When I was in eighth grade, I visited IBM as part of a youth STEM program. The keynote speaker was a female engineer. For a girl that grew up under the hood of a car in her dad’s automotive shop, that woman was bigger than life. I had never seen a female engineer before, and I remember thinking “I want to do that.”
I knew it would be difficult—as a woman, as an African-American woman—to break into a field so dominated by men. One pivotal moment for me was attending Milwaukee Trade and Technical High school—as one of just six women in a class of 150 pre-engineering students. I didn’t let it deter me. Instead, it sparked something in me that I carry to this day: a drive to always innovate, always explore, always discover.
Over the years, I’ve tried to remain true to those ambitions, and I’ve learned some incredibly valuable lessons from some great mentors. Turns out those lessons were not so much what to do, but what NOT to do.
Yes, these apply to women, and women engineers, and women of color. But, really, they’re important for anyone who wants to get out of their own way and maximize their opportunities.
Several years into my career, I was working at an automotive company. As a girl that grew up tinkering with cars, it was a job that totally won me over. We had over 10,000 acres of test tracks, and I was responsible for testing vehicles and figuring out how to fix any defects. I remember calling my dad and telling him “I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this. I would do this for free.”
There I was, a young woman of color, working in a male-dominated job in a male-dominated industry—and I was killin’ it, if I do say so myself. Sure, I’m a geek—I take that as a compliment. But I truly loved what I did (still do!), and it’s a great feeling. One that is too rare.
If we want to innovate and explore and discover, we need to bring more women to the table—not just because we represent 50% of the population, but because we bring skills and perspectives and energy and ideas that can change the world.