Kim Heinle Nelson

Industrial Engineering and Management, B.S. (1991)

Senior Manager, Operational Excellence Department - Digi-Key Electronics

Hometown: Hebron, ND

Now lives in: Newfolden, MN

Career path: I have more than 27 years of work experience with Digi-Key Electronics. While others take positions with many different companies to gain experience, Digi-Key has grown so significantly, from $46M in sales with 275 employees in 1991 to $3B in sales and 3,600+ employees in 2019, that I have been able to build my work experience as I have grown with the company. I started at the company the same week as the first conveyor and have worked through two building expansions, multiple computer system upgrades, four conveyor expansions, plus numerous business process improvements.

Currently, I am a Senior Manager in the Operational Excellence Department where I identify future process improvements while leading a team that integrates operational excellence into day-to-day business operations by providing the tools and measurements to help team members succeed. 

What or who inspired you to pursue a career in engineering?

My high school Physics teacher first suggested that I consider Engineering as a possible career choice. I must admit, I was not that interested in spending time alone designing mechanical or electrical gadgets but then I discovered Industrial Engineering and Management! Industrial Engineering is the “people side of engineering” and deals primarily with time, space utilization, and efficiency. It is about improving processes and using project management skills to implement improvements. Industrial Engineers work in many different areas like distribution, manufacturing, healthcare, logistics, financial, energy, and service industries. 

What’s it like being a woman in a male-dominated field?

Engineering may be a male dominated field, but I do not let gender define me or my work results. When I started working at Digi-Key Electronics being female was to my advantage because most of the warehouse team members were women at that time. 

What advice would you give to young girls interested in engineering?

I would encourage youngsters to dream big and innovate to improve not only their life but the lives of those around them. See the possibility everywhere. Be curious about how things work and consider what might make things better. Sometimes the most common items can be creatively used in other applications to make significant improvements. Do not settle for the existing state but strive to improve on something new every day. Voice your ideas, don’t be afraid to fail, and certainly don’t be afraid to succeed!

What’s your best memory from NDSU?

Coming from a small town, I loved the diversity of the people and the opportunities to join different clubs. 

My advisor, Professor Elvin Isgrig, was such an inspiration and great mentor. Professor Isgrig even visited my workplace many years after graduation because he was interested in what I was doing. 

How did your NDSU education prepare you for your career?

The curriculum at NDSU provided a great start for a young engineer in a distribution center environment. The mix of classes in statistics, quality, mechanics, and project management which culminated in Senior Design Projects to solve real-world engineering problems gave me practical experience I could use to be successful in my job. 

What advice would you give to female college students just getting started in the NDSU engineering program?

This advice pertains to all college students, not just female ones. Choose to be an active participant in group learning projects. You will get more out of an experience if you challenge one another to stretch boundaries and think outside the box to succeed. 

Be creative and see beyond what is today to create what can be. Anticipate the risks and opportunities to meet changing business needs while continuing to improve efficiency. 

“The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways” – Robert Greene, Mastery

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