Photo above courtesy of Tamar Abrilian at Auto Conduct.

Calling Emma Kalayjian (’18, computer information systems) relentless may be simplistic, yet true. Her passion for automobiles and modernizing how people interact with them led her to Cal Poly Pomona, then to a promising career at world-renowned NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and also to reporting on the modern car enthusiast culture. Now that fervor has landed her to the 2021 Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the Enterprise Technology category.

“I’m passionate about technology, and I am even more so fascinated by creativity,” says Kalayjian on her life-long quest to combine art and science.

On family road trips as a child, Kalayjian would play the name-that-car game based on just the taillights because they sparked her curiosity at how practical functions of a car could be incorporated into beautiful designs. Growing up in Palos Verdes, Kalayjian aspired for a career in automotive advertising after shadowing a family friend who was a car marketing executive and gave her behind-the-scenes access to TV commercial shoots.

At Cal Poly Pomona, Kalayjian started in the communication major but soon discovered new roads to propel her car passion. In an internship at Faraday Future, an electric car company, she was captivated by user experience (UX) designers who weave complex technology into aesthetically pleasing and functional forms. Kalayjian adjusted her academic journey and aimed to be part of the car design industry, which requires education in coding and software development. The computer information systems major, based in the College of Business Administration, provided a bridge between creativity and technology, where marketing and IT curriculum are competencies valued by the auto industry.

Kalayjian continued to seek the physical hands-on experience of working on cars to close the learning gap between theoretical to actual, from software to hardware. She joined Formula Society of Automotive Engineers (FSAE), the student-run College of Engineering team that designs, builds and competes race cars on the international collegiate stage. The team was looking to bolster its business acumen in finance and marketing because the competition values building a sustainable business enterprise as much as engineering a car’s 0 to 60 MPH specs.

Emma Kalayjian sitting on the FSAE car

As the business lead and user experience captain, Kalayjian’s management and computer science proficiencies contributed to the team’s high-place finishes during the 2017-18 season, including Design Finalist at FSAE West 2017 and 1st in Acceleration at FSAE Michigan 2018.

“When you understand that it takes both sides, really figuring out how to bring those two together, that’s what’s going to make you stand out [as a team],” Kalayjian says.

Equipped with Cal Poly Pomona’s hallmark inclusive polytechnic education and hands-on experiences, Kalayjian was ready to continue her journey of automotive discovery. After graduating in 2018, she joined NASA JPL as a user interface (UI) designer. While JPL doesn’t manufacture cars for the masses, its cutting-edge work in spacecraft and robotics require accessible and intuitive human-to-machine interface.

“Make things make sense.” Kalayjian often recites those four simple words to summarize her role to holistically examine the continuum of user experience, identify challenges and create solutions that make the process as seamless as possible for JPL employees. Much like an architect designs a building’s structure and an interior designer plans the finishes, a UX designer creates the habitat structure and, Kalayjian, as the UI designer, ensures the cognitive, visual, tactile, and aural senses intuitively connect and harmonize to the living environment.

“Emma is able to not only do what is expected of her role, but in many ways excels past expectations both creatively and technologically. She continues to be an integral part of our design team by participating in projects across the division and the entire Lab,” says Paul Lumsdaine, JPL Lead User Experience Designer and Kalayjian’s mentor.

Working at space-focused JPL doesn’t mean Kalayjian has down-shifted her car passion. She spends her off hours as a content creator for Auto Conduct, a web and media company catering to car enthusiasts.

“I get to have this crossover. I get to do what I love, get to review different cars from the UX perspective,” says Kalayjian, who deep-dives into the art and science of mechanical movements and tactile sensations of cars.

Collaborating with fellow contributors, she drives, reviews, and shares insights of modern mobility through the lens of how technology enhances the driving experience. She’s already driven an ultra-luxury British sedan to its limits on a track and got a rare, in-depth look at the late-actor Paul Walker’s vintage Nissan Skyline GT-R sports car. Kalayjian aims to fuse the quintessential and visceral car culture experiences into her techno know-how and storytelling.

“I want to bring the duality of understanding together,” Kalayjian says. For example: Is that big touch screen beneficial or distracting? Is voice recognition better than physical buttons? What are the different types of events at a typical track day?

Beyond bridging art and science, Kalayjian is aware of her unique perspective in the automotive world as a woman, a millennial and a tech-savvy business professional.

“I’ve noticed in both of these spaces [aerospace and automotive] is that the feminine energy has a tough time finding a place to stand on two feet,” Kalayjian says. She hopes her work and voice can inspire more females to venture into these historically male-centric communities.

“STEM has been predominantly home for the masculine energy, and the best thing we can do is not only continue setting example that feminine energy has just as much an equal spot in this space, but for how the female energy fits into this space as well.”

Relentless passion, persistent action and exceeding expectations are some of the reasons why Forbes chose Kalayjian for its 30 Under 30 Class of 2021.

“2020 brought a lot of surprises, and the Forbes list was definitely one of the more positive surprises,” Kalayjian says. “I’m just beginning to build a platform that I didn’t expect to have but am honored to be developing. This is a big privilege, a big opportunity, so I better use it wisely.”

Not content to sit still, Kalayjian is already making plans to connect and support other innovators. She looks forward to giving back to her alma mater as guest speaker and alumni mentor. She plans to meet and collaborate with other 30 Under 30 honorees from all categories who share a collective passion for positively impacting society. She intends to use her voice to lift up her peers and future generations — to show that confidence comes from within and being different is a positive, not a negative. She hopes to inspire others “to find that fire from within themselves, how they can start building that momentum too.

“This is something I’ve only recently learned from much trial and error. You can try to fit into the group or you can embrace that you don’t fit the pre-conceived mold and create a whole new one. You may be judged either way, so just pursue the one that makes you memorable and authentic,” she says.

Kalayjian brims with excitement about the future, which literally may be in the stars. Her professional ambition is to become a UX designer on a revolutionary hybrid auto/aero vehicle, which could be called a “space car.” On terra firma, she recently purchased a racing helmet to engage in high-performance driving and elevating her track skills. She also plans to earn a master’s degree in transportation design, continue to develop new technologies at JPL, and dive deeper in reporting and promoting car culture.

Go ahead and call her a designer, a technologist, a car fanatic or a role model. For Kalayjian, her journey of discovery and excellence has just begun.

“I’m just going to continue taking this thing for a ride and see where it takes me next.”

Did You Know?

Justin RezvaniCal Poly Pomona has two alumni — both from the College of Business Administration — on recent Forbes 30 Under 30 lists. In 2017, Justin Rezvani (’11, marketing management) was named to the list in the Marketing and Advertising category. Rezvani co-founded theAmplify, an influencer-marketing tech platform that links major brands to content creators globally. He serves as a member of the College of Business Administration’s Dean’s Advisory Council, where he lends his tech-management expertise to the advancement of business students.

“It is a true privilege to congratulate Emma and Justin on their achievements. These honors exemplify the impact that our graduates are having, and also how CBA is building business leaders of today and tomorrow. I can’t wait to see more CBA alumni on this esteemed list!” says Erik Rolland, dean of the College of Business Administration.

By Allen Lu
Published March 26, 2021