Cart 0
Renee Eaton ‘80, CEO and founder of 3D-printing company  RapidMade
 

The GLASS CEILING SMASHERS

Betting to Win

 

Despite being outnumbered as a woman in manufacturing, Renee Eaton ‘80 has repeatedly risen to the top of the ranks.


 

“It just made me want to prove a point. I was going to succeed. I learned everything I could about the business, worked hard, and earned my MBA. That way, no one could say I’d gotten promoted because I was a woman.”

 
 

Renee Eaton ‘80, CEO and founder of 3D-printing company RapidMade, has built a career off of well-executed power moves. Chatham professor Dr. Tom Hershberger once told Renee that, “Life is like playing poker: you only have so many chips, you don’t want to bet them on a losing hand.” She liked that advice, so she kept stock of her chips, and when she bet, she won.

In 2011, Renee and her husband Mark were living abroad in England and plotting their return to Portland, Oregon. The solution came from an Economist article on 3D-printing—a brand-new additive manufacturing technology that would allow for sustainable and domestic fabrication. They enlisted their son who had just graduated college and returned to Portland to found RapidMade.

Renee Eaton Chatham University Class of ‘80, CEO and founder of 3D-printing company  RapidMade  with HP 3D Printer

Unlike traditional manufacturing that involves assembling several pieces into a desired shape, RapidMade’s manufacturing builds layer by layer to produce the whole unit. It requires less material and creates more lightweight, equally durable products. They print in metal, plastic, and color and utilize 3D scanning to recreate pieces or reverse engineer them.

Renee’s team designed and made a synthetic fistula to help save the life of a goat named Oreo. When Ninkasi Brewing wanted to create a beer that was literally “out of this world,” RapidMade manufactured a container that would allow brewer’s yeast to withstand the journey to-and-from space. They’ve 3D printed a nylon dog-helmet for dogs working in high risk scenarios like bomb sniffing. On behalf of one of the Deadliest Catch captains, they 3D scanned crabs to create replicas to fill pots (and prevent real crabs from facing untimely deaths).

 
 
Renee Eaton ‘80, CEO and founder of 3D-printing company RapidMade with 3D Printed Creations
 
 

Successfully launching a risky tech start up wasn’t out of left field—Renee had spent her entire life in factories, learning how to make things and then how to improve their making. Her grandfather worked at Heinz after immigrating from Italy and her parents owned a box-manufacturing plant in McKees Rocks. Her parents’ factory is where Renee says she “grew up,” and where the seeds were planted for a lifelong commitment to manufacturing.

Despite not being the most diligent high school student, she found her footing at Chatham and never looked back: “It was the perfect environment for me, I blossomed in the intimate classes, surrounded by female role models.” But her Chatham experience was about as distinct from the manufacturing world as it gets. After graduating in 1980, she got a job as a Management Trainee at Nabisco in East Liberty. When she was hired, Nabisco was in the throes of a class-action sex discrimination lawsuit that originated at the Pittsburgh plant. She says that her many of her male coworkers “didn’t yet get it,” that is to say, recognize that she had a right to be there.

At Nabisco, she had a boss who made a pass at her, a project lead who suggested she eat lunch with the secretaries, and when she suggested that the company provide maternity uniforms, a manager who was reported to have said that, ‘If they get knocked up, they should buy their own *expletive* uniforms.” Rather than fighting, she chided them right back. When she did have to put her foot down, she remembered her chips.

Despite being outnumbered and challenged, Renee, with the support and guidance of upper management, worked her way up the ranks at Nabisco, spending eighteen years at the corporation. She took night classes to earn her MBA while working full time, pregnant, and caring for an infant. Eventually, she became Manufacturing Manager—only the second woman at the time to hold the title—and led a plant-wide reorganization.

She recalls the moment the woman who had filed the discrimination lawsuit commended her achievements at Nabisco, telling her, “They may not all like you, but they all respect you.” Though Renee still found that she was frequently one of few women at the conference table, she thrived on the knowledge that her success would help empower the next generation.

 
 
 
 

“I felt that we deserved to be there and we were opening doors for other women to follow.”

Nowadays, Renee works to ensure that more young women find success in the manufacturing industry, striving to make it visible as a viable career. In 2018, she started the Oregon chapter of Women in Manufacturing, a trade organization that provides opportunities like conferences, networking events, educational seminars, plant tours, and more to students and professionals in the industry.

Her advice to young women? “Focus on what’s important and let go of everything else. Outsource anything you can. Don’t let others pressure you into adopting their priorities. I never did housework, I rarely cooked. I focused on my family and my job.”