Meet Michelle Engarto: Leading Corning’s Wireless Business into the 5G Future

Michelle Engarto spends most of her days focused on the practical side of running Corning Incorporated’s wireless business. Her time is largely spent managing business performance, directing product-line decisions, and traveling to meet with staff and clients across the country and around the world, all to ensure the company is meeting the demands of the wireless marketplace today and launching products the market will demand tomorrow.

But her thoughts aren’t always on the bottom line. Engarto also imagines the bigger picture – the ways that innovations born with the spark of an idea and developed through persistence and teamwork can eventually change the world.

“This is going to sound like a marketing pitch, but I really do think 5G is going to be life-changing, because the specs for 5G are so much different than 4G, and 4G was wildly successful,” she said. “It just adds a whole new dimension in terms of data and speed and latency. It’s going to make things possible that used to be a dream.”

Engarto has plenty of examples at the ready: autonomous vehicles that will gain the trust of passengers when cars can seamlessly communicate thanks to 5G, or telemedicine applications that will allow life-saving remote surgery to be performed on an injured farmer in a remote area by surgeons in a city halfway around the world. Imagine real-time home health monitoring with remote conferences with the best doctors around the world becoming the norm for everyone and the technology that enables us to keep vulnerable people safe from the next pandemic. Or, in what she calls one of the craziest and most interesting ideas she has contemplated, the ability for automotive factories to be re-engineered with assembly-line robots that can physically get up and move themselves into different configurations so that more than one car model can be made in a single space.

“That’s what’s going to happen,” she said. “It would save you a massive amount of space and capital, and you wouldn’t have idle equipment just sitting there. Once we learn how to utilize the capabilities that are coming and we have applications, it’s going to change how we think about how we get work done, how we make things, and how we interact with one another.”

Engarto grew up south of Boston where she excelled in math, enjoyed puzzles and loved to read. Shrugging off her high-school guidance counselor’s suggestion that she pursue a career as a secretary, Engarto instead opted to study engineering.

“My dad had always encouraged me to get into engineering or science because he could see I had a natural aptitude for it,” Engarto said, recalling that she was interested in looking at blueprints with him at an early age and accompanying him on tours of the machine shops at Raytheon. “I just thought it was very cool and interesting and that it would be fun to work in manufacturing.”

She graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1988 with a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial engineering and joined Corning Incorporated as an engineer in what would be turn out to be her first stint at the company. After two years, she moved to the Pacific Northwest and spent 7 years working as a plant manufacturing & industrial engineer as well as a business consultant. In 1997, she returned to Corning in New York as a project manager, and she has remained with the company ever since.

Despite working for the past 23 years at the same company, Engarto said she has never been bored. Her roles at Corning have ranged from engineering to product management to plant management to supply chain management and even manufacturing strategy. She is now working in her fourth operating division for the company, serving as Vice President of Wireless Solutions and Product Line Management for Corning’s Wireless Solutions group.

“Corning is an interesting company,” she said, noting the 169-year old organization has a large global footprint and a broad set of interests that tie into its core strengths in materials science. “I’ve been able to work in a lot of different functions and in a lot of different divisions and technologies and industries. You don’t necessarily have to leave the company to get a different opportunity or to learn something new or to expand professionally.”

Case in point. Before joining Corning’s Telecommunications Division in 2015, Engarto was working in the company’s Emerging Innovations Group, which functions as an incubator where new business ideas and product innovations can be explored without typical operating constraints and budgets.

The project Engarto and her team were working on eventually became ValorTM Glass, an innovative glass package for the pharmaceutical industry that culminated in the launch of a new division. The project was fraught with challenges and uphill battles associated with inventing and getting approvals for a brand-new product to replace a well-established product in pharmaceutical packaging applications.

“To think all these billions of vials and syringes are made every year and we’re going to enter the industry now with a new glass? That’s going to be really, really hard,” Engarto said of her thoughts at the outset of the project. “What’s thrilling is having a big audacious goal and when you are looking at that goal you just always have some amount of doubt. It’s like riding a roller coaster in the dark. It’s fun and it’s thrilling but you don’t know if you’re going to die at any moment. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, particularly when you are inventing a product the world has never seen with new material. But you take calculated risks, you drive for scientific understanding, you wear a lot of hats and everyone learns a lot. You must believe that the problem is worth solving and drive hard to deliver a novel solution of value to the customer.”

Engarto shared her advice to young women in the wireless industry for WIA’s Celebration of Women in the Wireless Infrastructure Industry in March.

Another big goal Engarto had was to complete her Master of Business Administration after having to abandon that pursuit early in her career for personal reasons. She recently earned her MBA at Wake Forest University.

“It was always something that bothered me that I started and didn’t finish even though essentially I was almost done,” she said. “I knew it would benefit me because I have a lot to think through in terms of strategically what we are going to do with the wireless business, and I had some challenges I was facing. It was amazing how many times we would talk about things in class or learn a different way of doing things and I’d be able to use it the very next day. It opened up my thinking and refreshed my memory in a lot of cases – because a lot of it I learned doing it the hard way – but it was definitely an enriching opportunity.”

Engarto now hopes to replicate the thrill of being involved in ‘massive and impactful’ projects that she experienced on the ValorTM Glass project and the satisfaction of reaching goals through her work her current role. Corning’s wireless business has been focused on the in-building space for well over a decade, with a successful distributed antenna system (DAS) business focused on large venues. The company acquired Milpitas, California-based small cell company SpiderCloud in 2017 and has combined their talents with Corning’s wireless organization to develop the next wave of indoor cellular products for 5G and beyond.

While at work, Engarto is focused on the high-tech world of wireless infrastructure, but in her spare time, she practices the antique art of wool rug making.

“People are starting to recognize it’s not just about getting a cell signal in the building to make phone calls. It’s well beyond time to have cellular coverage in buildings,” she said. “But now with 5G and what’s going to be made possible it’s even more interesting because there are plenty of verticals – like hospitality,  healthcare, manufacturing and office building owners – who are thinking about what they will be able to do with 5G and how it will be a differentiator for their business.”

“We are in a unique position because we have a really broad portfolio in the Corning Optical Communications Division of which wireless is a part and have had for a very long time, so we have a really nice set of solutions to address a broad variety of indoor wireless customers,” she said. “We can innovate pretty effectively because we understand fiber, we know optical physics, we have connectivity, we have specialists in materials, we make all the hardware necessary to make his happen, and it’s one of our missions in life. We say ‘We build connections so the world can make them.’”