Making Waves in the World of Engineering

Jackie Birdsall, Senior Engineer, Toyota

When Jackie Birdsall met her first fuel-cell vehicle, she knew that she had found her career. As a woman devoted to the automotive industry and the environment, she forced herself under the hood and into the alternative vehicle industry.

Years later, Jackie is still under the hood, but the vehicle has evolved. As a senior engineer on Toyota’s hydrogen fuel-cell team, Jackie helped launch the Toyota Mirai, one of the first zero-emission, hydrogen-fuel-cell electric vehicles sold in the United States. 

Driving her success

“It’s important to put myself out there so younger girls can see that engineering is an option,” said Birdsall. “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Jackie’s passion continues to drive her success. From convincing the Pep Boys manager to give her a part-time job in high school to leading a team of engineers developing cutting-edge technologies, Jackie is a role model for women in the traditionally male-dominated fields of engineering and the automotive industry. 

“I think it’s a blessing and a curse being a minority in any industry, because it forces you to be the best you can be and prove you deserve to be there.” Point proven, Jackie. 

When she was 12, Kavita Shukla accidentally drank some unfiltered tap water. Her grandmother gave her a homemade mixture of spices as a remedy. She didn’t get sick. The experience sparked her curiosity, so back home in Maryland, Shukla tinkered around in her garage with jars of dirty pond water and spices. She eventually discovered some of the spices seemed to slow the growth of fungus.

That invention became FreshPaper, a sheet of paper infused with organic spices (the spice blend is proprietary). It’s been described as a dryer sheet for produce.

Drop a sheet in your refrigerator’s crisper drawer or in a container of fruits or veggies. The recyclable, biodegradable and compostable product helps keep produce fresh 2-4 times longer because its organic ingredients prevent bacterial and fungal growth, as well as enzymes that cause produce to over-ripen.

Global challenge

“Food waste is actually a massive global challenge,” says Shukla, noting over a third of the world's food supply is lost to spoilage, and 800 million people go hungry every day.

She originally designed FreshPaper for the developing world, but now it’s used globally, including in the United States.

“Our mission is ‘Fresh for All,’ and we’re working to make fresh, healthy food more affordable and accessible across the globe,” says Shukla, the founder and CEO of the FRESHGLOW Co., a social enterprise tackling food waste and creating simple innovations to keep food fresh.

The first step

The Harvard grad credits three people with helping her on her journey: her high school science teacher, who convinced her FreshPaper was more than a science project; Tony Russo, a Boston farm-stand owner who sold FreshPaper in his store; and Tina Brown, who put Shukla on stage at Lincoln Center for the Women in the World Summit.

That summit was a game-changer. Shukla, who holds four patents, went from making FreshPaper in her kitchen to manufacturing millions of sheets and partnering with retailers worldwide.

She was the youngest woman ever to receive the INDEX Design to Improve Life Award, the world’s largest design prize. The Crown Princess of Denmark presented that award, recognizing FreshPaper’s potential to change the global food system.

Shukla was named in Forbes’ “30 Under 30” and Fast Company’s “7 Entrepreneurs Changing the World.”

She mentors young entrepreneurs and advises them to get started: “The simple act of taking a step forward can open up possibilities you can’t even imagine.”