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Suzanne Beckstoffer: ​Making Her Own Way in Maritime


When Suzanne Beckstoffer was in tenth grade, she had not yet decided what she wanted to do with her life. Math and science, however, were both clearly engaging to her. That year, a teacher of hers encouraged her to look into engineering, and once she had, she felt that she had found her calling. It was the 1960s, however, and few women were going into the STEM fields. To encourage her, the same teacher, Mrs. Baldwin, took her to a weekend seminar about careers in engineering. After a civil engineering lab that weekend, she immersed herself in the topic. Earning first her Bachelor of Science at North Carolina State University and then her Master of Business Administration at The College of William & Mary, Beckstoffer went out into the workforce committed to constructing bridges. When no such jobs appeared, though, she took a position at Newport News Shipbuilding. There she remained for 34 years, overseeing the design and planning processes for new ships. At the time that she started at Newport News, she was creating designs by hand, using a pen, and once 3D modeling software became available, she took it upon herself to learn that.

At every step in her career, Beckstoffer exhibited a willingness to learn something new and to try something different. She was the first designer at Newport News to master CADAM and then VIVID, a program that she used to design a cutting-edge submarine. A few years after that, she took on robotic cutting and welding lines, devising a strategy for installing them on a waterfront. She collaborated with Navy engineers on the FORD-class aircraft carrier program, before taking the lead in research and development at Newport News. Nearing her retirement, she took charge of a system migration, shifting her engineering team from one set of programs to another.

Despite its prestige, Beckstoffer's entire career had come as a surprise to her parents, who had encouraged her study in math but whom she said "never expected [their] daughter to work in a shipyard!" It was after she left Newport News, though, that she made perhaps the most historic move of her career, becoming the first woman President of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME), a professional organization consisting of 5,000 maritime engineering thought leaders around the world. In addition, she became Chairman of the Board of BayPort Credit Union, responsible for $1.7 billion in assets.

Beckstoffer, charting a course that was uniquely her own in the maritime sector, went where no woman had before, shining a light on what was possible for women engineers who came after her. She points out that since the beginning of her career, Newport News Shipbuilding has undergone a radical transformation: the current president, a graduate of the Merchant Marine Academy as well as several other high-ranking leaders, are all women. A pioneer in this regard, Beckstoffer harnessed a strong sense of self-reliance in transcending the common conceptions of her field: “The best piece of advice I ever got was from my Great-Aunt Esther.” Beckstoffer told SAFETY4SEA in a July 2nd, 2019 interview, “She was born in 1892 and was truly a progressive career woman and role model. She told me to 'Always remember who you are, no matter where you are.'"