By Marina Damiano, PhD
What’s the secret to achieving happiness and success as a woman in STEM?
“Find and do what makes you sing inside and out,” says 3-D printing CEO, entrepreneur, mentor, and scientist, Dima Elissa.
Dima believes that we must use our personal passion, not others’ expectations, as a guidepost to lay the foundation for self-determined success. As the daughter of a cardiovascular surgeon, Dima fully expected to follow in his footsteps, but instead chose another path with a different kind of “heart.” She studied Chemistry at Hanover College, then used her science background and an interest in international business to land her first job at NutraSweet…during a hiring freeze.
Convincing a company that was not hiring to bring her on was Dima’s first deliberate foray in entrepreneurialism, sales, and networking. Armed with nothing but a borrowed car and sheer excitement, she drove to NutraSweet’s suburban Chicago location and, in a time before LinkedIn, hobnobbed with the receptionist to find out who ran the international division and how she could get in touch.
A type-written letter sent directly to the President landed her an interview and the rest is history, according to Dima. She was part of the company’s new venture arm, one of the first corporate technology incubators/accelerators of its time, where she identified, evaluated, and commercialized viable new product and business ideas.
Fast forward to the present — with a brief stop to earn an MBA at Texas A&M — Dima still uses those same skills she first cultivated at NutraSweet. She is now the CEO of VisMed-3D, a company that designs and prints 3D body parts. As CEO, she develops VisMed-3D’s strategy, raises funds for its growth, and advocates for the value of 3D technology within the medical community. She credits her science education for giving her a unique platform for critical thinking, non-traditional problem-solving, and innovation. Her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is to “make sure you have the internal fortitude, as well as the emotional and financial resilience to walk a rocky road filled and fraught with ups and downs, sometimes in rapid fire succession like a roller coaster.”
Dima also devotes a significant amount of time to mentoring and advising female STEM entrepreneurs and fledgling companies within the technology sector. She is Vice Chairwoman for Women in Bio, an executive council member for Ms. Tech, and a Chicago Innovation Exchange Mentor. Dima is particularly passionate about leveling the playing field for girls and women in STEM. She believes that making changes to K-12 STEM education is key to achieving that goal.
“At an early age, teachers, parents, and peers shape our viewpoints and values. They also shape our self-doubts and limitations. This is especially true in the case of girls who think that STEM is not for them,” says Dima. It is possible to redirect these thought patterns, she says, by introducing teaching practices and tools that enable girls to see and seek their own abilities in a STEM field. Pursuant to this belief, Dima became a member of the STEM Steering Committee for the Apareció Foundation, a group that focuses on empowering and educating young women in underserved communities. She is also an advisor to Galvanize Labs, a Chicago company that has built a game-based platform to teach technology fundamentals to K-12 students.
With the many hats she wears, it’s hard to imagine how Dima finds time for it all. She credits daily exercise with giving her the energy to seize each day, but admits that balance is tricky because she finds it difficult to refuse invitations that involve mentoring.
“When and where possible, I want to serve my community and provide access to knowledge that has come through many years, many experiences, and many connections throughout the world,” she says. That desire to serve has inspired Dima to write LifeCrafting, a book in which she shares her life story and offers practical advice on how to “dance within the rules of life” to craft one’s own path.