Defying the odds: A mechanical engineer shares her story of resilience and success
By the time Mona Patel started classes at the University of Michigan, she had attended eleven schools and lived on four continents. Now vice president of Clinical Training and Fellowship Education for Boston Scientific Neuromodulation Division, Mona, a mechanical engineer, credits all those moves for giving her the confidence to adjust to—and succeed – in an industry where men are often the majority. Indeed, in the United States, women mechanical engineers comprise only 6.6% of professionals in the field. Rarer still are those who become leaders at global companies.
Mona’s passion for engineering and medical technology took root in high school when she shadowed a surgeon and became fascinated with the tools and techniques he used to operate.
“I thought I might become a doctor like both my parents, but family members who were engineers told me that if you develop a product, you can touch the lives of thousands if not millions of people.”
Countless patients have benefitted from that decision. Through 26 years in the industry, including 15 at Boston Scientific, she has helped bring many new therapeutic devices to patients in need, including the first rechargeable spinal cord stimulator.
Born in Uganda to Indian American parents, Mona spent her early childhood in Uganda, India and The United Kingdom before moving to the United States in elementary school. She majored in mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, where she became interested in medical devices. Yet when Mona started her first job, she quickly discovered how much she had to learn.
“I remember thinking, ‘I have this engineering degree, and I’m in a plant and know nothing about working with this equipment,’” she says. “I thought I was supposed to know everything from the start.”
Mona admits still feeling uncertain when she faces a new role, but she dismisses doubts about her capabilities by applying lessons from her peripatetic upbringing.
“I’ve learned that you start by observing and asking lots of questions to try to understand and find your place in the environment. Those skills give you a solid foundation.”
Mona, nonetheless, sometimes found it difficult to ask for advice, fearing others might consider her not ready for new roles. That happened when she was director of marketing for cardiac surgery at Guidant. Market dynamics were changing at the time, with interventional cardiology and stenting procedures replacing many surgeries. A colleague in human resources suggested that Mona solicit advice from a marketing vice president who had relevant experience. Still, Mona hesitated for months and acknowledges that she floundered while trying to figure out what to do all on her own.
“I finally put aside my pride and requested a meeting, and I’m so thankful I did. She helped me see the leadership capabilities I needed, and she guided me in building an organizational structure with the right people. I should have approached her for counsel sooner. I should’ve said, ‘I’m new to this role and could use your help. If you ask, people will say, ‘Let me show you what I did.’ Even today, I’m learning that lesson.”
Bring Out the Best in Others
When Mona joined Boston Scientific, a highly respected divisional president served as a strong advocate and ally. “When others challenged my views or I didn’t feel heard, he would say, “I believe what Mona is saying, and we need to listen,” she recalls. “He took the credibility he had and gave it to me, which was my green light to do what I needed to do,” Mona says, underscoring the importance of leaders who value, listen to and respect the people who report to them.
Put Yourself Out There
When Mona talks about the challenges of working in a pandemic, she credits her team with acting quickly and testing new approaches to meet the needs of their physician customers.
“Facing the pandemic, we had no idea what was in front of us, but our shared trust and comfort in trying new things is helping us be more agile and adapt to a new normal in how we work and how we support our customers. Pushing the envelope helps build resilience,” she says.
To women aspiring to be leaders, Mona says to enjoy the journey because you learn and grow by being tested. Regarding career development, she adds, “Aim high, take risks and seize the moment. I never asked for any of the roles I was given, but I should have. Trust your capabilities and opinions, then put yourself out there and lead the way.”
 Labor Force Statistics from the US Population Survey. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. January 20, 2020. https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.htm Accessed April 3, 2020.