Teamwork, lifelong learning inspire alumna’s career path

// Mechanical Engineering

Tags: alumni, Jenny Topinka, ME, UW Hybrid Vehicle Team

Jenny Topinka arrived at UW-Madison with an open mind, and no real idea of what her major would be.

She was searching for something high impact, but wasn’t interested in anything in particular, especially business (though, ironically, she would later work as a senior sales manager for General Electric). The Verona, Wisconsin native finally found what she was looking for in engineering, when a few of her friends introduced her to the Hybrid Vehicle Team.

Jenny Topinka
Jenny Topinka

Still undecided in her major, and knowing almost nothing about the field, Topinka joined the team. On her first day, she hit the ground running, removing bolts from the team’s car and draining the transmission fluid. While she initially saw engineering as an unattainable field reserved for “geniuses,” such early, hands-on experiences—problem-solving in a supportive team environment—helped her understand the appeal.

“It was inspiring to see how the team taught me what I needed to know, while also using the strengths I had,” she says. “It helped me understand that engineering was not some out-of-reach objective. It’s problem solving—you take baby steps. The team taught me that if you put your heads together, you can solve any problem.”

Before long, Topinka made mechanical engineering her major and took leadership roles on the team. Her senior year, she was team leader for the UW-Madison FutureTruck project, which sought to improve fuel-efficiency in sport-utility vehicles. She also continued to dabble in a variety of engineering-related pursuits, through projects in robotics, with the Engine Research Center, and under her mechanical engineering professors. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2001.

She still points to her experience with the Hybrid Vehicle Team as an ideal example of what a team should be—a diversity of talents, and a diversity of strengths, all working together to achieve a goal, she says.

“We had many all-nighters and many failures, and it wasn’t easy, but we always overcame,” she says. “It was an amazing experience. It also made me comfortable with explaining things and helping me to understand my place at the university.”

By developing her expertise in vehicles, she was able to work in an internship with Ford, which also sponsored her graduate research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “All these connections built through the team enabled me to have a successful education, enabling a broader career,” she says.

At MIT, she researched techniques to improve fuel efficiency in automotive engines. After graduating with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, she accepted a role as a Research Scientist at GE’s Global Research Center in Niskayuna, NY.

However, Topinka felt that her role as an engineer wasn’t necessarily maximizing her potential. She started to see the importance of business acumen in working for a corporation like GE.

“Once you’re involved in a corporation, you start to appreciate the language of business—finance—and how it applies to customers, the market, and how your product is positioned in the market,” she says.

Jenny Topinka (center) with her FutureCar teammates during her time as a mechanical engineering undergraduate student.
Jenny Topinka (center) with her FutureCar teammates during her time as a mechanical engineering undergraduate student.

After being an engineer for GE for approximately four years, Topinka joined the corporation’s internal audit team. She compares this experience to earning an GE-internal MBA: She had to learn a whole new set of skills from scratch. “It was a way to spin myself into another orbit,” she says.

With six assignments over the two years she held the position, she was able to travel both nationally and internationally, conducting finance and compliance audits in Poland, Denmark, and throughout the United States. Not only did the position provide a unique learning experience, but it gave her a reputation within the company as the type of person who is more than willing to learn new things, and to learn them quickly.

After her experience with the auditing team, Topinka relocated to Houston, Texas, to take on a position as an engineering finance manager, and then, later, as business operations manager. The latter position brought her back to the world of engines, and also required a novel skillset.

“It was like an internal startup within GE, and we were making a brand-new product, so I used a lot of the same skills I acquired while working with the Hybrid Vehicle Team,” she says. “Even though I wasn’t doing engineering, I was part of a cross-functional team with an exciting mission.”

In 2015, she became a senior sales manager as part of a GE’s Experienced Leadership Program (XLP). In that role, she worked with customers to assess and define combined heat and power solutions using GE’s natural gas reciprocating engines.

Now, she is headed into a new adventure—moving out to the San Francisco Bay Area to take part in GE’s new digital initiative as a business optimization partner manager. This position will put her at the frontier of advances in the industry. “We are not only making engines and trains and airplanes, but we’re becoming a software company, since there is tremendous value in all the digital information about a system – think sensors, data and algorithms – to create better outcomes.” Topinka says. “Even though GE is a huge corporation, it’s a dynamic environment with elements of a start-up.”

Topinka is not only focused on developing new skills, but identifying where she can make the greatest impact. “It’s very exciting to learn about different areas in the company, but at the end of the day, it’s all about what can be accomplished to make the world better,” she says. “We should be using our amazing technology to improve what we can do. And then we can start taking big steps in improving the world we live in.”

Throughout her career, Topinka has maintained contact with the Department of Mechanical Engineering as a member of its industrial advisory board. Her education played a decisive role in her career path—laying the foundations for her longstanding experience with GE.

“University can give you the opportunity to not only learn about yourself, but test your interests. My education taught me about my passion,” she says. “The things that really inspire you in your education will inspire you throughout your career. I’ll always be inspired by teamwork because of my experience with the Hybrid Vehicle Team, and I’m still seeking out those types of cutting-edge experiences today.”

Author: Lexy Brodt