Cynthia Hutchison, Vice President of Automation Alley, discusses the unlikely and unexpected journey that helped pave the way to her success, from the mother of a child with Down syndrome to one of the most Notable Women in STEM.
I suppose if you asked my parents, I have always made the choice to challenge. Sandwiched between a sister who followed all the rules and a brother who didn’t, but, as a boy, was not expected to, there was me. And throughout my life, challenging the status quo was part of my DNA. It did not always prove to make my life better—like refusing to go to MIT for engineering and instead electing a liberal arts college with a major in literature. You all know how that complicated some early career moves can be!
And yet, looking back at it, that sense of doing the unexpected—because deep inside there was a path I needed to follow and it didn’t look like any path I had seen—was a quiet driver.
After several years in technology (yes, I used that English degree to work in tech!), my second son was born just a year after his brother. He has Down syndrome. Since this is, on the surface, very personal, I almost didn’t include it, but it is the cornerstone of all that came next.
From the moment of his diagnosis, my life changed, but ironically for me, for the good. Doctors don’t know how to present this information; I wrote a book to help them. Friends don’t know how to acknowledge the birth; I wrote a letter to help them. Society doesn’t know what to expect of them; I created calendars and greeting cards starring these fabulous children and boldly titled it Beautiful Faces. Advertisers don’t know how to market to them; I started a modeling agency. And finally, corporations don’t know how to identify and utilize their talents; I started an employment agency for people with disabilities. For the most part, many of these startups weren’t super profitable but they gave me more training in the art of challenge than any engineering career might have.
You see, for as much as I understand, respect and just plain like technology, and the career it has afforded me, my ability to aggressively pursue the high-level decision makers, media connections and elected officials required for significant policy change was not developed through my technology work but through my work on behalf of people with disabilities. You see, more than anything, I believed enough in my product (embodied by my son’s sparkling blue eyes) to call the head buyer of the largest bookstore chain in the country. I wrote to governors and TV producers; I called CEOs of companies to identify bottlenecks that reduced opportunities for people with disabilities. Buoyed by my belief in the “why of it all,” I grew great courage and marvelous business relationships and friendships.
My role with Automation Alley enables me to gather those exact same skills—product development; government relationships; public relations; collaboration between industry, academia and our elected official—and use them to advance the manufacturing economy of Michigan. I also tell our state’s manufacturing story on the global stage, through Automation Alley’s relationship with the World Economic Forum. We are one of 13 regions in the World recognized by the World Economic Forum as an Advanced Manufacturing Hub. Our state has a storied history of making what is needed and imagining what could be—and then making that too! We excel at applying conceptual engineering into production. We create and envision and execute with near perfect precision. We are best known for the product in which you drive your baby home from the hospital; more recently we rolled out the first COVID vaccine in Kalamazoo Michigan. We are both proud and humble and I am fortunate to have the historical context which enables me to showcase the unexpected, to draw attention where it is needed and to gain legislative support for policies which support rapid development.
Telling companies around the globe that Michigan is the coolest, most progressive place to begin building new products sounds audacious. So did that close up of a smiling girl with Down syndrome on a calendar titled Beautiful Faces. Just as my ability to push boundaries with Down syndrome was driven by internal conviction and passion, so too is my passion for Michigan manufacturing’s ability to power this new conversation.
While cities, regions, states and countries around the world dominate specific technologies, Michigan applies those technologies. And in doing so, we now have to be more creative than ever. I am once again relying on that aggregate of knowledge, contacts and storytelling so essential to moving expectations and changing outcomes.
When I look at my very disparate background of public sector, media, publishing, technology and manufacturing, I realize that overcoming adversity, for me, required getting to know the needs of each of those constituents. Only then can one carefully stitch together the often-complex partnerships required to move mountains.