In celebration of Black History Month, SWE will be highlighting African American women engineers and entrepreneurs in a series of blog posts.
Meet and learn more about three of the SWEsters in the African American Affinity Group: Abi Olukeye (Social Entrepreneur and Founder of Smart Girls HQ), Ngowari Diminas (Project Engineer at TC Energy) and Valerie Hoskins (Founder and President of Precise Process Consulting LLC).
Abi Olukeye // Social Entrepreneur and Founder of Smart Girls HQ
Abi Olukeye is a social entrepreneur and founder of Smart Girls HQ, an education media and technology company that creates engaging content and facilitates exciting experiences that enable elementary-aged girls to achieve STEM Career Literacy by age 12. Her digital platform, Raising Smart Girls, has a reach of over 30,000 parents who seek STEM education and personal development resources for their elementary-aged daughters. She is currently developing a multi-platform app to provide personalized informal learning plans that transform the way girls perceive and engage in STEM careers.
When I started my career at a manufacturing firm, it didn’t occur to me that I was choosing to work in a male-dominated field. Growing up in Nigeria, I learned to work harder than everyone else, male and female. While there were other areas of that society where gender inequality was prevalent, the choice of a STEM career was not one of them. It wasn’t until after immigrating to the US, and my high school advisor shared data showing the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields that I started to tune into the many headwinds that exist for women who choose to buck to trend.
However, by then, I was already in love with the ability to create and solve problems that my STEM skills afforded me. I earned my undergraduate degree in computer science and jumped right into my career. Fortunately, the company I worked for, Ingersoll Rand, was large enough to offer many different career paths and experiences. I took great advantage of that. With the help of several male and female mentors, sponsors, and advocates, I was able to successfully navigate my career there through seven distinct roles where I could lean on my strengths, but also grow by working through key challenges. My experience has taught me that it is not enough to be the hardest worker. You gain sponsors by aligning your hard work to critical business results, by delivering a little more value than is required, and by bringing others along with you through great communication and collaboration.
When I chose to leave my career for an entrepreneurial adventure, those same sponsors and advocates helped strengthen my resolve and continue to cheer me on.
Today, my work through Smart Girls HQ enables STEM career literacy for elementary-aged girls by age 12. Many years of research on the factors inhibiting STEM pipeline persistence for girls point to the lack of early engagement with STEM careers. I am working to change that by creating exciting content and facilitating experiences that incite the same excitement that got me started on my journey when I was a young girl.
This recent 41 country study from OECD showing a disconnect between the dream jobs that today’s youth aspire to and the jobs that will exist for them our increasingly STEM fueled economy should be a call to action for all of us. Our careers, stories, and contributions need to be a lot more visible and accessible so that our daughters, nieces, and mentees can visualize themselves engineering the future.
Ngowari Diminas // Project Engineer at TC Energy
Tell us about your background: Where are you from, and what attracted you to the world of engineering or STEM?
I am originally from Rivers State, Nigeria. I was attracted to the Engineering world because of my love for Chemistry and Mathematics. I completed my first degree in Chemical Engineering at the University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria in 2003. I moved on to get a Masters in Oil & Gas Engineering from Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland in 2006. I am currently at the University of Houston, finishing up the Executive MBA program at the Bauer College of Business.
I currently work on Major Capital Projects for an Energy Company in the Houston area, and I am specialized in Crude Oil Terminals and Facilities Project Development and Implementation. My experience is generally in Facilities Engineering, Pipeline Engineering, Process Engineering, Pipeline/Facilities Construction, Project Management, Pipeline Integrity & Risk Management, Gas Facilities.
I recently transitioned into a Quality & Compliance role, which has given me a renewed reason for my attraction to Engineering. The ability to ensure that major projects are safe while adhering to all applicable standards, requirements and codes by carrying out quality audits is rewarding.
“Quality & Integrity on any job will produce Safety, Security, Stability and Sustainability.” – Ngowari Diminas
Did you have any mentors or role models who helped shape your educational and/or professional path?
Growing up until now, my family has been my greatest strength. They ensured that I was on track with getting the right education, supported me all through in making choices for school, course of study, and generally navigating this reputable profession. Since I never really had a professional mentor to direct me, I was always determined to research, ask questions, network and volunteer in order to have access to valuable platforms. For this reason, why I am passionate about providing support to other upcoming female engineers who want career sustainability in the Engineering profession.
What has been your personal experience as a double minority (black and female) in a male-dominated industry? What surprises (good and bad) have you encountered?
It has been a roller coaster journey for me as a double minority. I have worked in several organizations, different towns, cities, countries and experienced various organizational cultures; it is very interesting to see differences in characters and perception. What I typically focus on is to gain trust, respect, credibility and work with integrity no matter how I get treated. I always try to make the males pay attention and see me as a responsible and dedicated Engineer.
What surprises me at times is when a male colleague ignores my technical response but only accepts it when he re-validates that exact response from another male colleague. It could be quite frustrating, but it is ok.
What advice would you offer to girls or young women who are interested in STEM but doubt their capabilities or potential?
Ladies interested in STEM need to start by having a positive mindset. One of my quotes that comes to mind says, “Nurture your mindset beautifully because the state of your mindset can either hinder or progress you”.
To reduce doubt, it is important to realistically have a vision with clear goals; look into how to approach activities required to achieve the vision; establish values to be accountable and responsible for; plan every step; build relationships when networking with other women in STEM; identify problems; ask for help when resolving problems; monitor and review goals at different milestones; participate in continuing professional or hands-on skills and educational development; willingness to learn; engaged; focused; passion; continuous hard work and believe yourself.
We should look around the workplace or in schools or in the communities to chat up with fellow women of color. We can make an effort to engage one another to see what our common interests and goals are to understand the best way to support one another where needed.
You are involved in ERGs, professional associations and other D&I forums in the community. Why is that important to you and why should everyone be involved in championing inclusion?
I am very involved in the community and trying my best to serve others. I am a registered volunteer with various organizations. I invest a lot of hours yearly in food banks, speaking or attending conferences, career fairs, meetings, reviewing resumes, mentoring others, international and local startup activities, and other volunteering tasks.
Valerie Hoskins // Founder and President of Precise Process Consulting LLC
Tell us about your background: Where are you from, Education, Occupation and Tenure. what attracted you to the world of engineering or STEM?
- I hail from Greensboro, NC and attended the illustrious North Carolina A&T State University where I obtained my B.S. in Industrial & Systems Engineering.
- As a child, I always loved Math & Science and was attracted to the consistency and certainty that it represented. It was concrete, not subjective or open to interpretations, which I loved. I knew I wanted to go into a field that combined these areas of interest and also provided me with real-life practical experience. Engineering seemed like the perfect fit. Industrial Engineering appealed to me due to its everyday applications in a variety of industries and emphasis in operational efficiency and continuous improvement.
- Due to my interest in applying engineering in non-traditional ways, I entered the competitive field of corporate consulting. After spending the first decade of my career as a consultant for Big 4 firms such as Deloitte and Accenture, I decided to launch my own boutique consulting firm, Precise Process Consulting, specializing in Process Improvement, Change Management and PMO. I loved consulting because it allowed me to apply my technical process improvement and operations background in non-traditional engineering fields.
What has been your personal experience as a double minority (black and female) in a male-dominated industry?
- As a black woman, it has been extremely challenging to overcome some of the prejudice and status quo present in the consulting field, particularly technical consulting. I found that often times unconscious bias tends to hurt us the most; people are attracted to helping and promoting individuals that look like / remind them of themselves. With a lack of diversity and minority representation in leadership, most of the companies that tote inclusivity don’t actually provide an open workplace with equal opportunity for advancement. This was a big part of the reason I decided to branch out on my own, and it has been the best decision I ever made!
What surprises (good and bad) have you encountered?
- One of the most pleasant surprises I have encountered is how practical engineering is in a variety of nontechnical situations. Often times we are presented a very narrow idea of what it means to be an engineer, but that’s just not true.
- I knew I loved engineering, complex problem solving and using my analytical skills but didn’t want to work in a plant or manufacturing facility, particularly as these tended to be in rural locations. I wanted to apply my continuous improvements to major companies that didn’t specialize in these areas because this was something that everyone could benefit from.
- In short, I have found that my engineering background gave me the perfect lens to problem solve, organize and improve in the most complex of settings.
How can we prepare for opportunities and advocate for ourselves as women of color in the workplace?
- I am a firm believer in creating additional opportunities whenever possible for our women so that they don’t have to learn all the hard lessons we have been through. I always look for any opportunities to mentor engineers from my alma matter or provide internships to local minorities interested in engineering or consulting.
- I want us to show girls that you can be feminine and fun, AND love math/engineering. There are a variety of applications for this field that don’t all revolve around wearing hard hats or being in a manufacturing facility.