Women in Photonics: Meet Paula Carstensen of Quantum Composers
May 10, 2022
Paula Carstensen, on the far left, is one of the founding members of Quantum Composers. We recently had the opportunity to talk with Paula about her story, the origins of Quantum Composers, and opportunities for women in photonics. Being self-taught, starting a business with a dream and a small business loan, and creating opportunities for women in photonics are just a few of the things that set Paula apart and make her integral to the Quantum Composers’ story.
Tell us about your background–how did you get into photonics?
That’s an interesting story. I’m a native of Montana and just kind of fell into the budding photonics industry in Bozeman. I was working as a legal assistant and learned from a colleague that a high-tech business was in need of an administrative person to help start up their business. I was introduced to the president and vice-president of Big Sky Laser and was drawn in by the conversation of lasers and the vision they had for the company and went to work for them immediately. I was their first employee and responsible for a little bit of everything: creating a working office, establishing a client base, purchasing, receiving and everything else that comes in between. The company went from a single employee to employing 45 people. Seven years later, I resigned my position as Vice President to take some much needed time off and pursue other interests.
About six months into my relaxation period, I was approached by a former Big Sky Laser colleague who had left to pursue his own interests and was in the process of putting together a new company. I was offered a partnership in what is now known as Quantum Composers. There were three initial partners, and we all worked from our basements, getting together once a week to strategize and consolidate ideas. It soon became apparent that getting together once a week wasn’t enough, so we went to the bank and mortgaged various possessions (homes, land, vehicles) to secure a Small Business Loan. After securing the $50K loan, we started paying ourselves $500/month and found office space on the 3rd floor of an old flour mill. The space was great until the wind blew–who knew that flour dust would come out of the walls and give the optics a good coating (not the kind of coating you want on laser optics).
You wear many hats in small businesses, and that is really what I love the most. I became the bookkeeper, purchasing agent, shipping tech, soldered boards and put together pulse generators. I also put a lot of effort into getting our name and products out there. With little or no budget, the best avenue 35 years ago was to get your product listed for free in the “new products” section of the laser magazines. With a lot of effort, we did get much needed traction this way. It was about this time that I decided we needed an extra kick and signed QC up for a tabletop display booth at the big photonics show on the west coast. It was also at this show that a customer approached one of the partners about changing the code of the pulse generators to fit their particular application. The single OEM pulse generator turned into an order of 300+. Quantum was off and running, hiring additional staff and taking on new projects. It was also around this time that I found out I was expecting my first (and last) baby at age 40. Timing is everything…but QC was ahead of its time in the work/daycare arena. We turned the conference room into a daycare room for my baby girl which allowed me to keep working with the partners during the day and keep the momentum going.
What interests you or makes you excited to go to work?
Simple answer - the people. I look forward to coming through the door every day and working with our crew on new problems, challenges and ideas. I just turned 66 last month and from time to time contemplate what life will be like after QC. One thing is for certain, we have a great group of people who do their jobs very well and I feel confident that QC would run smoothly without me. There is personal satisfaction in knowing that I was an integral part of making that happen.
What are you working on right now at Quantum Composers?
Lots of things - but one I am excited about the most is a dental laser that is designed to treat gum disease. The non-invasive procedure that is performed by this laser is remarkable. For those of us who have dealt with gum disease and gone through surgeries, gum flap cleaning, grafting, etc. this laser is a blessing. It is exciting to be involved in a company that’s small enough to get things done quickly which is one of the reasons we landed the dental laser order.
I am sure customers notice that response. What else do you think they notice?
Interacting with our customers and customer service is one of the biggest factors in our success over the years and is something that makes us stand out from other companies. We are always willing to do whatever we can for our customers. For example, recently our VP of Marketing and Sales was out for the day, so I took a sales call. The customer was looking for a company that could build a certain laser for them. It was lunchtime and everyone seemed to be out of the office, so I turned the customer over to my partner and President of QC, Steve Birrell. That’s what QC is all about–quick response and trying to make a difference. Overall, I think the authenticity and willingness to help whenever and wherever we can is something that our customers notice.
Are you seeing a change in the diversity of photonics?
There has been a real change in the photonics industry lately–that being more women. The industry was dominated by men in the early days. At my first major conference, the only ladies at the photonics shows were basically working behind the scenes. It is very refreshing to see more women taking lead roles in the high-tech/photonics industry. My partner, Steve Birrell, was instrumental in starting the junior tech college here in Bozeman, MT. There are over 50 photonics companies in the valley and Steve worked with MSU to start a two-year laser tech program. A fourth of the initial student body for this tech program were women. We hired one of these young women as an intern and she has now been working for QC for about three years. Now that I think about it, there were only three ladies in the mix here at Quantum Composers for 15 years and it has now grown to 7 ladies–that’s a 50% increase which is exciting. More women are entering the engineering, electrical, and optical fields because there is more opportunity for them. Life is a funny thing, it’s all about creating opportunities for people, and that is what we do at Quantum Composers.
We went from three partners to four partners and then down to two partners, Steve Birrell and myself. We’ve sold the laser side of the business a couple of times and built it back up through pulse generators. The pulse generators, which are the creation of Steve Birrell, are the bread and butter of the company… from day 1 until now. I really love my job because of the many hats I get to wear–there really is never a dull moment, and every day is different. You can still find me in the shipping room some days packing up lasers or pulse generators. We have a great team of 14 people who work well together. Steve and I decided in the beginning to create an atmosphere for employees to want to come to work. This philosophy has worked out great for us so far.
My story is not that different from anyone who thinks that if they work hard, life will treat them well. I have now worked in the photonics industry for 35 years and wouldn’t trade a day for any other job. People often ask us what gets us up in the morning? Simple, it’s the people. We have a great group of people who work with us on everyday challenges and offer up new/creative solutions - we listen and try to create an atmosphere that promotes self-worth.
What’s next for you?
One would think I might be considering retirement at my age, but we have some exciting new projects and products we are working on. Products that change people’s lives create a lot of enthusiasm and excitement. I still find myself looking forward to going to work and attempting to achieve the goals we had set for ourselves and the company those many years ago. Small business is a roller coaster ride…I love the ride!
Thank you, Paula. It was a pleasure to learn more about your story.