My Cool Stem Career

Asmau Ahmed, working to launch startup tech company Plum Perfect (Photo by Lonnie C. Major)

Asmau Ahmed
B.S., Chemical Engineering,
University of Virginia
M.B.A., Columbia Business School

Asmau Ahmed enjoys not just the science of chemistry, but also the art of chemistry.
“With organic chemistry there are a handful of core elements: carbon and hydrogen. With some creativity and an understanding of how they interact with each other—and other elements—one can create a lot of different things from drugs to plastic. I just enjoyed experimenting and figuring out what would happen if I tweaked physical conditions, or added a new component, recalls Ahmed. I felt it was almost like cooking. What could I make? What would it look like? How useful would it be? There are millions of things you can do.”

That natural curiosity also came by way of her father, a civil aeronautical engineer and entrepreneur, and her mother, a lawyer who turned their laundry room into a chemistry lab because she had an affinity toward organic chemistry. Their parenting not only helped Ahmed fit math, chemistry, and physics into the context of the world around her, but also identify the professions associated with them. “Literally everything I looked at around me I could see engineering in it,” she recalls. “For me there was a real connection.”

Without hesitation she decided to pursue a degree in chemical engineering and didn’t understand why strangers were overly impressed or surprised at the revelation that she graduated with honors when the same reaction wasn’t aimed toward the white girl or Asian guy on stage with her. “I did not have any insecurity. I felt smart, I knew I was smart, and no one could tell me otherwise. I grew up with that validation in my upbringing.”

Ahmed worked for Honeywell International for four years. She was the lead manufacturing process engineer tasked with supporting two chemical plants that manufactured sulfuric acid and phenol, which were used in the nylon industry and to make fertilizer. It was a task that she was proud of, but she left to obtain an M.B.A. and realize her dream of running a business.

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