Mona El-Tahan has learned a lot about navigation since arriving in Canada more than 25 years ago. In the 1980s she developed the first mathematical model in North America to predict iceberg movement as part of her Master’s thesis at Memorial University in Newfoundland. She then steered her way through
the male-dominated engineering department at Lavalin-Franco Ltd., moving up to senior researcher before changing course and starting her own company, Coretec Inc.
This week industry group CATAAlliance honoured El-Tahan with the inaugural award for Canada’s Leading Woman High-Tech Entrepreneur, named after Newfoundland’s first governor, Sara Kirke.
El-Tahan says she got the job at Lavalin when she met an engineer from company who stopped by Memorial just as she was handing in her thesis. He saw the opportunity to use her models to predict iceberg movements during an off-shore Lavalin drilling project in Labrador for Petro-Canada. After close to a decade with the firm, El-Tahan returned to a research position at Memorial, where she got the government funding and resources necessary to devote herself to Coretec in 1995. Cortec’s Ship Protector system and other products use artificial intelligence to guide vessels to port or operate more safely in confined waters.
El-Tahan spent some time with Computing Canada to discuss her career so far.
CC: How did you decide to start working on software development for such a specific area like the marine industry?
Mona El-Tahan: Coming to Canada, you have to learn the culture and the language. I didn’t speak any English before I came, so I started studying English in school, and at the same time started doing graduate courses — single credit courses at the university. I started on my honeymoon, because I came as a bride. My husband came four months before me, and he told his supervisor a few stories about me, and he told him, “”You better keep her occupied.”” (laughs)
I started on working on interesting topics like iceberg drifts: forecasting how the iceberg is going to move and how we can predict the platforms from icebergs and so on. It was completely a new area for me, as a woman coming from Egypt and the Pyramids. (laughs) I hadn’t seen any icebergs!
CC: How did your career at Lavalin lead to your transition to an entrepreneur and the founding of Coretec?
ME: I had an excellent eight years of experience at Lavalin, because I took my model from the theoretical world at the university and applied it to real life. They used it off-shore in Labrador and off-shore in the Grand Banks.
Then I developed a series of models for Environment Canada. Instead of forecasting only one iceberg, I developed a model for forecasting icebergs in groups. You can see you how they drift and how many there are going to be in a certain area, showing how they are distributed so shipping companies and supply companies can avoid them.
I had a copyright on the model; they were willing to pay me a royalty for using it (at Lavalin). Since I was working there full-time, I didn’t need the money, but they made sure that legally I owned the model, if I decided to move on from Lavalin.
CC: You moved over to work on Coretec when the IT industry was still booming. Would you be as willing to start a new venture in today’s economic climate?
ME: I don’t think so. I think it’s good that I started at the university. I had the link with most of the oil companies and support from the university itself, which allowed a good transition. I still have an association with the university.
It was a big learning experience for me. I didn’t have an MBA, but I almost did an MBA the hard way, learning on the job and learning from the actual experience.
CC: Canada seems to have ongoing difficulties in recruiting young woman to enter IT and other technical fields. What was your experience entering your area of study?
ME: When I came to Canada I was the only female in the engineering program who started to do her Master’s here. I wasn’t planning to do my graduate studies, actually. I was fresh out of university and I was tired. I thought maybe I’d like to work for a change. When I went to the Lavlin office, actually, I knocked on the door and said I was a female engineer looking for work. They all looked at me strange. They said, “”We’ve never heard about females here before. If you want to start here, you can start as a draftsperson and maybe move on.”” I said drafting was the thing I liked least, and if I started at drafting everyone would consider me as a draftsperson, and to move on in the company would be difficult. This same company offered me a job right away as soon as I graduated. It was very funny, but of course it was a different group then — it was R&D — but I was the first female hired in the company for eight years, all by myself with no other women.
CC: Do you see things improving in the industry?
ME: Yes. Even up to 1988, when the international organization Women In Science and Engineering (WISE) encouraged me to start a chapter in Newfoundland, we didn’t have so many females. We had about maybe 15 females show up to our first meeting, scientists and engineers.
You wouldn’t believe now the impact of the activities of WISE Newfoundland have had on the acceptance of women in engineering. We trained females from high-school — from Grade 11. We brought them in a work term, about 50-60 females to the university and (showed them) around different departments to at least look at the different science areas there. Now over 20 per cent of engineering students are female at Memorial University. Some of them are really successful too, at the top of their class and winning awards. They were already successful in high school in science and math and physics, but they would never consider this as one of their options.
CC: If one of the young women studying in those programs today had an idea for a business of their own, what kind of advice would you offer them?
ME: They need some experience first. I advise not to start right away. I mean, some maybe are capable and start something before getting any experience in any company. I think if they have the talent, it’s better to work in a company first — see the environment, how things are operating. Get involved in the company on the management activities. Get to know about other things, not just the area you are working on.
CC: Knowing what you know now, would you recommend they go for their MBA as well?
ME: I think it is useful, but sometimes if you’re busy maybe you can do special courses, and select the practical ones related to the business. You don’t have to have the full MBA, but of course if you have the chance to do it, I think it would be good.
We didn’t have this kind of exposure when we were young in high school, or even in university, to understand business and how to run a business. But now most of the education is being changed. The curriculum is being improved and I think the new generation will be able to start their business ahead of the time it took our generation.
CC: What are you doing to grow Coretec this year?
ME: Right now we are forming a full board of directors. We’ve had an advisory board over the last couple of years, but now it’s a full board, and we’re looking for financing to get our technology distributed all over the world. We’re doing a lot of alliances, we’re planning to license the software to some larger manufacturers to make sure the technology is getting to the market quickly. Hopefully we’ll be worth millions and millions of dollars in the next few years (laughs). We hope — according to the marketing plan — to reach at least $100 million over the next three years from sales of our navigation aid system.