The anatomy and evolution of a diverse Hoosier’s STEM career and community
I am a woman in STEM—a diverse woman working in STEM careers in Indiana since 2000. STEM is the professional world I know and love. I enjoyed a first career as a molecular biologist and clinical research scientist at Eli Lilly and Company doing work that I believe helped improve lives. I also appreciated the unimaginable opportunities being a Lilly scientist provided me to travel the world, present my research, and be legitimized as a scientific expert. During that time, I built my reputation as a STEM professional and was globally recognized as an advocate for women and diversity in the STEM fields.
After a little more than a decade as a scientist, however, I discovered that I wanted more challenges and fulfillment in my career. Emphasizing the importance of mentors, I was introduced to my second career as an intellectual property (IP) and patent attorney by a diverse female attorney. As any good scientist would, I researched for a year before deciding to attend law school at night while working full-time during the day. With a husband, a child, and a mortgage, I graduated law school a semester early, and left Lilly to practice law at Barnes & Thornburg LLP (B&T).
I was also encouraged by a diverse male mentor who convinced me that I could establish a promising legal career as an IP attorney at B&T. I was reluctant. I had heard the horror stories of how some law firms treated their associates, particularly women and people of color. I was both, and coming from a corporate environment where I had enjoyed overwhelming support from both male and female supervisors, most of whom were not diverse. The prospect of going into what I assumed was one of these demanding, dog-eat-dog legal practices that was knowingly going to mistreat me was daunting. But, I went!
Surprisingly at B&T, I found a place where I could express my uniqueness and demonstrate my authenticity, while delivering exceptional legal and client services. You see, beyond my scientific and legal expertise, I’m actually a pretty cool sista with swag, spunk, the gift of gab, and a sincere enjoyment of people—all people, different people, interesting people. The conscious or unconscious biases of many often dictate that these characteristics just don’t go together in a single package.
All too often, the authenticity of women, especially diverse women, presents an insurmountable barrier to opportunities or advancement throughout their STEM career regardless of their depth and breadth of STEM expertise or experience. While I am grateful that this has not been my overall experience, I too have fallen victim to perceived career derailment due to the biases of others. It hurts, bad. And in those situations when you get knocked down, you need support and affirmation to get back up.
Unforeseeably, what I also found at B&T (a long-time organization sponsor), was my Women & Hi Tech family. Women & Hi Tech was the first non-profit organization whose mission aligned with my personal goal of supporting and advocating for women in STEM. I was excited to join its board of directors and the leadership team that would implement programming and determine the strategic direction of this fine organization.
In 2014, Women & Hi Tech was active in the community and doing great work, but was still relatively unknown. Throughout its history, most likely due to the composition of the board, Women & Hi Tech had primarily focused on two facets of women in STEM—women in technology and Caucasian or non-diverse women. However, with the addition of me and a few other diverse women on the Board, the organization’s focus began to expand beyond women in tech to include all women in STEM. It was around 2017 that I began to bring attention and raise awareness as to how Women & Hi Tech could become an even more diverse and inclusive organization.
My strategy included hosting Women & Hi Tech’s first “Special Edition Executive Women’s Forum” to discuss the disparity of diversity amongst women in STEM in 2018. That same year, Women & Hi Tech co-hosted the second annual “Ignite Your Superpower” (IYS) event to expose students to STEM careers and professionals, including diverse girls at IPS, Lawrence, and Warren Township middle schools. Later that year, the board voted to change our mission statement to reflect our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion of all women in STEM.
Since that time, Women & Hi Tech has established infrastructure and provided programming and events to our Indiana STEM community designed to be inclusive of all women in all facets of STEM. This year, the board also participated in the “Interrupting Racism for Our Children” training to teach us how bias and racism are institutionalized in American systems, so that we can avoid similar inequities and disparities in our own organization.
Over my six year tenure, Women & Hi Tech has made exceptional strides to implement actions that support our value of diversity, equity, and inclusion of all women in STEM. In doing so, I believe Women & Hi Tech has become a recognized leader in our city and statewide community that fuels and funds our female STEM talent pipeline. As the first African-American and diverse president, I am pleased to have had the opportunity to lead this organization during this time of transition, and to ensure that equity and inclusion is foundational to all of our policies, procedures, and programming going forward.
To this end, on October 1, 2020, Women & Hi Tech will host the 20th Anniversary of its inaugural Leading Light Awards and Scholarship Gala (LLAs). At the 2020 LLAs, Women & Hi Tech will recognize outstanding achievements of women in STEM, and introduce two new awards—the OperationALLTM Male Allies award and the “Equity & Inclusion” Champion award. Women & Hi Tech will also award over $35,000 in scholarships and grants to women and girls pursuing STEM in Indiana through our #LLA20for20 campaign. All Hoosier women and girls pursuing STEM, particularly diverse females, are strongly encouraged to apply!