Robin Thorne has made a living out of forging her own path. Now, she’s doing it for others.
Thorne, a 1997 chemical engineering graduate, is President and CEO of CTI Environmental, Inc., an engineering and consulting company based in Long Beach, California. The company provides a wide range of services, including regulatory compliance, hazardous material abatement, safety training, and construction management — specialties that weren’t on Thorne’s mind when she started her college journey.
In 1991, Thorne was a single mother looking to resume her education after eight years away. She had always been interested in math and science, so she took an accounting class, knowing that it could lead to a good job.
“I quickly realized that accounting was not for me,” she says. “The ways that accountants use math didn’t fit with my curiosity in how things work and how to improve them and make them more efficient. That’s how I found engineering — it let me take my math and science skills and combine them with problem solving.”
Thorne earned her associate’s degree in engineering science from Community College of Philadelphia and then transferred her credits to Drexel. Her chemical engineering degree led her to several polyurethane foam manufacturing jobs before she landed a position as an environmental, health and safety manager, which influenced offerings on the compliance side of CTI Environmental. One of the benefits of engineering, Thorne says, is that the base skillset can be applied to any number of positions.
“I like to say that I’m not in construction, because all of these industries have an environmental component,” she says. “And there’s construction and manufacturing and other broadly engineering-based projects going on all around the country, so the opportunities are plentiful.”
Thorne is hoping that more of these opportunities can be taken by women. Though women represent half of the U.S. workforce (according to a 2019 U.S. Census Bureau estimate), they only account for 27% of STEM workers and only 15% of engineers. To address the disparity, Thorne founded DemoChicks, a nonprofit that provides scholarships, mentoring and workshops to women at all levels of education to encourage interest in STEM fields.
“I am a big proponent of the idea that if you can see it, you can be it,” Thorne says. “If we can show young women the number of different ways that they can use an engineering degree, we can change the conversation about what kinds of jobs they ‘belong’ in.”
DemoChicks offers students in kindergarten through eighth grade online workshops geared towards exposure to chemical engineering using baking soda and vinegar to create carbon dioxide gas, architecture using marshmallows and toothpicks, or environmental engineering by creating a berm from rocks and dirt and observing the erosion caused when water is poured over it.
For college-aged participants, DemoChicks provides scholarship and connects students with mentors in engineering careers who can serve as role models.
“We’re starting a program where our DemoScholars — everything is Demo-something — interview women in industry, and one of our scholars is going to interview the CEO of Metro, which is Los Angeles’ public transportation company,” Thorne says. “To give someone that opportunity to talk directly with someone who has found success in their field is really rewarding.”
As classrooms and business return to more in-person activities, Thorne is hoping to grow DemoChicks by bringing their experiments and demonstrations to high schools. She also wants to start tracking the success of the programs now that they’ve been established.
“Oftentimes, when people start a nonprofit, they have this defined path,” Thorne says. “But I’m a doer. I want to keep building this as much as we can. I keep telling my team: we’re going to do the work at the level we can do it until we can do more.”
Demo the way forward.