Lessons Learned During a Career in Photonics

From an interview with Luminate Board Member, Jenifer Bunis

Growing up in Buffalo, NY and attending an all-girls high school, Jenifer Bunis never thought she’d end up climbing the ladder in the male-dominated photonics and laser industry. But, as the saying goes, we make our own luck.

Today, Bunis runs consulting firm, Westlake Photonics, and serves on the Luminate Advisory Board among the who’s-who in optics. Her many professional accomplishments are the product of trusting her gut, making connections, and continuing to hustle. She has plenty of words of wisdom for current students, recent graduates, and entrepreneurs.

Follow your instincts towards where you are meant to be.

Back in high school, Bunis’ chemistry teacher noticed her aptitude for the sciences and encouraged her to pursue a degree in chemical engineering at the University of Rochester. Her program there afforded her the opportunity to take seminars in a variety of disciplines — which made her realize that chemical engineering was not really for her.

It was pure serendipity when she noticed an upperclassman holding an optics textbook and asked him what optics was. Learning that the U of R was “the place for optics,” she switched her major.

Preparation is essential. Do your homework.  If you can’t be prepared, be overprepared!

With a great deal of hard work, Bunis landed two summer internships — one on campus with a professor in the thin film coating lab, and the other one with Texas Instruments in Dallas, TX. Bunis knew she had found her calling. These internships gave her real life, hands-on optics experience that made her marketable to potential employers. In fact, after graduation, she received six job offers in multiple U.S. cities.

Bunis accepted a position with the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, which involved hands-on work with lasers and another realization: she loved working with lasers, but she preferred working with people.

Stay flexible, be versatile, and learn as much as you can. The more you know, the more valuable you are.

Bunis left the Lincoln Lab after wowing a small Boston laser manufacturer who created an application engineer position just for her, one that combined technical work with customer-facing opportunities. She learned all about the company and wore many different hats.

When the company was acquired and all positions were eliminated, her boss — knowing her work ethic and abilities — recommended her for a job in California with a former competitor. Simultaneously, while reading an industry newsletter, a two-line ad for a sales engineer position at Synrad in Seattle caught her eye.

Always follow up. Persistence will serve you well.

Bunis Federal Expressed her resume and, feeling the position was a perfect match to her skill set, called to follow up when she hadn’t heard back. It was a small company, and she was able to speak to the owner who said he never received her resume. She sent it again, shared her experience with him, and he agreed she was a good match.

Jenifer Bunis holding a 10 Watt CO2 Laser with a scanning head behind her. Photo taken by Larry Lisk, a Synrad employee, circa 1995.

Bunis remained at Synrad for twenty years, rising through the ranks from sales engineer to Executive Vice President. Her solid technical background combined with management and sales experience allowed her to navigate the technical aspects of the company while communicating with those less tech-savvy. During her time at Synrad, the company went from $2-3 million in revenue to over $60 million.

Following her work at Synrad and a two-year sabbatical, Bunis spent a year as the VP of Business Development at a laser beam delivery company. From there, she became the first female board member at Rofin Sinar, one of the leading laser manufacturers in the world with U.S. headquarters in Detroit.

When Rofin Sinar was acquired by Coherent in 2016, Bunis knew she wanted to remain in the OPI field. She went on to found Westlake Photonics, an umbrella company offering a variety of photonics-related services, including business development, sales management, laser training, strategic advising, M&A, talent acquisition, and many others.

Through her mentorship on the Luminate Advisory Board, Bunis serves as a model of a strong female business leader. She values diverse perspectives and in sharing her experience with Luminate’s female-led startups, she supports continued change in the industry.

Bunis’ final piece of advice is a reflection of her professional journey:

Opportunities always present themselves. Say yes whenever you can.