Nora Toure, founder and chairwoman of the global association Women in 3D Printing, was 24 years old when she moved from Paris to San Francisco to be the lone U.S. sales rep for the French 3D printing company Sculpteo. It was a lonely time. In a male-dominated, engineering dominated field (she has a law degree and a master’s in international business), it was hard to make connections on the trade-show circuit.
“I was going to the shows, and I wasn’t seeing that many people looking like me: young, female, a non-engineer and a foreigner,” she recalled in a blog post. “I also got a few unpleasant remarks from some attendees whenever I tried to do my job and explain what 3D printing was, or what services Sculpteo was offering.”
As Toure networked with other women, she realized they felt like outsiders as well—and that actually, because it’s such a new field, most people coming into 3D printing aren’t experts; they are coming from other industries.
Two years later, in 2014, hoping to feel more of a connection, she started Women in 3D Printing as a blog, simply asking women in the field to share their stories. One interview a month turned into one interview per week.
She soon realized that already, she had amassed six years of experience in 3D printing, and that had value: “I knew I belonged to this industry the same way anyone else working in it belonged,” she wrote. Building a community for learning and networking was especially important in 3D printing, where new machines and materials are introduced every six months.
Toure is now the Denver-based acquisition sales director for Belgian additive manufacturing software company Materialise, and Women in 3D Printing has completed 450 interviews with influencers in 3D printing all over the world. The organization has 110 chapters, from Las Vegas to Capetown, South Africa. It’s an all-volunteer organization and membership is free. Chapters meet at least quarterly. Corporate sponsors pay for the group’s marketing and presence at trade shows like Rapid + TCT May 2-4, where Women in 3D Printing will have a presence.
Interviews on the site reflect the excitement, energy and boundless possibility of 3D printing. Lisa Block, chief revenue officer for Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies Global, talks about her volunteer work in the Plano, Texas, community; cultural obstacles she runs into at her job (“some countries are still not in the place where they allow women to speak or make important decisions so there are times when prospective clients or partners will attempt to go around me and speak to my bosses because they are men” ) and her self-proclaimed role as “chief encouragement officer” at her company.
Julia Baldya, a Polish-born data engineer now at Van Amersfoort Racing in the Netherlands, tells of her collaboration with Ultimaker on developing 3D printing parts for race cars. And Sharon To, a computer engineer turned co-founder of Closed Loop Plastics in Long Beach--a startup that recycles plastic waste into structural 3D printing filament—says, among other things: “What I love about my team is the harmony with which we collectively recognize microaggressions directed towards me [the only woman on the team], to be able to navigate the conversation so my perspective is respected.”
IndustryWeek talked with Toure about the vast global scope of the group, how it grew through women telling their stories and then reaching out to other women, and plans to broaden its focus and expand its community outreach.
IndustryWeek: What was your experience at trade shows early on?
In France I didn't have any issues. Because I was protected in a way, right? I had a full team in Europe. When I moved to the U.S. and was alone in all the trade shows, that became a little bit more difficult for me. I was young. I was a foreigner. My accent was even more accentuated than this now. I felt like an outlier. I didn't feel welcomed back then.
The 3D printing industry is a strong community. But like any family, it's sometimes hard to get in. Once you’re in, you’re in for life, but just to get in, it's hard. I needed to find my community.
How did Women in 3D printing come about?
When I talked to more women in the space, it hit me—we all had similar experiences from being women in this field and especially women who may not have any engineering background. However, we all had pretty interesting backgrounds. I’m an attorney by training and here I was less than 25 years old, in Silicon Valley doing 3D printing. I knew my journey was interesting, but others were even more interesting. I wanted to share those stories so that others wouldn’t feel as intimidated.
I am a connector, I do a lot of working with people, so it made sense for me to continue that journey.
Doing those interviews, my goal at first was to do one interview per month, because that’s roughly the number of women I knew in my network: 12. I figured, "it’s a nice one-year project." And then the interviews started flowing. It piqued the interest of a lot of women globally, who reached out to me and said, “That story resonated with me. I also want to share mine.” Then it moved to a once-a-week cadence. And we decided to meet and have events.
The events weren’t my decision. I started the interviews and the content, but then everything else grew organically. We had men and women from all over the globe reaching out, asking if they could meet, if they could start things like, a next generation program, a mentorship program, do some DE&I reports. And I said yes. And then we grew and built a team out of it.
Every time, the answer is, “Yes. Let’s give it a try and let’s see.”
You have a regular job, too. Is this taking more and more of your time?
It could. I mean there’s definitely enough for multiple full-time jobs if we wanted to do that.
But I’m fortunate. I have a strong team. There are five of us on the board of directors and we are the core team. Then we have a strong advisory board—10 individuals across the globe who are helping us with decisions. And then we have 110 chapters—that’s about 150 ambassadors and regional directors all over the globe.
What type of events do you have? Informal meet ups? Or planned events with speakers?
Ambassadors are free to organize whichever they prefer and what makes the most sense for their community. One thing we've learned pretty early on is that every country and city and every sometimes every neighborhood in the city will have its own flavor based on the companies that are located there. So some areas might have more of industrial 3D-printing focus because the companies around them are industrial OEMs, for example, and others may have more desktop hobbyist activities.
More often than not, activities range from happy hours—men are welcome, too, in all of our events—to guest speakers or panels. And then you can go all the way to factory visits, and those are usually very popular because everyone loves to see the machines.
Whenever I travel internationally, I will absolutely try to connect with the local ambassadors. I have to admit, I have two young kids, a 3 ½ year old and a 1 ½ year old, so I’m not traveling as much as I used to. But I’ve been to events in Singapore, in Japan, in Europe.
Is Women in 3D Printing doing any outreach to students?
We have a dedicated program that we call the Next Gen program. Within our mentorship program initiative. And we’ve already done three cohorts of mentorship. Of those who started with us two years ago, we still have some pairings that are active today. So it’s been quite successful, and this year we’re studying doing scholarship funds with some donations from our corporate members. At our annual conference next year in January, we will announce the scholarships.
There are definitely more things we could be doing with schools. We’re currently exploring what the needs are for schools because it’s not always getting access to the printers. It’s more, they have two printers, they can use them if they have material, but it’s costly for them to get new material all the time. That’s why you see, more and more, three printers sitting in the back of the classroom, but no one really using them because they don’t have the material.
Do you have any advice for teachers who have that 3D printer sitting in the back of the room and nobody's using it?
There are a lot of companies who are willing to give back, and are willing and interested in working with schools. So it's just a matter of finding each other and pairing the needs and the companies who want to give. If there is a teacher out there who's interested in options and wants to see what they can do, simply reach out to us. We have a lot of friends and contacts in U.S. industry and even if it's not coming from 3D printing directly, we're always happy to make connections.
You welcome men as well at your events, and have a broader focus on DE&I?
We have an initiative to help companies hire more diverse talent—and not just gender-diverse. We have a job board, and we’re putting together toolkits to release during Rapid + TCT. The toolkits give recruiting managers and HR departments a list of all the boxes they need to tick to maximize their chances of finding diverse talent. There’s 20 to 25 bullet points going all the way from, making sure you’re being inclusive in the language you’re using, to posting the listing in places where you know you’re going to attract more diverse talent, to making sure your website reflects the DE&I reality of the company.
What’s ahead for Women in 3D Printing?
The expectation of what we can do in this space is huge, and both self-expectation and as a group—from the community and the companies who are backing us up. We know we have a bar to raise, but for that ,we need to reorganize ourselves structurally. We need to have someone full-time to get us where we need to be. It’s pretty central for us to get to that next stage, and then we want to collaborate more with external organizations.
Our mission statement is evolving to be less gender-diversity-focused and more all-forms-of-diversity-focused. There aren’t a lot of other organizations in our space who can claim that they can do something to make this industry truly more inclusive and more diverse. We want to create a safe space where we can have the tough conversations. We actually have a series of events called Hard Talks. We had an amazing panel on anti-Asian hate during COVID. We had one on International Women’s Day on allyship, with four men who were talking about what it means to be a strong ally for women in our industry.