OXFORD, Miss – When Nichole Williams asked seven University of Mississippi students to draw a pig on graph paper, they all thought it would be easy. But the chemical engineering alumna, who has found career success at Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. in Tupelo, wasn’t the least bit impressed.
“Those are not good,” she said. “Let’s try it again. Only this time, I will give you step-by-step instructions.”
“Much, much better,” Williams said, smiling as she looked at the drawings.
Williams returned to her alma mater earlier this month at the request of John O’Haver, professor and chair of chemical engineering, to lead Six Sigma Green Belt Training.
Six Sigma is a set of techniques and tools to improve processes and output quality for manufacturing. The American Society for Quality oversees training and certification for professionals, including the awarding of belts in yellow, green and black, as they complete higher levels of training and proficiency.
Williams, leader for the Cooper Tupelo facility’s process capability improvement efforts, said she was honored and happy to be invited to temporarily join the Ole Miss faculty.
“It feels like coming home, but so much has changed,” said the Iuka native, who is also responsible for facilitating Lean Six Sigma Green Belt training. “It’s exciting to be back, but different, too.”
O’Haver said he asked Williams to return to campus to help equip UM chemical engineering students for future employment.
“In listening to company representatives from manufacturing companies at our career fair, some said they would consider hiring our graduates if they knew Lean Six Sigma,” he said. “Since Nichole is a trainer and Cooper afforded her the opportunity to teach this Wintersession, I felt it was the absolute best thing for our students to have her here.”
Students in O’Haver’s class said they have indeed benefitted from Williams’ teaching.
“This course has given me real-world experience, and not just academic theory,” said Catherine Klara, a junior chemical engineering major from Lafayette, Louisiana. “Knowing this will definitely be useful when I begin looking for work.”
“The ability to provide well-written, precise, easy-to-follow work instructions is of great importance to operators who must follow these instructions in whatever processes they are doing,” she said. “The quality of production often depends upon the instructions given to the workers.”
But Williams’ presence on campus was more than just a favor to one of her professors, said Anne Roman, Cooper’s vice president of communications and public affairs.
“Nichole’s work at Ole Miss is an extension of her involvement with Cooper’s ‘Dream Team,'” Roman said. “The team comprises 40-plus early-career employees selected from throughout the corporation to promote manufacturing career possibilities to students within their local communities.
“It’s a part of Cooper’s overall involvement in efforts of the National Association of Manufacturers, which include significant Manufacturing Day opportunities nationwide. Cooper’s Dream Team is usually focused on students in grades 8 through 12 to capture them early in their thinking about careers, but this was an opportunity to expose students at the college and university level to what manufacturing careers are all about.”
A 2013 graduate, Williams joined the company four years ago as a Six Sigma Black Belt.
“I love the challenge that comes with being a Black Belt,” Williams said. “I get the opportunity to work in several different areas of the plant and get exposure to different levels of our organization. I might go from a project that addresses a specific problem on a specific machine, to a project affecting an entire department, to a project that requires me to interact with our corporate office.”
Recently, Williams was awarded a 2016 Emerging Leader Award by the Manufacturing Institute’s Science Technology Engineering Production Ahead program. A hundred women are chosen to be honorees for achievements in manufacturing, with about 30 of the younger women chosen as Emerging Leaders.
Williams was one of only two to deliver a speech during the awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., that highlighted the importance of encouraging the next generation, particularly girls, to pursue careers in manufacturing.
“Dr. O’Haver is such an inspirational teacher who makes you feel like you can achieve anything,” Williams said. “Dr. (Paul) Scovazzo provided great guidance for a professional career, and I credit him with pushing me to a career in engineering, as opposed to just an education.”