Virtual Panel with Universal Technical Institute

On March 15, 2022, IGNITE students representing nine states and twelve high schools engaged in a Virtual Panel featuring Universal Technical Institute (UTI) partners and alumnae. UTI Nascar Technical Institute Campus President Jen Bergeron introduced students to UTI, which offers skilled trades programs and trains students year-round in comprehensive skills that lead to groundbreaking work in automotive repair, manufacturing, and more. 

Jen asked students to identify different careers that utilize STEM and Skilled Trades expertise and shared that an incredible variety of professions build on the types of skills students can gain through technical education!

Facilitator Kristin Labonte, President and Founder of Breaking Limits, supports marketing for brands in motorsports, and embraces her love of math. When she started this work, she saw women and nonbinary professionals in supporting roles, and aspired to become a leader in the industry, which she has achieved! Kristin welcomed the Panelists and asked them to share more about their current roles.

Sophie Fox is CEO of Women & Wheels, an automotive association that travels around the country running drag-racing events for women. Last year, Women & Wheels involved 100 women, 25 of whom had never tried drag racing before. Sophie is also on the Holley Performance Products marketing team.

Brooke Ulrich is Regional Facilities and Equipment Manager for The Home Depot and a 2012 graduate of UTI. Brooke has worked in manufacturing and repair for storied brands including Maserati and now manages over 40 direct reports spread out over four states.

Madison Conrad, Powertrain Reliability Specialist at Roush Yates Engines and graduate of UTI’s NASCAR Technical Institute, works on Ford engines for NASCAR. Madison inspects parts to ensure they are reliable and powerful.

Jennifer LaFever, Vice President of Manufacturing at Roush Yates Manufacturing Solutions and UTI alumna, started out as an electrical engineer and then felt the pull to go back to school to work on motorsports. She now oversees 60 direct and indirect reports and works on parts that go into cars and even into space!

After hearing from the panelists, Kristin invited questions from the student audience.

What motivated you to keep going in a male-dominated environment? Brooke recommends surrounding yourself with supportive people. This is a rewarding career but it will also push you. One key piece of advice is to push ahead and do the next right thing, taking the next step you can see even if you aren’t certain about the ultimate path.

What was it like to move across the country for school and work? Madison had her family supporting her. It was scary to move far away from home—from Albuquerque, NM to North Carolina—and she sometimes doubted herself, but her family told her to stay the course and finish her training. This support helped her finish the program she started, leading to her current successful career.

When did you start your STEM career? Sophie could hear people drag racing at night when she was in high school and that made her curious to learn more. She applied for an automotive technical program in high school and was accepted, but the day it started, her family told her to pursue other paths. She hasn’t had technical training like the other panelists and wishes she had gotten the experience earlier, and she encourages students to take the classes that interest them now!

What is it like to work at Roush Yates, and what is CNC? Jennifer shared that Roush Yates is a great team where everyone supports one another and contributes based on their strengths. CNC stands for Computer Numerical Control, the use of a computer to map models for automated machines to prepare parts for satellites, space shuttles, cars, and more.

Have you ever been intimidated or afraid in your career?

  • Madison advises students to focus on things you can control, like your attitude and work ethic. It can be very intimidating, and she has nevertheless done things she never thought she would, like jumping over the wall at the Indy 500 while a car was coming at her at 60 mph!
  • Brooke has done many things that scared her and strongly believes that bravery means doing things that scare you anyway. She tries to live by the motto, “Rejection is not rejection—it’s redirection.”

What is most important to learn in high school to prepare for a career in the automotive industry?

  • Brooke shared that what you learn in high school is critically important to your future, but in her personal experience, the people you surround yourself with help determine your future. 
  • In Jennifer’s experience, your path may go in many different directions, and the most important thing is to stay true to yourself. She said yes to her last promotion despite not having thought of herself in her current role, but her supervisors saw something in her and she thinks saying yes was the best move of her career so far.
  • Madison said that, in high school, she didn’t like math or science, but she is now pursuing a degree in engineering. She encourages students to try out what they’re interested in during high school, to follow their passions.
  • Sophie struggled with math in high school and found that not being the strongest student didn’t mean she couldn’t build a career for herself despite her doubts. She encourages students to look into what interests them outside of school too, with the internet at their fingertips. 

What are some of the advantages of being a woman in the automotive industry? Sophie maintains that there is no disadvantage to being a woman in this industry! 

Lighting round of advice—what do you wish you had known in high school?

  • Kristin: I have to believe in myself every day, but also have to be humble and know that I don’t know it all.
  • Sophie: Believe in yourself; that may be cliche, but anyone has the potential to get where they want to be in their career and personal life. Pursue it full sails ahead and you will be successful if it’s what you were meant to do.
  • Brooke: Don’t quit; your mind starts to atrophy. If one door doesn’t open, don’t quit; there are thousands and thousands of doors in this industry.
  • Madison: A positive attitude and work ethic know no gender. 
  • Jennifer: There is no one path; everybody’s path looks different. No place that I have been has been wrong for me. Your path is going to be unique and special because it’s yours.

The students enjoyed and took to heart the stories, advice, and words of encouragement. The panelists’ interests were very relatable, and the discussion about overcoming fear and intimidation was particularly inspiring. It was so meaningful for students to see women in charge in male-driven worlds and to hear that there is space in these industries for everyone!

Thank you to the team of volunteers who supported this event, including UTI National Director of High School Development Jerry Ellner, Tech Hosts Chad Ogle and Anthony Marullo, Host Jen Bergeron, Facilitator Kristin Labonte, and Panelists Sophie Fox, Brooke Ulrich, Madison Conrad, and Jennifer LaFever.

After attending this event:


of students are interested in STEM

Take STEM Class


of students know more about STEM career choices and the benefits of working in a STEM field

Ask Teacher about Additional STEM Activities


of students feel more confident in pursuing STEM


of students gained perspective and feel more hopeful about the future

Here’s what the students thought of the event:

“I didn’t know how much I needed to hear what was said during this meeting today. It really solidified my determination to pursue welding this fall and potentially CNC this spring. Thank you!” – 12th grade

“Today these women really brought to light a lot of the things I feared going into this male-dominated industry and they put a lot of my worries to rest. I was able to hear their side of everything and see how they accomplished so many things and it was just so inspiring.” – 10th grade

“I was inspired by how everyone is encouraging us youths to take steps to our dreams. I also love the fact that STEM is about teamwork and finishing together rather than by yourself.” – 9th grade

“They all had stories that I can relate to, like being in auto and playing boys baseball. It was a really cool experience to hear about how they all overcame their fears.” – 9th grade

“Hearing about all of the different CTE pathways that you can make a career after you graduate has really inspired me. I also am inspired by knowing that you don’t have to do just one thing with your life.” – 11th grade

“Today’s event has inspired me by showing me that there are several other people like me in male-dominated jobs. It also showed me that we can change it from being male-dominated to it being equal for all. They have given me the courage to continue to pursue construction rather than a career path I wasn’t interested in just because I was told to take it.” – 10th grade

“I was inspired by their advice, especially the quote ‘Rejection isn’t rejection, but redirection.’ The advice made me really think about now and my future.” – 9th grade

“This event inspired me because being a girl and trying to do ‘a man’s job’ is kind of hard. Even though many women do pursue careers like this I have a hard time with having confidence and feeling less knowledgeable about things. So hearing from everyone today helped me think more.” – 12th grade

“This gave me confidence about attending UTI in the future.” – 12th grade

“Today’s event inspired me to be more outgoing. They were talking about trying something new and to follow your gut. This really inspires me to be more out there, and to follow my gut for what I want. You inspire me to follow my passion. You show me that I shouldn’t change my mind because of society’s thoughts.” – 9th grade

“All of these powerful young women have all made their paths in a traditionally male dominated industry, which to me makes them more powerful than the men in the industry because it takes a lot of courage to do so. They inspired me to continue pursuing this career choice and to jump into something new.” – 9th grade

“It inspired me because it’s all women speaking on how they have impacted/changed the way things are in a ‘man’s’ field.” – 12th grade

“They made me excited to go into STEM and not scared. They are inspiring and they all answered the questions very well.” – 11th grade

“I felt like I gathered so much more information than I had to begin with. Not to mention how much more comfortable it made me feel knowing what struggles others have gone through in this industry. I think that they did an amazing job at portraying their side of the story and I hope to one day be as successful as they are.” – 11th grade

“It helped me understand the careers of STEM and helped me know more to give me more options for my future.” – 9th grade

“It helped me understand a few more jobs. It was nice having comfort from other women who have already gone through the process that some of us may go through.” – 11th grade

“It opened my eyes to a whole bunch of new opportunities and inspired me to be a leader.” – 9th grade

“It inspired me because no matter what gender or race you are, you can do anything, like work for NASCAR.” – 9th grade

“It showed that women can join STEM, and that there’s a place for everyone.” – 12th grade

“It really showed me some insight about different perspectives in STEM. I am currently involved in STEM, so I knew a lot, but this is helping me to push harder.” – 9th grade

“It made me see that engineering and auto services can also go along with some of my other interests.” – 9th grade

“This event inspired me by telling me to not be discouraged in a male-dominated industry.” – 12th grade

“The guests’ introductions to their careers are interesting to me. They encourage the young to think early about the future and pursue our dreams, and give their advice on what we can do as high-schoolers for our career path. Something I learned is don’t be afraid to take risks, say yes to new opportunities and follow your dreams; do what you want to do, not what others want.” – 9th grade

“I think it’s cool how they are really open and welcoming, to want more women and nonbinary people to join STEM is really cool and inclusive, beating the gender norms. That really inspires me.” – 9th grade

“It was really cool to hear about their careers and the fact that they’re women in a predominantly male environment, yet are still really hard workers, and have accomplished so much during their careers.” – 9th grade

“I think it’s incredibly cool and comforting that you are a group of women talking on a subject like this that was once seen as a ‘man’ thing. To express your experiences is really amazing.” – 9th grade

“As someone who likes mathematics and technology, this gives me further ideas of what my career path might look like/the careers that’s available. It’s cool to know how most careers involve computers/technology. Thank you for being here today!” – 9th grade

“It gave me more information about STEM. It also gave me some career options.” – 9th grade

“I’ve learned new things about STEM that I didn’t know before.” – 9th grade

“Today’s event helped motivate and inspire me to get the job that I seek.” – 9th grade