Paula Hietpas earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Augustana College in Illinois and a doctorate in chemistry from Penn State University. Her original career goal was to work in forensic science.
Her first plastics industry position was a senior chemist for Dacron fibers, working on new catalyst systems for polyester.
"I wasn't sure that I was interested in polymers, but DuPont was such a great company I was willing to take the risk. My graduate work focused on building a DNA sequencing system. Twenty-five years later, I've worked in most of the different polymer platforms within DuPont as I've transitioned from individual contributor to strategic director," she said.
Hietpas is responsible for managing the application development innovation portfolio within the Mobility and Materials business unit and "the technical support functions to enable innovation project execution." She said much of the innovation pipeline comes from using current polymers in new end uses.
"There are so many [career highlights to mention] but one that stands out from its uniqueness was negotiation of a license from a Fortune 100 company to utilize technology in a new application. It was a win-win as they had no interest in pursuing the new application," she said.
When she first started in this field, she was often the only woman in the room, she said.
"It was a bit intimidating to speak up in this environment. I figured out pretty quickly that my perspective was often different than those in the room and so I needed to break out of my shell," she said. "I attempt to view the project or proposed change from an individual's perspective. For example, what will an operator need to do differently if this project is successful? Will it be easier, harder or just different?"
Q: What is the best advice you have ever received?
Hietpas: Assume positive intent. It is easy to get caught in a cycle of negativity when something doesn't go your way. Our amygdala causes an emotional hijack and it takes effort to take a step back and reframe the situation. It's worth the effort to view the situation assuming positive intent, you will spend less time stewing on it and more time working to get a better result the next time.
Q: What about the plastics industry surprises you?
Hietpas: The continued ability to innovate with base polymers that were invented over 50 years ago. It's amazing how much innovation headroom there still is through formulation tweaks. I'm in awe of the scientific creativity in this industry.
Q: If you were CEO of a company, what would you do first?
Hietpas: This is kind of cliché at this point, but I'd spend the first 30-60 days listening to the organization meeting as many employees as possible. I'd ask questions about their improvement ideas and what keeps them up at night. From there, I'd work with the executive team to formulate a path forward.