It is unusual to find a female CEO of a manufacturing company anywhere, but especially in Silicon Valley – an area with few manufacturing companies and few female CEOs. But Emily Liggett – CEO of NovaTorque, manufacturer of energy efficient electric motors – is not a typical Silicon Valley CEO. Not only is she a female CEO of a manufacturing company, she is also an effective leader, an accomplished engineer, and a humble, committed follower of Christ.
When I remarked on the rarity of being a woman CEO of a manufacturing company, she replied with some surprise: “I haven’t thought about it very much. I like products. I like things I can touch. And I have been well trained for what I am doing.”
Liggett graduated from Purdue University with a BS in chemical engineering. Purdue recognized Liggett for her accomplishments by granting her the Outstanding Chemical Engineer Award in 1999 and the Distinguished Engineering Award in 2004.
With a desire to sharpen her business skills, she attended Stanford’s Graduate School of Business where she earned an MBA in 1984. Her career includes senior positions at large publicly held companies — Raychem, Tyco — and CEO of Capstone Turbine, Elo TouchSystems and startup Apexon (now Symphony Software).
She started her current position at NovaTorque in 2009 after the company raised its Series A financing. NovaTorque is a new electric motor company in an industry that is well over 100 years old. What distinguishes NovaTorque, Liggett says, is the company’s innovation. “We offer a significant leap forward in electric motor cost effectiveness and energy efficiency.”
Liggett describes her faith initially as an inherited faith. “I grew up on a farm in Indiana in a Christian family with believing parents and grandparents. The town had maybe 200 people. If you went to town, the question wasn’t ‘Do you go to church?’ The question was ‘Which church do you go to?’ You were either Catholic or Protestant.”
It was in college that Liggett came face to face with people from other faith traditions and with people who didn’t believe at all. A summer job at Bell Labs in New Jersey drove the point home. “I had a boss who explained to me that something was wrong if you didn’t divorce and get remarried, because it meant that you essentially hadn’t grown and developed. I had this awakening that there were other people with completely different ideas.” Coming to the Bay Area for graduate school and working in the area, was eye opening as well. “I realized I was in the minority as a Christian.”
But over time — beginning in college and through her early career — Liggett’s faith deepened. Bible studies, scripture reading, and discussions with mentors, including her husband, helped her. “My husband was an Indiana farm boy with a strong faith background. As we moved around the world, we could be our own little small group, with Bible studies and prayer time.”
As a trained scientist, Liggett confronted the alleged conflict between faith and reason. She looked at the evidence for faith. “I had to think it through,” she says. “And I looked at people who are a lot wiser than I am. C.S. Lewis dealt with that head on. He took a logical, reasoned approach to faith. That was instructive. For me, faith and reason coexist.”
For Liggett, her faith is not only intellectual but emotional as well. “I feel the presence of God all the time. I see his handiwork everywhere, especially when I am quiet – out of doors in nature – when I am with a newborn baby, and in both joyous and sorrowful times. I feel myself calm down. My heart doesn’t race. I just sense that I am in the presence of God. I don’t question his existence, although I don’t understand some of the things that happen and don’t know if I will ever fully understand.”
Faith at Work
How does Emily Liggett’s faith apply to her work? She applies basic biblical principles. It starts with integrity. She quotes Jesus in Matthew 5:37: “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.” She also strives to treat people fairly. “I am careful not to have bias in hiring and promoting people — whether it is age, gender, marital status or anything else. And I am careful not to impose my faith on anyone.”
Transparency is an offshoot of integrity. “I just try being open and honest with people.” She goes on to stress the importance of being direct. “Matthew made it clear; if you have an issue with someone, you go one-on-one, and talk.”
Humility is at the core of who she is. “When I grew up, it was a big deal to my grandparents and parents that we kids ‘not have a big head.’ That was actually the term they used. If you brought home a report card and there was an A minus, and everything else was A’s, it was the A minus they would discuss. It wasn’t a negative thing. It was simply: ‘You are not perfect. There is room for improvement.’ It was their way to keep us humble.”
Liggett confides that her biggest personal challenge, especially when her children were young, was maintaining a balance between work and family. Balance is a theme often repeated by CEOs and business people I interview for this blog. For Liggett balance was a special challenge with a working husband and four children. She offers a perspective I had not heard. “Every day is its own day. You can’t achieve perfect balance every day. You try to get balance over a week, or over a month. There will be times when things are crazy at work, and you need to spend extra time. There will be other times when the family time is important, so you take time off, and other people to cover work for you.”
It helped that her husband had a reasonably flexible schedule. “It was a 100% team effort. When [my husband] Dave was doing international work, I would take a job with no travel. Or if I were traveling a lot, he would make sure he didn’t travel. And we had this extended network – our covenant group – to call. Our kids were loved by many different folks.”
But achieving balance and giving children the attention they deserve is hard. “You’re always moving between the two [work and family.]” She describes two principles that were helpful. “We tried not to work on Sunday. That was family day. There might be a rare exception, but it was a big deal. If we did, then Saturday became our Sabbath.”
Second, she and her husband shared taking their children to and from school. One of us would go to work early. The other would go late and come home late.”
Life Purpose and Principles
One of Liggett’s guiding principles comes from Philippians 4:13 “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” “When things seemed impossible,” she says, “whether personal, family or at work, good things happened. When I wanted more time with my kids, I had the opportunity to job share with a woman who was going to seminary. That was a fabulous relationship.”
After having her fourth child, she left work. But shortly after leaving, her husband’s company was acquired. He became a stay-at-home dad, and Emily re-entered the workforce.
When I asked Liggett about her purpose in life, she replied: “I want to glorify God in whatever I do — whether a stay-at-home mom, starting a company, taking over a company for someone else, being on the board of directors, or working on staff for a year at Menlo Presbyterian Church. Each time I felt that was where I should be for that season.”
Leading NovaTorque with its manufacturing of energy efficient motors is where Emily Liggett, a remarkable person, is living out her God-given purpose today.