Jennifer Hill straddled two lanes en route to becoming a manager in process engineering at Nissan’s Smyrna plant.
In 2002, the Tennessee State and Vanderbilt University graduate made the Tennessee Titans cheerleading squad, a gig that helped accelerate her career path.
“She made this team and that was her one little goal, and all of a sudden this door was open to the whole world of endless possibilities,” Titans cheerleading director Stacie Kinder said.
Hill, who was nicknamed “Harvard” on the team, quickly became a leader and her squad voted to send her to the Pro Bowl in 2007. Kinder recalled watching Hill develop her positive attitude and belief she could do anything.
“She doesn't need outside accolades because she receives the self-affirmation in just accomplishing what she set out to do,” Kinder told Crain’s Nashville.
Hill’s accomplishments at Nissan include leading a team to a 200 percent improvement in processes for Infiniti production.
“It was funny that there were some people who were skeptical because they saw a cheerleader doing engineering work. But I think in the end, many of them were very surprised that she was as good or better of an engineer than she was a cheerleader, and she was a great cheerleader,” said Mark Pionke, Hill’s former manager at Nissan.
Hill, a Memphis native, said her pursuit of an engineering career came from her desire to emulate her father.
She also had a passion for dance and cheerleading. Instead of ditching her pompoms, she gripped them tighter when she headed to TSU to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering.
“It was difficult at times balancing both,” Hill said. “On one end, I wanted to be taken seriously as an engineering student. At first glance they look at you as someone who is young in the industry and who already has to prove herself. So on top of being a woman, I also had to say, ‘Hey, I'm also a cheerleader.’ So it was very difficult to get the respect that I wanted.”
After graduation, Hill landed a position at Nissan and remained a Titans cheerleader for one last year.
Hill, who initially tried to hide her work with the Titans, said a co-worker once asked her for a signature on one of the squad’s calendar pictures.
“I was mortified,” Hill said. “When I was a cheerleader and would go to the games that was one person, and at work I was a totally different person. I had never really mentally bridged those two people.”
Ultimately, Hill said, much of her current success ties back to cheerleading.
“One thing about engineering is that we solve problems. But what it takes to solve problems is rallying the different teams and organizations that are responsible for the systems. I feel like that's basically what cheerleading is, and I feel like that's why I have been so successful because I do have that background,” she said.
She hinted at eventually starting her own nonprofit and using her story to help break down stereotypes of cheerleaders and women, encouraging kids to pursue all of their dreams.