Tesla VP Laurie Shelby '83 inspires women in stem

Laurie Shelby '83, vice president of environmental health, safety and security at Tesla, Inc.

Radford University’s 2021 Summer Bridge Program: Mission to Mars was appropriately themed and inspired a week of innovation and mentoring. Summer Bridge is hosted by the Artis College of Science and Technology and welcomes young women from high schools across Virginia and beyond at no charge to participants. With the generous support of corporate and foundation partners, participants spent the week on Radford’s campus thinking about their futures, gaining valuable classroom instruction from Radford faculty and teaching assistants, experiencing hands-on activities that included building rockets and launching them at weeks end, and engaging with speakers and presenters working in today’s leading industries.

Laurie Shelby ’83, vice president of environmental health, safety and security at Tesla, Inc. kicked off the week with a virtual presentation from her location at the Tesla plant in Fremont, California. Ms. Shelby has long found her place in a traditionally male-dominated field and welcomed the opportunity to share her insights to a future generation of women who will break barriers and lead innovation across the spectrum of science-, technology-, engineering- and mathematics-related fields.

“You get what you accept, not what you expect” is Shelby’s motto. It was passed on to her from her father and became the mantra for her determination and commitment to following her dreams.

“I don’t accept that 28 percent of women in the work force are in STEM,” Shelby told the classroom full of young women focused on her experience.

According to U.S. Census data, women are still vastly underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce, despite making up nearly half of the U.S. workforce. While women made gains – from 8 percent of STEM workers in 1970 to 28 percent in 2021 – men still dominate the field.

It is innovators like Shelby that have the ability to influence the strides being made for women in STEM and to mentor young women and girls at early ages, helping them to be confident with their choices to pursue STEM careers and challenge barriers and stereotypes that may stand in their way.

You have to remember to move yourself along."

Laurie Shelby '83

Shelby made the switch from nursing to chemistry while an undergraduate at Radford University, but bridged what she learned from both fields to embark on a career in the fossil fuel/nuclear power and metals industries. It was her success in those fields that caught the attention of Tesla and brought her to the automotive/energy company to serve as “Protector of the Realm,” her working title dubbed by her boss and Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

Shelby is helping to advance the Tesla mission to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy” and focused on ensuring the safety and well-being of the company’s 100,000 employees in North America, Asia and Europe.

“Once you get the why, the what and the how will happen,” said Shelby. “Tesla is a ‘why’ company.”

With two new Tesla factories being built in Austin, Texas and Berlin, Germany, Shelby and her 500-person team are addressing the “why” and actively contributing to vehicle design and the production process by providing expertise in ergonomics and safety (Tesla has a 5-Star safety rating, the highest rating among automobile manufacturers in America) and helping the company advance its goals of clean transport and clean energy.

Summer Bridge participants shared a curiosity for Tesla operations and the experience of being a leader in STEM while balancing life. Shelby excitedly provided insights about Tesla and shared some key advice, most notably “you don’t end up with your dream job right away, and it’s important that you know what is right for you.” She also passed along some advice from her boss.

Tesla's Gigafactory 1 in Storey County, Nevada

“Chemistry is critical to what we do. But Elon Musk said to tell you to ‘look at electro-chemistry,’” said Shelby.

Electro-chemistry is the science behind lithium-ion batteries, which Tesla uses to build electric vehicles. At Gigafactory 1 in Storey County, Nevada, Tesla’s lithium-ion battery and electric vehicle component factory, battery packs are made for Tesla vehicles manufactured in the U.S.

“Elon wants you to know electro-chemists are highly sought-after,” said Shelby.

Shelby encouraged participants to explore internship opportunities with Tesla and look into the company’s Introduce a Girl to Engineering program, one of several initiatives focused on increasing the number of women in STEM.

She left an impression as she talked about space exploration, renewable energy and the energy that she receives from working in Tesla’s “Take Charge” environment where ideas are free-flowing and innovative. So much of an impression, that one group of Summer Bridge participants built a SpaceX-themed rocket as a nod to Tesla.  

Five Summer Bridge participants (from left to right) Shree Ghosh, Peyton Coleman, Morgan Schoch, Sarina Gandhi and (not pictured) Poorvi Parikh built a SpaceX-themed rocket .

Guidance and opportunities are the foundation of the Summer Bridge experience. As Shelby encouraged participants to seize opportunities, she offered this last gem: “Katherine Hepburn said ‘As one goes through life, if you don’t paddle your own canoe, you’re not going to move.’”

Shelby added, “You have to remember to move yourself along.”

Summer Bridge at Radford University

Summer Bridge is hosted by the Radford University Artis College of Science and Technology with the financial support of corporate and foundation sponsors — Appalachian Power, the American Electric Power (AEP) Foundation, BAE Systems, Project Discovery, Torc Robotics, Greater Lynchburg Community Foundation, C.E. Richardson Benevolent Foundation, Harry and Zoe Poole Foundation, Wells Fargo and Novozymes. Summer Bridge, thanks to the generosity of the program’s supporters, continues to grow with a mission to encourage, empower and inspire young women to pursue degrees and careers in STEM. It is a figurative bridge to new opportunities and a place where like-minded students come together to chart their goals and dreams of real-world possibilities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.


About Tesla

Tesla, Inc. was founded in 2003 by a group of engineers who wanted to prove that people didn’t need to compromise to drive electric and that electric vehicles can be better, quicker and more fun to drive than gasoline cars. Today, Tesla builds not only all-electric vehicles but also infinitely scalable clean energy generation and storage products. Tesla believes the faster the world stops relying on fossil fuels and moves towards a zero-emission future, the better. To create an entire sustainable energy ecosystem, Tesla also manufactures a unique set of energy solutions, that enable homeowners, businesses, and utilities to manage renewable energy generation, storage, and consumption.

This is just the beginning. With Tesla building its most affordable car yet, the company continues to make products accessible and affordable to more and more people, ultimately accelerating the advent of clean transport and clean energy production. Electric cars, batteries, and renewable energy generation and storage already exist independently, but when combined, they become even more powerful – that’s the future we want.