Dr Olester Benson is staff scientist and group leader for microreplication processing in the corporate research process lab of 3M (St. Paul, MN). It's a position with a broad vantage point.
The corporate research lab develops and transfers technology, and identifies technology developed in various 3M labs that have applications in other labs. "We are the Rosetta stone of technology," says Benson with a smile. "We don't do the basic product development that happens in the business units, but we understand it. Many times, two people may have the same problem in different parts of the company and we help broker a technology transfer."
3M is a global technology enterprise characterized by substantial intercompany cooperation in research, manufacturing and marketing of products. Its six business segments increase speed and efficiency by sharing resources. Its products are offered in areas including consumer and office, display and graphics, electro and communications, healthcare, industrial and security.
Highest tech position
Benson has led the micro-replication processing group since 1990, adding the staff scientist title in 2005. He is the highest-placed African American in a technical position at the company.
"The manager who hired me told me that I would have an opportunity to develop new things, and I've done that. But right now I'm more concerned with expanding my technology platform into more divisions and building really good connections to help develop new products and people," he says.
For example, his current project involves commercializing a technology he patented years ago. It's just one of many patents he's received over the years.
Having been with the company since 1988, Benson considers himself a priceless asset: "I know where all the equipment is!" he says with a smile.
He remembers a time when two new hires from another research group in his organization came to him for help. "Their manager is an ME who hired two chemists to help him. His office isn't even in this building," Benson says. "They were trying to learn how to navigate the organization. I knew that our lab had equipment they needed sitting idle, so I helped them get their lab set up faster."
Benson manages people that way, too. From his position, he can see roles for techies that neither they nor their bosses have envisioned. Many people from his group have gone on to other 3M labs and business units.
"We have young scientists and engineers that can set this company on fire," he says. "They may have a really good career in one division or be better utilized somewhere else."
Benson was one of those red-hot techies when he joined 3M as a senior research chemist with a brand-new PhD in physical organic chemistry. He actually had offers from four areas in 3M. He chose the corporate lab because of its broad overview and the match between its work and his interests.
"This organization really fits my personality and the things I like doing," he says. "It is very interdisciplinary."
He joined during a time of change at the lab, and the manager encouraged Benson to meet people and find out what was going on. The connections he made then have helped him ever since.
"I talked to people who sent me to other people. In that first year I was growing a large network. It was really, really critical."
New product development
It wasn't all networking, of course. Benson got his lab set up and began research in photochemistry.
Among his developments is flexible Scotchlite high gloss reflective sheeting, which has safety and security applications. He and his colleagues developed brightness enhancing and prismatic reflective polarizer films now used in notebook computers and handheld display devices such as cell phones.
Benson took a complicated route to his present career. He was the third of ten children, raised by his grandparents in St. Petersburg, FL.
As a kid he helped his grandmother in her beauty shop. As he got older he worked in his grandfather's barbershop.
"In the 1960s, the churches, barbershops and beauty shops were still central hubs of black communities," he says. "I got a chance to know a lot of people in town." And most of them thought he had lots of intelligence and talent.
"Potential is a great burden," Benson says with a chuckle. "It's a challenge to live up to the expectations of others."
He started college in premed, moved to marine biology, then left in favor of working. His short-term jobs included a stint as a freelance photographer for a local newspaper. But none of this satisfied him.
In the Army
"I decided to do something radically different," he says. He joined the new, all-volunteer Army. And, appreciating the Army's emphasis on discipline and education, he returned to school. Through all his duty assignments, in California, Washington State, Germany and Texas, he continued taking classes.
His last posting, in Colorado, was long enough to complete a 1981 BA in chemistry at the University of Colorado. He passed a critical graduate school exam the same day he completed his term of enlistment, and went on to a 1986 MS in physical organic chemistry and his 1988 PhD.
In all, Benson spent eleven years on active duty and thirteen years in the reserves. In the Army he was trained as an infantryman, medical technician and pharmacy specialist, earning the rank of master sergeant. In the reserves he was an instructor and leadership training director for Army Reserve and National Guard NCOs.
Benson is still learning, taking business classes at Century College (White Bear Lake, MN). Now, he says, he understands why his photography business failed years ago when he was a teen. More to the point, he has a better understanding and appreciation for business decisions at 3M.
Benson sometimes serves as an on-campus recruiter at the University of Colorado and Colorado State University. He also works with the 3M Science Training and Encouragement Program (STEP), which offers classes in science and engineering, and good summer jobs to kids in inner-city St. Paul high schools.
He runs lab tours for the kids and gets his colleagues involved. "We're here to show them that being smart and articulate is good," he says. He's proud that many of them have gone on to careers in science and engineering.
Preparing for the future
Benson's job presents him with constant challenges, but he finds that every challenge strengthens him for the future. "Things we were working on ten or fifteen years ago are starting to come to fruition because we stayed the course," he says.
Benson notes that 3M has a strong commitment to diversity. "People don't come to the organization to fail. I'm a teacher and encourager. It's part of leadership to help them be successful.
"3M wants to hire problem-solvers. We do good science, and the reason we're doing it is to generate revenue." 3M is, after all, a business, Dr Benson declares.