The CEO of a Missouri technological company and Farmington "local" is the subject of a lengthy interview that appeared this month in Authority Magazine as part of its “Lessons from Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech” series.
Ellen Mell, the CEO of Custom Technologies — an engineering and manufacturing business that provides holistic product development, manufacturing, and business services for its customers — is also a registered U.S. patent attorney. If that isn't impressive enough, she is also an adjunct professor in the School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. Her class “From Concept to Market” teaches business administration and intellectual property law topics to undergrad engineers.
In the interview conducted by Doug Brown of Authority Magazine, Mell explained that her career path started very early, with her mom working as a business operations and administrative manager, and her dad a mechanical engineer.
“Neither had the luxury of attending college and both were self-taught,” she said. “I took after both of them in many ways. Dad, who was incredibly talented as an inventor and manufacturer, particularly liked to say I was a carbon copy of him. It wasn’t that I was forced to follow in their footsteps — I wanted to.
“I remember when I was a very small child, Dad couldn’t keep me away from his workshop down in our basement. I was just a very hands-on kid who didn’t mind getting dirty. My dolls and other ‘girl’ toys were pristinely stored on my bookshelves, while I was typically downstairs playing in the grease and sawdust.”
Before Mell was born, her parents had founded a manufacturing company based on several of her father’s inventions.
“Dad did the physical work and Mom kept track of the finances along with all of the operational tasks,” she said. “To support their product needs, they had an aluminum foundry, a mold-making shop, and a machine shop, so I grew up very familiar with the manufacturing world. At eight years old, I remember having a matter-of-fact discussion with them about a plan for me to go to college and become an engineer. Since it was the mid-1970s, I didn’t even realize that a girl becoming an engineer was a bit of a rarity. In my house, however, it was the norm.
“I realize now that there were three things that allowed me to pursue my technical career without a second thought. First, I grew up in a household where both parents respected each other equally. Second, my parents didn’t try to influence me into a gender-typical path. It wouldn’t have worked with me even if they had tried! And third, I was — for years — the only little girl in a neighborhood full of boys.”
Mell recalled a humorous incident involving what she described as a “generation gap mismatch” that occurred when she was 24 years old physics student fresh out of graduate school.
“I was enlisted to install a computerized accounting system into my parents’ manufacturing business,” she said. “My partner was my parents’ steadfast bookkeeper — a lovely lady in her mid-sixties who had never used a computer before. She eyed me distrustfully the minute I walked into the room carrying the worrisome box labeled ‘IBM.’
“Here’s the computer,” I said. “It should really help make things easier for you.” She nodded, clearly unconvinced. I glanced at the computer’s keyboard and added encouragingly that it was pretty much like a typewriter. She pulled her chair forward and asked where she would put the paper in. Choking back a laugh, I responded, ‘Well, you don’t because It’s all electronic now.’
“She connected my answer to video games and we finally had some common ground. She then grabbed the mouse with confidence, picking it up in both hands, thumbs on top. Aiming it carefully toward the computer’s screen, she said she was ready with the remote! After this, I realized that people know a lot more than I do in some respects, and I know more than they do in others. We knew that we both had a lot to learn and it was a good lesson for sharing individual strengths.”
Soon Mell and her husband Dennis, a Farmington native, moved back to Missouri with their new baby to become involved in her parents’ struggling business. The couple worked hard to save it, but after four fruitless years the more than 30-year-old business went under.
“We were all deeply in debt on behalf of the business and we're about to lose our family home,” she said. “My parents were well past retirement age at this point. The harsh reality was that even if we got ‘normal jobs,’ our earnings would not have been enough to support all of us. Our drive to succeed was to figure it out, do it fast, or lose everything.
"That’s when my current company was founded. We literally started doing business out of our garage and we said ‘yes’ to any customer project we could find. And slowly, somehow, every month we were able to scrape up enough money to keep our home. All of us pitched in — quitting just wasn’t an option.”
While Custom Technologies is similar to many other tech businesses that make products for other companies, Mell explained that its uniqueness is in the way it streamlines transitions between product development stages.
“We handle it all from design and prototyping, all the way to full-scale production,” she said. “With us, there is no need to go to a design firm, and then a prototyping team, and finally to a manufacturer. By eliminating these handoffs, our customers save time and money — and most importantly — avoid miscommunications.
"Our customers range from large, established companies to early-stage startups. Sometimes, our job is simple like when we make a single component for an established company. Other times, our job is very complex like when we help customers design and launch multi-component products made of machined parts, molded parts, electronic parts, and sometimes even on-board software.
“Here’s the pain point we are helping to address: You will spend less time on your product launch project with us because you no longer need to go through the process of finding suitable companies to do each step. Because every step is handled in-house, we can overlap steps and compress the time-to-market timeline. Gone are the days of long conference calls between all the various parties hired onto your project. Maintain one point of reliable contact at Custom Technologies for all your product development and manufacturing needs.”
According to Mell, Custom Technologies’ most exciting project this year was development of the AssistiVent.
“It is a low-cost, emergency ventilator that was developed to answer the call for medical devices during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “We developed it in conjunction with a team of doctors and engineers from Washington University in St. Louis. Hopefully, if we continue to flatten the curve, it will never be needed on the front lines. If it is needed, we’ll be proud to say we’ve played a part in providing a solution that could save lives.”
Asked if she is satisfied with the status quo regarding women working in the technology field, Mell said, “I’ve personally had no problems being a woman in tech. Maybe it is because I grew up not knowing there would be, or could be, any problems being one. I was, by luck of my childhood circumstances, simply blind to the potential of a problem even existing. Because of that, I didn’t have a gender-based lack of confidence.
“If anyone ever did discriminate against me because I was a woman, I simply would not have picked up on it. More recently, I’ve realized that I’ve just bowled forward for years with the confidence of someone not expecting a roadblock. Over the years, I’ve met a few other women in tech who claimed they felt intimidated or somehow held back in their career because of their gender, and I have to admit my reaction was to be baffled by it. It’s made me step back and really think about how things would have been for me if my personal upbringing had been different.
“I’d recommend my path to other women who are experiencing or anticipating a problem — bowl forward like there is no problem. And maybe, just maybe, there will be no problem. It is a chicken-or-the-egg challenge to be sure, but if you are expecting a roadblock, you’ll likely find one. If women can find ways to stop expecting a problem, I think that’s part of the solution that will have a big impact.”
To read the entire online interview with Ellen Mell, go to https://bit.ly/395k27k
Kevin R. Jenkins is the managing editor of the Farmington Press and can be reached at 573-756-8927 or email@example.com
"That’s when my current company was founded. We literally started doing business out of our garage and we said ‘yes’ to any customer project we could find." – Ellen Mell, Custom Technologies CEO