by Ellen C. Warren
Interviewing Annie Oatmeal felt a bit like sitting in the middle of a carousel watching the horses go by, and she was on every one of them. Moving swiftly and knowledgeably from one subject to another her patter enthusiastically delivers a stream of sights, sounds and information.
For instance, even before we get into the meat of the conversation (apologies) I am surprised to learn that the venison I so enjoy eating is not just “lean and healthy. It has nutrients from dirt, from lots of different dirt, from when (the deer is) running around. That’s where all those micro-vitamins, that are so important, come from,” she informs me.
Annie knows dirt. She knows the components of all sorts of substances, especially air, water, and earth. She’s a scientist. And an engineer. She’s also an artist, but we’ll get to that later. And a trouble-maker.
That last bit started before she was even out of the womb. Her mom, a teacher at St. Francis High School, was pregnant with Annie in the spring of 1971. When Mrs. Minga told the principal of the school that she’d need the last two weeks of school off and he’d have to get a substitute teacher, he said, “You come back after three days or you’re fired.”
As it happened, the federal maternity rules had just changed, but Wisconsin hadn’t yet implemented them. Her mom filed suit, the ACLU picked up the case, and the result was that Minga vs. the School District of St. Francis is the case law that implemented maternity laws in Wisconsin. “I came out creating’ trouble!” Jests Annie.
Her early schooling was at the Alverno Campus Elementary School surrounded by unique, extremely diverse, and cherry-picked, gifted students. “The nuns were a big part of my life. They helped me the most. They knew I was strong in math and science but probably had some different abilities. If I had gone to a public school I probably would have been considered Special Ed. I didn’t learn traditionally, but I flew through curriculum. In second grade I was through the fifth grade curriculum.” She adds with a laugh, “There’s a massive amount of footage of me working in a group setting, solving complex math and science problems… in the Alverno Library because it was an education school.
Even the potentially stultifying environment of St. Mary’s Academy couldn’t break her spirit. She went on to earn her B.S. from Purdue in Environmental Engineering, immediately jumping into the fray with the same attitude she carries into all her living.
“Initially, when I got out of school, I noticed that engineers were kind of pigeon-holed, where guys got to do the fun design and construction projects and the women were stuck doing permitting and purchasing roles. I went to the president of my firm, which was Triad Engineering in the Third Ward, and talked to him about it. And he recognized it. He said, ‘Okay, as long as you get 40 hours of billable work in I’ll give you specialty projects that I’m working on and you can help me with them.’ So, I got to work on extremely high-level, very unique projects very early in my career. I’ve really always been involved in environmental control technologies in heavy industry.”
Soon she’d worked her way from Briggs and Stratton to an off-shoot, Metal Technologies. There, she says with a laugh, “the C.O.O. of the company opened his door and said, ‘Hey Annie, do you want an old white guy job?’ It was to be the Manager of Capital Projects and Environmental Compliance for this massive group of foundries. And so I had this glass ceiling job very early in my career, just because I hustled so much and worked so hard. And always took an initiative to work on extra side projects, so I was always able to work on the most interesting projects. And I job-jumped for the most challenging jobs.”
Fast forward to now. After several jobs, in industries with names you’d recognize, Annie has landed in a world-wide company, Leilac, working in research and design for carbon capture and sequestration technologies. The U.S. partner she works with on direct capture of carbon from the air is called Heirloom Carbon, of San Francisco.
With corporate headquarters in Paris, Leilac head-hunted Annie and hired her as their first U.S. employee. Now they have about twelve. Her team is from here, Europe, and Australia and travel to many places fits beautifully with her personality. In the last year she spent two months in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia, ten days in Paris, a week in Barcelona and visited the Netherlands four times.
For much of her life, travel has been a regular activity for another reason as well. As Annie tells it, “For fun I build short-term installation art at music festivals and, like, Art Basel, Love Burn, Electric Forest, Burning Man…big music festivals and alternative art festivals. We build, just some goofy things, like big LED domes.” A giant Maneki-Neko Lucky Cat with a 27 foot moving arm shooting flames out of the paw, on top of a 44 foot geodesic dome was one of her more recent creations.
“Part of working with these art-build teams is that it’s so intense and very different… lots of manual labor… from the engineering work that I do. And the bonding you get from working with these teams for just a week. I have teams I’ve worked with all over the world and I can count on those people for anything. You build up a really strong trust working in that high-stress environment in a very short amount of time,” she says.
Closer to home, Annie helps with Checkpoint 3 in the Riverwest 24 at Swing Park. “We always have a big disco ball and 25 hours of deejays,” she explains. “Most of my artwork is disco balls and building neon towers.”
There’s so much more to Annie’s story but I’ve run out of space. A regular sight around Riverwest you can find her at the bars, where she loves the plethora of NA offerings, at the gallery openings, doing her occasional volunteer stint at the RW Coop. She revels in this home since 2015, where she says, “the humans in this neighborhood are exceptional! I travel all around the world and I always look forward to getting back … It’s true community, and that’s so rare. And the river…it’s such a gem to have the combination of nature and good restaurants and cool bars and interesting little shops.., bike trails!