Women of color do great work in engineering
The number of women of color in technical positions is on the rise, although not as fast as many would like
These nine women are making strong contributions in interesting technical jobs
By Claire Swedberg
A study by the National Science Foundation in conjunction with the Division of Science Resources Statistics and the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor found that the proportion of engineering jobs held by minority women increased marginally between 1989 and 2008: from 2 to 3 percent. The number of women of color in technical positions is on the rise, but not as fast as many would like.
That's why colleges, corporations and government agencies are busy exposing minority women to technical careers even before they start high school. They aim to increase the diversity and ultimately improve the effectiveness of companies and the industries they represent.
In the meantime, remedying the under-representation of minority women remains a focus for companies and their diversity departments. And the women of color who have achieved success are highly valued by the companies that employ them.
Felisha Washington is working at BNSF Railway
As manager of technology service for BNSF Railway Co (formerly Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Fort Worth, TX), Felisha Washington provides IT leadership for apps development to support the company's real estate and resource protection, as well as finance, corporate auditing and sourcing. She partners with business units to identify, develop and implement IT opportunities.
"In high school I programmed a tutorial game, and decided that computer programming was my future," Washington recalls. She investigated programming careers, as well as college courses and the colleges that offered a CS major. She still uses this investigative approach today as her career evolves.
In 1994 Washington completed a BS in computer science at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff. In college she worked as an intern, first at the Federal Aviation Admin and then at Los Alamos National Laboratory. After graduation she went to work as a program analyst at American Management Systems in Birmingham, AL; two years later she joined Policy Management Systems, Columbia, SC, as a senior programmer analyst.
In 1999 Washington moved to System & Computer Technology, also in Columbia, and in 2000 she became a Web developer for Springbow Solutions, Inc in Irving, TX.
She joined BNSF Railway in 2001 as a senior system developer II. Soon she was leading a team of five, implementing releases of the company's planning and activity reporting system server used by more than 1,500 employees. In 2005 she became the Kansas City server migration project lead, working to retire, migrate, enhance or rewrite about thirty business apps and servers.
In 2007 Washington moved to a project to optimize train movement and planning. As Electronic Train Graph (ETG)/Movement Planner project lead for technology services she oversaw a three-year R&D effort, coordinating five cross-functional technical teams and several business teams to implement a toolset that improved overall train velocity and made scheduling more accurate and efficient.
In 2010 she was recognized with a BNSF achievement award for the ETG/Movement Planner project, and in 2011 she was promoted to manager of technology services.
Washington is active in her local community. For the last eight years she's served as a lead for the BNSF-sponsored annual Technology Awareness Day. The event reaches more than 300 high school students in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, creating awareness about career opportunities in technology, engineering and other fields. "If they get one thing from this program, whether they win a prize or get info on a college they want to contact, I've met my personal goal: to reach out and make sure that we open doors in technology for these students," she says.
Washington has used her leadership skills to advance her career, and looks for the same skills in others. "When I interview people I look for examples of driving for results, meeting customer expectations and working with diverse team members," she says. And when she asks a question, she listens very carefully to the answer: "Communicating effectively is the key to growing in leadership," she says.
At Raytheon, Dr Reneé Rodgers is a senior multidiscipline engineer
With a focus on defense technology, Reneé Rodgers, PhD is a senior multidiscipline engineer at Raytheon Missile Systems (Tucson, AZ). Rodgers earned her BS in aerospace engineering at Tuskegee University (Tuskegee, AL) in 1995 and completed her PhD in material science engineering there in 2007.
Once she got her BS, Rodgers went to work as an engineer associate at Cessna Aircraft Co (Wichita, KS). She began by designing interiors for business jets using 3-D modeling programs. But, she says, "I knew I wanted to get a graduate degree to give myself the opportunity to be flexible." A graduate degree in material science, she felt, could broaden her horizons.
In 2004 Rodgers moved to Raytheon as a senior multidiscipline engineer, pursuing her doctorate at the same time. When she arrived, her job was to define and identify advanced composite materials, and help bring conceptual material designs to life.
Today, she identifies and researches materials that improve the structure and functionality of missiles, with a focus on advanced nanotechnology. One of her collaborative research efforts resulted in a U.S. patent in 2010, and distinguished Rodgers as the first African American female to receive a patent at Raytheon Missile Systems.
As a project manager, Rodgers oversees teams that include suppliers and an in-house test group. "I like to see team-oriented people who focus on a good result," Rodgers says. "It's important for people to have flexibility that can drive a team toward a conclusion."
Rodgers urges techies to "be tenacious and flexible." She notes that companies are making greater efforts to increase their diversity, not just in ethnic background and gender but also where people grew up and what their working styles are. "If you have a diverse team you will get better results," she says.
Kristen Buckley, senior human resources manager, agrees that diversity at Raytheon is about inclusiveness. "Raytheon is committed to building an inclusive culture in the workplace: a diverse range of world-class talent to maximize the potential of the company," she says.
Lakecia Gunter's team supports Intel's validation tool
At Intel Corp (Santa Clara, CA), validation engineering manager Lakecia Gunter oversees a team of engineers responsible for development, delivery and support of Intel's primary random instruction test (RIT) tool used to validate the company's IA32-based microprocessor products.
Gunter earned her BS in computer engineering at the University of South Florida in 1995 and a 1996 MSEE at the Georgia Institute of Technology. When she finished grad school, "I knew I wanted to do something in consumer electronics where I could see how my work benefited others in everyday life," she says. Gunter began her career at Motorola, now Freescale Semiconductors (Austin, TX). She started in a rotational program, and then moved into a digital logic design group, where she developed microcontrollers for the automotive industry. She developed modules for air bags, antilock braking systems and body electronics for cars.
The work included participating in customer concept reviews, developing the module specification and architectural definitions, designing the module in RTL, and verification testing.
A year later Gunter was promoted to project manager at Motorola, supporting a design for an airbag controller. She collaborated with global design centers in Munich, Hong Kong and elsewhere to determine design methodologies, chip feature sets, tool sets, product apps and device architecture.
In 2004 Gunter moved to the Department of Defense (DoD) as a civilian program manager, working at the AF Materiel Command at Eglin AFB in Florida. She was a systems engineer, and later a civilian program manager.
"Many of my colleagues were prior military personnel, so clearly I was an outsider," she says. "But it was very exciting. Each and every day people came to work with the clear mission to protect the warfighter. The work we did was critical and we were excited that we could bring our warfighters home safely."
Gunter liked her DoD work, but when she was asked to interview for a job at Intel she couldn't resist. New at Intel, she found a strong mentor in her validation engineering manager, but six months later her treasured mentor was lost in a plane crash. "She was a strong advocate for women in engineering, and passionate about education," Gunter recalls.
Gunter was honored when she was asked to be the new manager of the validation engineering team. Why was she chosen? "We felt you were the most like her," the execs said.
At Intel today Gunter's team is responsible for developing a next-gen functional test tool, Intel's corporation-wide standard for functional validation. The development work is distributed among teams at Intel sites in the U.S., Israel, India and Malaysia.
"My developers often work across many projects," Gunter says. "I have no problem setting the pace; I love developing a high-performing team."
Gunter, always a hard worker, is leveraging her ability to develop teams, integrate with diverse cultures and create a community of collaboration. Her team has received several awards for its work.
Gunter thinks diversity helps a company "transform its landscape for global success, and provides a competitive advantage in the marketplace." As for women going into engineering today, "I encourage them to open their minds to all the possibilities in technology. You can have fun and still develop products and services that have far-reaching impacts."
Dr Carlonda R. Reilly: senior research manager for DuPont Central R&D
In her fifteen years at DuPont Company (Wilmington, DE), Carlonda Reilly, PhD has worked in technology, marketing and business management.
She began with a 1990 bachelors in ChE from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and went on to a 1992 MS and 1996 PhD in ChE from the University of Delaware. She did her doctoral thesis research in catalysis and reaction engineering.
The new Dr Reilly joined DuPont as a research engineer, working on the development of chemical and agrichemical processes. Four years later she moved to her first management role as manufacturing technology supervisor at a DuPont Fluoroproducts manufacturing site. She led the plant engineers and chemists who supported commercial production of several fluorochemicals.
In 2002 Reilly was promoted again, to engineering manager in the engineering division. Two years later she moved up to become global technology manager for DuPont Fluoropolymer Solutions. She led a global organization in research, application development, product scale-up and technical service for the Teflon Finishes businesses.
Next, she took on bottom-line P&L responsibility for Teflon Finishes in several global marketing and business manager positions. She was also strategic business planning manager for DuPont Titanium Technologies, leading a management team in development of short- and long-term business strategy.
In 2010 Reilly became a research manager in DuPont Central R&D. She directs an organization of about sixty scientists and engineers in specialties like composite materials, organic and polymer synthesis, process chemistry and engineering, and renewable materials. Her organization supports growth and innovation initiatives for five DuPont businesses.
Reilly has traveled around the world to DuPont and customer sites in Asia, eastern and western Europe and South America. "At DuPont, our work starts with our core values," Reilly says. "The commitments to safety and health, environmental stewardship, highest ethical behavior and respect for people are paramount."
As a trained scientist Reilly has learned to apply technology in a way that helps solve complex problems. "I've utilized those skills, along with my intense desire to understand our customers' needs, to help develop products that hopefully make a difference in the marketplace," she concludes.
Considering DuPont? "Think about the work you like to do"
Tara Condon-Tullier is DuPont global HR communications manager. She notes that people like Reilly, who achieve great success at DuPont, tend to demonstrate creativity in problem-solving.
"An engineer might start a career at a plant site helping produce some of our key products. She could also join our central research division to do fundamental or applied research, solving some of the great challenges of our decade."
Going into an interview, Condon-Tullier's advice is to "Think about the type of work you like to do and be able to articulate it. Knowing something about our company is also a key plus. Being able to demonstrate clear examples of your leadership and ability to work effectively on teams is very important at DuPont.
"One of our core values at DuPont is respect for all people. That is the very fabric of who we are at DuPont. We embrace diversity of all types to bring the best and more creative mix of skills and talents to our team, and as an integral part of achieving our directives," Condon-Tullier concludes.
Rita Sherman is a Harris RF EE manager
Rita Sherman, EE manager at wireless communications company Harris RF Communications, began with a 1984 BS in mechanical and systems engineering from Oakland University (Rochester, MI), a 1991 MBA from Northeastern University (Boston, MA) and a 1992 MSEE from the University of Rochester, NY. From 1984 to 1991 she worked with software development groups, first at Xerox and then at HP.
When she completed her MBA in 1991 she returned to Xerox as manager of shop floor controls deployment at the company's Webster, NY location. She developed and deployed localized control software systems for company manufacturing sites in Rochester, NY, France, Mexico and Holland. She also used her business background to develop a marketing campaign for Xerox, including technical info, cost analysis, and a value proposition for selling control systems to other manufacturing facilities.
In 1995 Sherman moved into QA and engineering as a manager, overseeing a team that designed tool suites to help the company with problems related to specific products. By 1998 she was ready for a new challenge, working on the products themselves rather than tools for internal use.
In 2002 she put her MBA to work in the Xerox office in Henrietta, NY. As manager of business analysis she developed marketing plans and competitive analyses, and served as liaison between the strategy and technical sides.
In 2005 Sherman returned to the Webster office to manage research funding prioritization, marketing technologies to the business teams and supporting third party partner negotiations, drawing from both her business and technical skills.
And in 2008 Sherman moved into her current job at Harris RF in Rochester. As manager of advanced development she helps in strategic planning of a technology portfolio to determine which projects have most value and how to move them forward.
"Harris has a very different culture from Xerox," Sherman says. "Because Harris produces communications equipment for people who serve our country, employees know their work saves lives."
Throughout her career Sherman has looked for new challenges every few years. That, she believes, has kept her learning and interested in her work. "An engineering background is the best preparation I know for understanding how to solve problems," she says. She advises engineers to mix technical experience with business to gain a broader understanding of what the engineering work is intended to accomplish.
Her managerial style is inclusive: "I always like to make sure everyone is enjoying what they do. You won't get the best from people if they're stressed," she confides.
During managerial training long ago Sherman heard an instructor advise, "Whatever you do, take care of the people first and the rest will fall into place."
"I follow that advice, and I think I've been pretty successful at it," she says.
Su Kyeong Cho is a project and systems lead for Chrysler Group product development IT
Working in the automotive industry, Su Kyeong Cho is digital manufacturing project and systems lead for the product development IT group at Chrysler Group LLC (Auburn Hills, MI). She was born in South Korea and earned her BS, MS and her 2000 PhD at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (Daejeon, Korea).
After completing the PhD Cho worked for a software company developing computer-aided manufacturing software. In the year she was there she helped develop 3D image reconstruction from 2D X-ray and scanned CT images for colonoscopy procedures.
From there she moved on to a job in the U.S. as an engineer at Chrysler Group HQ. She had done projects with Korean auto companies as a student, and developed an interest in computer-aided design and manufacturing for the auto industry.
In school Cho had studied reverse engineering and was eager to practice her skills at Chrysler Group. Her first job involved applying reverse engineering to power-train engine development, working on a component of the intake port inside the engine cylinder. Next she led a multidisciplinary project to optimize airflow by changing the shape of the intake port and combustion chamber, using design and simulation software.
In 2006 Cho's work expanded to the overall engine, with a focus on the torque converter, and she also contributed simulation work to Chrysler Group's centers of competence.
Today she's leading a project to create a simulated manufacturing process for Fiat and Chrysler Group. She works with the "body in white," the stage where the car body's sheet-metal components have been welded.
Cho says math is still at the core of the skill set she uses on the job. "I'm glad I have a math background for deep thinking and logical thinking skills," she says.
In school her work focused on abstract concepts, but she likes the solidity of actual manufacturing. "We make a car and it's something real I can touch. It's been a great experience for me," she says.
Megan Brown is senior environmental engineer at Philadelphia Gas Works
With a background in the earth sciences and a focus on utilities, Megan Brown takes a technical approach to natural challenges as senior environmental engineer at Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW).
She got her BSChE from the University of Florida in 1992, did some grad study in environmental law at Pennsylvania State University (Malvern, PA) and earned an executive MBA at Drexel University (Philadelphia, PA) in 2007. She also had an international leadership residency at Peking University (Beijing, China) in 2007.
After earning her BS, Brown joined a small consulting firm in Florida, then returned to Philadelphia to interview for a job in environmental management with Pep Boys, the auto parts company. In that job she and a co-worker oversaw 525 sites across the U.S.
In 1996 she moved to Johnson Matthey (Wayne, PA), an advanced materials company, as senior quality control analyst. From 1998 to 2000 she was an environmental engineer at Mactec (Trenton, NJ), providing engineering consultancy to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJ DEP).
In 2000 Brown took a position with the NJ DEP as senior engineer in air quality permitting. She conducted technical reviews which led to a reduction of 115 tons of NOx per year. She also developed a special opacity monitoring and recordkeeping language for turbines operating at their peak.
At the agency, Brown led a number of teams, including one for the agency's Black History Month observance. She was chosen as a DEP leadership protégé; that involved writing articles and co-editing the agency's first electronic leadership newsletter.
In 2005 she returned to technology as the DEP's principal environmental engineer for air compliance and enforcement. She collaborated in the strategic planning process, negotiated permit conditions and built guidelines for compliance with air quality laws and regulations.
In 2008 Brown brought her experience to Philadelphia Gas Works. As senior environmental engineer there, she helps ensure the environmental compliance of PGW's natural gas facilities. She manages the recycling program, founded the organization's "green" team to execute sustainability initiatives, and developed a greenhouse gas management plan even before mandatory greenhouse gas reporting requirements went into effect. She also works with the company's marketing and engineering sectors on permitting issues. And she led a team of eighth-graders that won the 2010 Praxis Inc science fair competition. "I wear a lot of hats," she notes with a smile.
Brown is originally from Montego Bay, Jamaica. She is the co-chair of PGW's technical association, a member of the City of Philadelphia Mayor's Office of Sustainability working group, the Society of Women Environmental Professionals, the National Society of Black Engineers and the Energy Association of Pennsylvania.
"At PGW we have a diverse workforce and that has been our strength," she says. "When you have only similar people in a room that leads to 'group think,' but when there is diversity, everyone comes to the table with their own perspective. That leads to breakthrough ideas."
Irma Fuentes: CE with the U.S. Coast Guard
Irma Fuentes, now of the U.S. Coast Guard, began her career as a teacher in her native El Salvador. After she earned her teaching certificate she helped start up an urban school to educate poor kids. She became a member of a teachers' union, which put her on the wrong side during El Salvador's civil war of the 1970s. She was forced to flee to the U.S.
In a new country without family or friends she got to work on her language skills, cleaning offices by day and going to English classes at night. Soon she was ready for Hudson Community College, then Essex County Community College in New Jersey while working a fulltime factory job. In 1982 she graduated from Essex County with an associates degree in applied science in architecture and was given a scholarship to the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). She completed a BS in architecture in 1988.
In 1989 she went to work for the division of design and construction in New York City's department of housing preservation and development. She was an assistant architect and CADD programmer. In 1991 she was hired as a full architect at Carr Smith Associates (Miami, FL), doing electronic preparation and coordination of contract documents for commercial, institutional and transportation clients.
In 1992 Fuentes joined the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Coast Guard civil engineering unit (CEU, Miami, FL) as an architect, project manager and CADD manager, overseeing all phases of project development. She evaluates design and construction objectives and prepares design studies for new and existing construction in the Coast Guard's seventh and eighth districts.
CEU Miami provides engineering support for shore facilities. Today Fuentes' area of responsibility includes twenty-eight states plus Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. She supervises AutoCAD technicians and student interns and drafts contracts with commercial firms. "My section is responsible for providing drafting support for fifteen design engineers and architects," she explains.
After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Fuentes designed and managed projects at three of the most severely damaged sites: Base Mobile, Base Galveston and Station Sabine, with a combined construction estimate of $9.7 million. The work included 136 sheets of architectural and engineering drawings, part of the solicitation for construction services.
Fuentes also did assessments of Hurricane Wilma damages at Air Station Miami, and completed the design for roof repairs to hangars and the administration building. The storms, she notes, caused a five-times increase in the workload at CEU Miami; her efforts made a substantial impact in restoring Coast Guard operations.
Currently Fuentes is project manager for a major demolition project. "The construction industry is evolving in materials and equipment," she comments.
Throughout her career with the Coast Guard she has mentored architectural and engineering interns, both men and women. "It's invaluable for young women to participate in work study and intern development programs that expose them to other female professionals," Fuentes says.
Seana McNeal is an EE with the U.S. Air Force
Seana McNeal, with a 2006 BSEE from Ohio University and a 2008 MSEE from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, is an EE with the U.S. Air Force.
She got interested in computers in elementary school in Dayton, OH. While still in middle school she was accepted into Wright State University's summer engineering program. "This is when I decided I wanted to be an engineer and found the type of engineering I wanted to study," she says.
In college McNeal worked in the Air Force Research Lab's propulsion directorate at Wright Patterson AFB, learning about converters, printed circuit boards and transformer winding. When she got her BSEE the directorate brought her in to continue with the group where she'd been as a co-op. She's been with the agency for five years now.
McNeal works as an in-house researcher with a focus on power distribution and electrical power systems for aircraft. She still does experiments with DC/DC converters and power semiconductors, and also works as a program manager for outside contracts, evaluating proposals, checking schedules and providing technical guidance to contracting officers. "As an in-house researcher I focus on an element of a sub-system in order to promote improvements to future systems in aircraft," she explains. "As a program manager I am able to see the bigger picture and look at the aircraft and how the system fits in it."
McNeal says her mentor, Brett Jordan, and branch chief Joseph Weimer both tell her not to be afraid to ask questions. "That's how you can manage a program when the contractor knows more than you do about the technology," McNeal says.
And as she sees it, "Regardless of the situation you find yourself in, a positive attitude will help you get through it. Staying positive and organized will let you calm yourself and think of solutions to challenges and setbacks."
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