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Monday, February 2, 2015

African-Americans and STEM careers: Getting a foot in the door

By Sandra K. Johnson

African-Americans and STEM careers: Getting a foot in the doorTechnology leadership is driven by the innovation and creativity of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professionals. STEM careers offer some of the highest-paying jobs and the potential for a high quality of life. However, the realization of such promises has not benefited all segments of the U.S. population, including African-Americans. As we celebrate Black History Month, I share a few facts on this issue, suggest sources for solutions and profile African-American technology trailblazers.

Silicon Valley’s most innovative technology companies have reached phenomenal success levels. There are over 320 million people in the U.S.: 77.7 percent White, 17.1 percent Hispanic, 13.2 percent African-American, 5.3 percent Asian and 51 percent women, according to the U.S. Census. However, Silicon Valley technology companies have employee populations that are 64 percent White, 21 percent Asian, 6 percent Hispanic, 3 percent African-American and 6 percent other. This shows a 10-point gap in the African-American population.

Companies with employees from diverse backgrounds tend to be more creative and profitable. A large body of evidence exists to substantiate this assertion. Diverse collaborative teams leverage a broader perspective of experiences and ideas. They create more innovative products and services that appeal to a wider, global audience. Intel’s chief executive Brian Krzanich recently stated that “without a workforce that more closely mirrors the population, we are missing opportunities, including not understanding and designing for our own customers.”

This complex issue requires creative solutions. Some of the roadblocks include the relatively small pipeline of African-American STEM students, the lack of support and visibility of role models, and the hostile environments encountered by some students and professionals. A few solutions are listed here, including building relationships with schools with large African-American STEM student populations and requiring that candidates from diverse backgrounds be interviewed for STEM positions. From my own experience, a few years ago I spent two hours, over dinner, offering encouragement and advice to a discouraged, young African-American employee who was ready to quit. Within six months, she was the team leader for her department.

Listed below are additional, suggested actions for ruminating on potential solutions:

  • Attend the Black Engineer of the Year STEM Awards Conference. Some of the U.S.’ top technology leaders attend this annual event.
  • Attend the National Society of Black Engineers National Conference. NSBE is a student-run organization. Nearly 10,000 students attend this annual conference.
  • Ask some of the top global technology leaders who are African-American for input. Their trailblazing experiences and ideas can provide valuable insight. (You can start by contacting those profiled below or asking me).

Blazing the trail

Here are five technology trailblazers who walk among us. They have made valuable contributions to our global society and provide inspiration for many. We honor them as innovative African-Americans who have changed the world.

Faye A. Briggs, Ph.D., is a retired Intel Fellow, the company’s top technical position. He was the technical visionary behind Intel’s billion-dollar server business. Dr. Briggs co-founded Axil Computers, which designed and sold multiprocessor computers and storage systems. He is now the CEO and founder of Niminq Inc., a technology consulting firm, and an adjunct professor at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Mark Dean, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and a retired IBM Fellow, the company’s top technical position. He was also chief engineer for the development of several IBM PC offerings and holds three of the nine patents for the original IBM PC. This includes the Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) “bus,” earning him election to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Dr. Dean is also a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering.

Carol Y. Espy-Wilson, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Maryland, and director of the Speech Communication Laboratory. Dr. Espy-Wilson founded OmniSpeech LLC, a technology startup company with offerings to address the issue of background noise in cellphone conversations. She is a Fellow of the Acoustical Society of America.

Marc Hannah, Ph.D.co-founded Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI), a company that became well-known for its computer graphics technology. He was the company’s principal scientist, creating computer programs that were used to create effects for movies like “Jurassic Park,” “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Hunt for Red October,” and “Field of Dreams.” His programs have also been used to create television commercials and the opening introduction for Monday Night Football.

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., is the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). Dr. Jackson is a theoretical physicist and the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. from MIT in any field. She is the former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a member of several corporate boards and national and international advisory boards. She is also a former researcher at AT&T Bell Laboratories, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the American Physical Society.

What can you do in your organization to promote diversity? Can you share additional success stories? Who do you consider a technology trailblazer?

(This post was written as part of the Dell Insight Partners program, which provides news and analysis about the evolving world of tech. To learn more about tech news and analysis visit TechPageOne. Dell sponsored this article, but the opinions are my own and don’t necessarily represent Dell’s positions or strategies.)

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