Alumna’s journey: From chemical engineering to finance

Faculty of Engineering
Chemical and Biological Engineering
Sandra Odendahl and Dean Jacques Beauvais
Sandra Odendahl (BASc in chemical engineering), who’s built an outstanding career in finance, shares her story, and offers advice to current engineering students.

When people hear the word “engineering,” they often associate it with design, construction and problem-solving in fields such as technology, infrastructure, or machinery. That’s part of what engineers do — but not all.  

This is the story of one remarkable alumna, Sandra Odendahl, who studied chemical engineering at uOttawa and is currently senior vice president and head, sustainability, diversity, and partnerships, at BDC.  

Odendahl leads all facets of BDC’s corporate sustainability and environmental, social and governance strategy and programs. “When I tell people that I’m an engineer but have mostly worked in banking and finance, most are surprised. But the fact is that there are a fair number of engineers working in finance, law, health, management consulting….” says Odendahl. 

After receiving her Bachelor of Applied Science, with a certificate in management, in 1987, Odendahl earned a master’s in applied science at the University of Toronto. She began her career in the natural resources sector, where she worked as an environmental scientist and engineer with a burning interest in sustainability, in Toronto and Vancouver. 

Odendahl knew that to build a career and live a life with purpose and impact, you have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone. She worked as a risk analyst in the banking sector, to understand how resource projects get financed. This position, which she initially saw as a detour before returning to her field of expertise, has been the springboard for a successful career spanning more than 25 years in finance, including leading enterprise-wide sustainability, environmental and social risk management and social finance programs and strategies at two of Canada’s chartered banks.   

A committed community volunteer, Odendahl has enjoyed serving on non-profit boards, expert panels, and advisory groups throughout her career.  She has received several honours for her contributions to creating more stable, sustainable, and inclusive communities, including the 2023 Faculty of Engineering Alumni Award of Excellence for her trailblazing work in sustainable finance and volunteer efforts. 

Sandra Odendahl on the podium
Alumni voices

“If you study engineering or computer science, you can work anywhere.”

Sandra Odendahl

— BASc in chemical engineering

Advice for current engineering students

A proud, passionate alumna, Odendahl has volunteered for and supported numerous Faculty initiatives. At the 2023 Ceremony of Excellence, she delivered a keynote in which she offered this advice to undergraduate and graduate students, based on her own career. 

  1. Try stuff.

    Scientists and engineers are very versatile because they have three superpowers: problem-solving, math, system-thinking. Don’t be afraid to try new things, especially now when you’re young. Remember that almost nothing is irreversible. 

  2. Put people before information and things.

    It’s good to be smart, it’s nice to be right, but if you’re going to be a change agent, if you’re going to make a difference and get big things done, you need allies beside you, you need followers behind you and you need sponsors to help clear the path ahead of you. Success is a team sport. So, get to know people, build relationships, and put people first. 

  3. Choose your life partner wisely.

    If you’re going to succeed in your work, if you’re going to accomplish big things in your community, you’ll have to work hard. And if you intend to work hard but also enjoy family life, your partner will play an enormous role in enabling your success. The right partner also provides perspective when you need it, reminding you that there’s more to life than work.  And of course, you’ll return that support to them when they need it to accomplish their goals. 

  4. Speak up.

    Speak up when you see injustice, unethical behaviour, or an opportunity to do things differently. Speak up respectfully and with facts in hand. But don’t stop there.  You also have what it takes to help assess the problem, propose solutions, and then roll up your sleeves and help implement the change that needs to happen.

  5. Be deliberate about giving back.

    You’re among the lucky ones. You’re smart, you’re educated, you know how to work hard. You have a lot to give, and it’s never too early to start giving back. Your education will offer you unique opportunities to give back through your professional career.  But there’s more you can do.  You may not be able to donate money just yet (!), but your time and your skills are very valuable, and you should think about how to share them for the greater good. Volunteering adds richness, meaning and purpose to your own life, and enriches the lives of others.