting it.

When amused, laughter erupts from her tiny frame, and it’s impossible not to smile back.

The president and CEO of Technically Speaking Inc. says she spends half her time as a consultant and half traveling and promoting her book.

“When I talk to groups, I tell them that I’m an author, a speaker and an electrical engineer. For some reason, that always gets a laugh,” Tietjen says. “At first it bothered me, then a friend said, ‘Go with it. They laugh because the last on the list, ‘engineer,’ is just so unexpected.'”

She also uses humor when she speaks with children and young women.

“I tell them that I live with my husband, David, and my vegetarian cat,” she says with a grin. “The vegetarian cat loves to chew up everything from my carnations to my roses, then throw it all up on the floor. Lucky me – I get to clean up the mess.”

Her work with steering young women into technical careers is one of her proudest achievements. She’s served as chairwoman on the Board of Directors for Girl Scouts Colorado Mile Hi Council.
And she’s established scholarships for young women through the Society of Women Engineers and at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of Virginia, and at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Tietjen, who has a degree in applied mathematics and a minor in electrical engineering from the University of Virginia, as well as an MBA from the University of North Carolina, was elected to the National Board of Engineers in 1988.

She moved to Colorado 29 years ago and says she can’t imagine living anywhere else.

“When I travel and fly back here, I look at the mountains and they just speak to my soul.”

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