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Vanessa Li moved to California from Hong Kong not knowing anyone. But since, she has created an amazing career – and life – by taking risks and finding her self-confidence. Now, you'll find her leading the pack as a Process Leader at Novelis and highflying in a Cessna 172 over Florida. "We should not be afraid of taking risks and getting out of our comfort zone," she said. "Whether the outcome ends up favorable or not, it is still an important life experience." 

Fairygodboss of the Week: Vanessa Li

Process Leader, Novelis Aluminum

Terre Haute, Indiana

Tell us a little about your career. How did you get to where you are now?

After I graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a bachelor degree in metallurgical engineering, I joined U.S. Steel (Gary, Indiana) as a Quality Engineer in the hot-dipped galvanizing line (HDGL). Unfortunately, I got laid off due to the financial crisis. While I was searching for another job, I obtained the Six Sigma Green Belt certificate and very soon I landed in a position with Thyssenkrupp Steel (Mobile, Alabama) as the Quality Leader in HDGL. During that time, I managed to finish my MBA degree from the Indiana University at Bloomington. Then, I joined Novelis Aluminum in Novi, Michigan as a Supplier Quality and Technical Service Engineer. I later transitioned to Novelis’ Terre Haute, Indiana plant as the Process Leader.

What is an accomplishment that you are proud of?

I left Hong Kong at the age of 16 and started a new life in a boarding school in Monterey Bay, California. It took me a few months to adjust to the new environment, but this experience led me to become an independent woman. I also felt fortunate to make new friends from different countries.

What is a challenge that you've faced and overcome?

The challenge I faced while studying and working in the U.S. is that Americans are much better at marketing and presenting themselves. I sometimes doubt my ability and potential, thinking that I am simply not as smart as them. Although I grew up in Hong Kong while it was still under the British rule, my family focused heavily on Chinese philosophy and beliefs. I was taught “There is always a mountain higher than this one.” I later learned that this did not help me demonstrate confidence in the workplace. Over time, I read books that helped me redefine myself and be confident without being arrogant. I sought advice from trusted friends and mentors. I also realized it was simply a cultural difference and not a difference in intelligence. 

Who is YOUR Fairygodboss? and Why?

Shenna James is my Fairygodboss. Shenna was a good listener when I faced difficult time in my life. She gave me suggestions and shared her life experience with me. The support I received made me feel loved – we had 'girl talks' about everything.

What do you do when you're not working?

I like to try out new restaurants (I am not into cooking though). I also I like to play classical music and to listen to new age music. I'm in a blues band. And I also fly planes. I solo'ed in 2014 over Pensacola, Florida in a Cessna 172. 

If you could have dinner with one famous person—dead or alive—who would it be?

Margret Thatcher.

Lightning Round:

What book would you bring with you on a desert island?

Probably a book about cultivation, fishing and hunting.

What would you buy if you won the lottery?

If I won the lottery, I would first set aside an amount for donation (my family’s tradition on unexpected income). Then, I would invest part of it in real estate and retirement. I would use the rest to enjoy with friends and family, investing in food and travel.

What is the #1 career tip you'd like to share with other women who want to have successful careers like you?

We should not be afraid of taking risks and getting out of our comfort zone. Whether the outcome ends up favorable or not, it is still an important life experience. Before I joined Novelis, I was a Quality Leader of the hot-dipped galvanizing lines (HDGL). I had been working in HDGL for 9 years and felt very comfortable at my job. I was debating between staying in my comfort zone or trying out a new process or product type to expand my horizon. The advice I received was to not be afraid to take a lateral move or even a step down to gain a diversity of experience and technical skills. You may not get a promotion one year after another, but you need to continue to acquire new skills. I went from a Quality Leader to a Supplier Quality and Technical Service Engineer. I am glad I made this decision, because I proved to myself that I am adaptable to challenges and am able to handle new tasks. 

Why do you love where you work?

There are endless opportunities for engineers in manufacturing. However, one out of every three women engineers leave manufacturing jobs by the time they reach 30 years old. Women, in general, face more challenges in a male dominant industry where the culture and values have been set for a hundred years. Since the beginning of my career, there were  very few women in operations and technical roles. Many employees were not used to seeing women supervisors. And as a Chinese female engineer, I have experienced lots of cultural and gender bias in the workplace. But with an emphasis in empowering female employees, Novelis started a grass root project called Women in Novelis (WiN) in 2014. This project promotes gender equality and provides training resources to female employees. It also recognizes women’s contributions to industry and creates a welcoming work environment. Novelis reminds employees to support a diverse workforce and to educate young women in STEM career paths. It has convinced me that Novelis is the best company. 

Fairygodboss is all about women helping other women - so each week, we celebrate a woman who made a difference in another woman’s career. Is there a woman who has made a difference in your career? Celebrate her and thank her by nominating her here.

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