Katja recently left Nike to join Essential Design's Engineering team. She grew up in Harvard, MA and went to the Bromfield School where she was a varsity soccer, basketball and rowing athlete before studying at Harvard, where she earned an Engineering degree and a minor in Earth and Planetary Sciences and competed in Women's Club Soccer, served as Senior Event Planner for her house, and co-coached the Harvard Special Olympics flag football team. Katja also interned at the Smithsonian Institution's Astrophysics Center and Germany's University of Aachen's Architecture school during college.
1. To start - you came to Essential from Nike. What did you do at Nike and what was it like to work in such a design-led culture?
“I was a Product Engineer for the Running department first and then Young Athletes. I ensured that the footwear was able to be efficiently manufactured. I learned a tremendous amount as I worked closely with design, the research and testing labs, costing, Asia factory partners, and consumer researchers. I translated a designer's intent into a functional prototype. While doing so, I delved into the 'why.' Why were shoes made this way? Which materials were best for this athlete, this consumer need, the shoe's function, and so forth? Is there a better way? As an engineer, I strive to make things better in terms of performance, usability, efficiency, cost, and the environment. At Nike, this is what I aimed to do - but with performance footwear.
I also actively looked for opportunities to expand and learn at Nike: I am particularly proud of my team’s easy-entry shoe design for those with limited mobility in the Nike Ease Challenge (April 2017). Working with two other recent graduates, Marlon Rainville and Latane Oordt, we set out to understand the wide range of footwear needs for the limited mobility consumer. I drafted multiple entry/closure systems in Rhino (3D CAD software) and 3D printed the parts for high-level wear tests. We also thought about materials, how the user would interact with the shoes, the message it would convey, and the story behind it. By the end, the shoe could be opened without hands - just a wave with a magnet or a metal chair leg ‘popped’ open the shoe. This solution earned our team of three the opportunity to present to a panel of judges, including CEO Mark Parker and Olympian Carl Lewis, who awarded us first place. It was an incredible opportunity and a moment in my life that I will always be beyond grateful for.
Getting back to what it was like to work in such a design-led culture: it made me realize the incredible power of design. As an engineer, we are perhaps more concerned with a product's function, but in product development, you cannot have function without form. The functionality and the aesthetics go hand-in-hand. Which is why I am in love with the world of engineering - the melding of art and science. And Nike excelled at both. It was inspiring to be immersed in that culture, to be around people who were so passionate about design, about conveying the story behind it, and moving its audience. Nike arguably is a company that excels at story-telling. They inspire millions every day through their messages. But they would not be able to do that so effectively if their design was not beautiful, but you also can't have great design unless you have impeccable performance and functionality. I learned first-hand the importance of all three.”
2. Did Portland live up to its "Portlandia" reputation? What was the city and region like?
“Haha! I have to smile at this question. Portland is a funky, quirky, eclectic city for sure. And while the show Portlandia is of course an exaggeration, there is a lot of truth to it. The city is wonderfully unique, laid-back, riddled with coffee shops and countless breweries, is home to numerous outstanding restaurants, has an eclectic visual arts scene, and views of Mt Hood that are awesome. It has the largest Urban Park (Forest Park) in the country and I was lucky enough to live a few blocks from it. It was great for trail running or hiking. Portland also has a breathtaking Japanese Garden and the International Rose Test Garden - initiated during World War I to serve as a safe-haven for hybrid varieties grown in Europe, the Rose Garden has over 10,000 bushes and about 650 varieties.
Simply put, there is nothing like the Pacific Northwest. You get rain forest, ocean, and desert all within driving distance from Portland. The adventure is endless - a short drive to Mt. Hood, the Columbia Rive Gorge, Mt. St Helen's or Cannon Beach. A little further takes you to Mt. Rainier, Olympic, or North Cascades National Park. If you are into hiking, skiing, snowboarding, or exploring, Portland is the perfect option for you. Ah, I sometimes do miss it!”
3. What attracted you to Essential?
“Essential Design’s strong dedication to providing the best possible solutions – through experimentation, innovation, and challenging what has already been done – excited me greatly. I am a natural problem solver, always asking ‘why,’ questioning the status quo, and looking to push the boundaries. It also appealed to me the breadth of industry with which Essential works. I love learning and Essential seemed like the perfect place to quench my curiosity and grow my skills in various areas.”
4. You're a Mechanical Engineer in our team. What does a Mechanical Engineer do?
“Our team works with clients and industrial designers to ensure that Essential's great designs become great products. We conceptualize and develop new products, its parts, mechanisms, and assemblies for manufacturing at scale. We utilize 3D CAD software to more effectively produce a range of possible solutions that address our clients' needs. We assemble prototypes (3D printing, CNC machining, etc.), generate test plans and conduct them, as well as write reports to communicate our findings and suggestions to clients. In short, we ensure our products not only look beautiful, but are beautifully made.”
5. Which brands + companies do you admire the most?
“I would have to say Nike for its storytelling, Patagonia for its commitment to the environment, Wipro EcoEnergy for its mission of reducing companies' energy expenditure, Aerie for its dedication to not retouching the young women in their photographs and hiring models of all body shapes, and the Maine-based company HyperLite Mountain Gear for its strive to create stripped down, high quality performance gear in a minimalist manner. I admire companies that are passionate about quality, but also have a commitment to bettering society whether it is, for example, inspiring athletes, reducing our carbon footprint, or empowering young women.”
6. Which brands would you love to work on at Essential?
“I would have to say that I would be happy working with any client/brand. Each project brings about different challenges and new opportunities for learning.”
7. What do you read / listen to / visit / etc...to stay current on design, business, engineering, etc...that you would recommend?
“For magazines or journals, I read WIRED, Scientific American, and the business, technology, art, and science sections of the New York Times. I also have gotten into the design journal FORM. It's noted for its holistic coverage on product and graphic design and is bilingual, too - which I love so I can practice my German.
For podcasts, I listen to NPR's How I Built This, which interviews various entrepreneurs and how they became successful in creating their brand/company. I also listen to RadioLab and Stuff You Should Know. (If you haven't already, listen to RadioLab's episode The Secret Life of Trees. It will blow your mind.)
I also love reading a lot of nonfiction - I am currently reading David Goggin's Can't Hurt Me, which is part memoir/part how-to. I am also reading Mark Miodownik's Stuff Matters, which tells the history behind ten materials, their chemical behavior, and how they came to be such powerhouses in our man-made world.”
8. Another well-known brand on your resume is Harvard. What did you study at Harvard and what were some of your most interesting classes?
“I received a degree in Engineering - environmental and mechanical. I also received a minor in Earth and Planetary Sciences. Harvard was fantastic in the sense that it had an enormous amount of opportunity and allowed for a lot of exploration (while simultaneously fulfilling an engineering degree) - so I loaded up on varying courses from astrophysics and organic chemistry to a drawing class and Nazi cinema. I also ventured to Hawaii to study volcanoes and to Banff National Park to study the formation of geological structures.
I would have to say though my Nazi Cinema class with Professor Eric Rentschler is a class that stands out in my memory. I went in knowing pretty much nothing about cinema let alone Nazi cinema and came out with an understanding of cinema's power. I remember dissecting Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph des Willens and being mind-blown as our Professor dissected and explained how the choice of music, movement, shot layout, lighting, and angle were all so deliberate to engender a sense of awe. The movie was brilliant in that sense and made me realize the power (and the danger) that cinematography can have.”
9. You did internships at the Smithsonian and at the University of Aachen in Germany? Tell us more about them.
“I worked in a lab on campus for the Smithsonian where I conducted laboratory experiments to measure the rotational spectra of postulated astronomical molecules. We were studying molecules that were thought to be in space so if and when we did detect them, we could match it to the spectra we studied in the lab.
My Aachen internship was the summer before my senior year and, although I didn't know it at the time, was the beginning of my senior thesis. I have always been fascinated by architecture and also how we can preserve the environment. The RWTH University had an opportunity for an intern to make rammed earth bricks and design a facade that would slow down the process of erosion. Rammed earth is a mixture of clay, sand, gravel, and water and receives it compressive strength by compaction pressure alone - there is no need for firing the bricks and you thus save on those energy costs. It is also fully recyclable in that it can go back to the earth without harming it.”
10. You've done a lot of amazing things in your first 25 years of life. What are some of your goals + plans for the next 25?
“Thank you, I appreciate that - it's been a wild ride. And 24 isn't over yet, but almost! I hope to continue learning no matter what I do. I know I am happiest when I am growing and continually bettering myself intellectually and emotionally. I know I will stay in the engineering and design realm and I hope to work on big projects that will create positive change in this world. I think this begins with everyone rethinking how things are built, made, and consumed. Our population is growing, but our resources are dwindling - there is no choice but to rethink how we do things. I hope to be part of this change as a leader and as a skilled problem solver.”
WILDCARD QUESTION: What would you like to see change in the world in 2019?
“I could go on about how I hope lawmakers and society in general take climate change seriously, but I will give you a different hope: I hope we can all have a little more compassion not for just each other, but for ourselves. There is a huge pressure from social media to look and act a certain way, but I hope we can all learn to read Instagram and Facebook - or whatever platform - like we do movies: to not take it as truth. I am not saying social media is all bad - it is a great connection tool. I just hope people realize the importance of face-to-face interaction, look up from their phones, straighten their posture, observe the world around them, and appreciate their surroundings. Because if we only look up, we can see some pretty amazing things.”
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