I’m a black engineer and these are three ways I’ve learned to overcome career odds

By Tony Mitchell

Engineering is in my DNA. But as an African American, I may never have turned my natural aptitude into successfully doing my life’s work at the technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton if I hadn’t found it within myself to seize every chance I had to expand my network, be mentored, and keep learning.

Unfortunately, too few members of certain minority communities get the opportunity to develop their own DNA and participate in STEM careers today. Blacks and Hispanics are particularly underrepresented, overall, in the STEM workforce, according to Pew Research Center. Of all adults 25 and older who are employed in STEM jobs, 69% are white, while just 9% are black, and 7% are Hispanic. Among those in engineering jobs, the disparities are even wider, with 73% white, 5% black, and 8% Hispanic.

This lack of diversity must be changed. Study after study has shown that the strength of an organization is highly influenced by the diversity of life experience and thinking of its members. Diversity is just good business. When it comes to STEM talent, I believe it’s a national imperative.

Recently, I received the Black Engineer of the Year Award, the 33rd engineer to win this distinction out of more than 10,000 nominated since 1986. It was an emotional evening, and as I accepted my award, I wondered about the foundation for the next generation of engineers. By sharing my 30-year journey–where I’ve worked across all of Booz Allen Hamilton’s market sectors and now lead its Justice, Homeland Security, and Transportation business–I hope I can encourage other aspiring STEM workers to take control of their own careers.

The foundation of my STEM career was built very early on. I grew up in a large family with parents who set high expectations. My father was a pastor, but he was also a skilled machinist. My mother was a homemaker, seamstress, and “first lady” in our church. They taught us the values of faith, hard work, and continuous learning. They supported my siblings and me by working multiple jobs, so as a child I often found myself out on “projects” with my father, which is where I learned to tinker. Only later did I realize that I had a knack for fixing things that grew as I was exposed to more in the classroom and in my grandfather’s garage. Here’s what I suspected years ago and know with absolute certainty today: I like figuring out how stuff works and solving problems. It’s what makes me tick.

While I benefitted from this solid family foundation, the broader problem for others is that few minorities are exposed to–much less encouraged to explore–STEM fields to find it within themselves. When I do mentor others, I offer this advice:

 

Find mentors who look and think like you, as well as at least one who does not

Many STEM professionals encounter similar obstacles throughout their careers, but minorities face unique challenges, from implicit bias and unequal pay to different cultural values. A mentor who is a minority leader already knows how to navigate these challenges. But no one should work in a silo. So finding a mentor that thinks or has a different cultural or economic background from you will expose you to new concepts that will challenge your assumptions and expand your horizons.

Learn everything

There is no adequate substitute for a degree from an accredited university. And STEM graduates often earn a higher starting salary than the average graduate. But all STEM professionals should educate themselves throughout their careers, whether with employer-sponsored certification programs and outside organizations or through independent intellectual curiosity. The rate of technological innovation is only increasing, so you must stay relevant.

Expect more of yourself

If you push yourself beyond what you thought possible, you can achieve more than you ever imagined. And beyond your own achievements, you have the capacity to be part of the foundation for those less privileged than you and different from you. Whether it’s mentoring subordinates or coworkers, sponsoring a high school-level robotics team, or tutoring young students through foundational STEM coursework, you have the power to make a significant difference in the lives of individuals and the nation’s growing need for STEM talent.

I’m excited about the future of engineering. The interplay between accelerated growth in computing power, bandwidth, and artificial intelligence is already changing our economy. With a more diverse pool of talent, we can grow the ranks of STEM professionals and take full advantage of the potential innovations that engineering careers can contribute to our society and our economy.


Tony Mitchell is an executive vice president at the global technology firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

 
 

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