By Jill Mari Embry: Founder/CEO Balance Innovation Center

Merriam Webster defines a role model as: a person whose behavior in a particular role is imitated by others.

Under-represented STEM: Do we need role models, mentors, or both?

Their definition of a mentor is: a trusted counselor or guide.  A mentor who, because he is detached and disinterested, can hold up a mirror to us.

As a child, I was surrounded by role models. My mother was paramount for me as a black female.  She was a strong, independent, intelligent, proud, black woman that marched in Selma for voting rights, which gave me the right to vote. She spent her life always active in community service with a commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion before it was vogue. My father was a trailblazer in the world of professional sports. He was the first black general manager of a professional sports team, all the way up to first president of a professional sports team. He persisted despite death threats, professional and other challenges associated with the issues of others that had nothing to do with the job he was doing (at 84 he is still working). In addition to my parents, their peers, professionals, doctors, lawyers’ corporate executives were all present in my life to show me that I could do anything I chose to do. My mother and her contemporaries, whether they had careers or not, were women with purpose. They were active in the community. They volunteered, they started community programs, they chaired organizations. And they always were reaching back to help others. Therefore, gender was not a barrier to success.

For mentors, I had several through my undergraduate career One, my organic professor who identified my test anxiety and worked with me to develop a solution to allow me to display my knowledge made a huge difference in my life. My biology professor that allowed me to do a research project in undergrad, as the only undergrads doing so at the time, which later paved the way for me working in all the labs in the department, helped shape my career and build my confidence. Yet professionally, I had no mentors.  I have had excellent supervisors that allowed me to thrive in the environment I was in. They gave me challenges outside of my regular projects, which gave me high level recognition.  But there was no one that I could go to for a discussion about my career goals, challenges and solutions to those challenges that were due to working in the white male dominated R&D environments that put me in the world that as home to the profession that I loved. 

Last year the world was changing, including the STEM world. Following the Summer of 2020, corporations around the country had become aware of their shortfalls in hiring of women and minorities in all roles, and more specifically roles that would provide economic empowerment. Due to continually increasing dependence on technology, STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math) had become a flash point of interest.  The educational and professional gaps for minorities and women were a problem to be solved. Money was pledged, equity-inclusion-diversity officers were hired, and programs were started. Corporations, with their predominately white, mostly male, C-Suite, designed programs to improve their numbers in hiring and retention based on their understanding of the problem. Some of the solutions we have learned about include scholarships, internships, and internal mentorship programs.

Scholarships are a solution to increasing the numbers of STEM students in academia, although there are the same issues with retention in STEM for minorities as in colleges and universities as that seen in companies. Internships and mentor programs, at face value, sound like they could make a difference. I am guessing that the interns would also be given a mentor during their internship. This leads me to the question posed in the title. Role models can come from any walk of life to inspire a child, an adult to achieve. Their story, if known can be about over-coming adversity, going that extra mile to become one of the best. They do not have to be rich or famous. They can be the janitor in your school that always made time to help kids as he went about his job. They can be parents, neighbors or they can be people famous, or made famous by their achievements, their character,r their heroism  They do not have to be someone that is personally  known to us in order to be inspired.  For those wishing to achieve in STEM, as a woman, as a minority, a role model may be that person that let you know that you can be an engineer, a scientist, despite the hurdles put in your way.

Mentorship is personal. A mentor, by definition, a definition I don’t particularly like, should know you in order to hold up a mirror for you to look at.  They are trusted, yet detached and uninterested. To me, the definition does not provide a necessary path to success. Due to the disconnect in the definition to what I assume we would look for in a mentor, I will provide my own understanding. A mentor is someone that takes you under their wing to provide honest, insightful feedback, encouragement and guidance in life or a particular area. In the context of mentorships in STEM, they do not necessarily have to look like you or be in a STEM profession, but they do have to have a very clear understanding of the challenges faced as a woman, as a minority in STEM. They can not be disinterested or detached. They should be someone that may not have a vested interest in your success, but they should want you to be successful in your career, in your environment.

Now that the Summer of 2020 has passed and the flames of that summer have given way to the ashes of the Summer of 2021, white guilt is gone. With the passing of white guilt is the passing of the pledges that were not delivered, the enthusiasm of the need for change and the listening to our voices. Some would say that there was not a lot of listening, but rather white America defining the problems and solutions from their perspective. As a STEM professional, trying to make a difference I look at the websites of my beloved medical device industry corporations and still see the all-white, mostly male faces of the executive teams, with the exception, sometimes, of the Chief Diversity Officer. I look at the websites of medical device startups and accelerators and see the same white male, sometimes female faces looking back at me. Because I had the role models of my mother and father, I am able to see past them and know that I belong. I know I am as good if not better at my job than those faces I see. I have had to be. Yet, I worry about all the children that are being trained in STEM. Do they have the role models to inspire? The hope is that, in these programs, they are being given mentors, not just an education to push them to have the desire. I hope that the mentors take them past the K-12 programs and through college, where retention in STEM is low for minorities. I hope that those mentors understand the problem that we face. It is not that we are not qualified, but rather, we may not be included in study groups. When we do go for help, we may be dismissed due to assumptions made about how we got there. We may not have others to talk to about how hard a class or test may be, thus eroding our confidence.  We may not see anyone else that looks like us in our classes to provide us with a sense of inclusion and belonging. We may be teased by others that look like us because we have unique interests.  At this crucial stage of developing a STEM professional, it is important to provide the mentors for those children given the STEM education to ensure they get through their education and into their profession.

Once these adults graduate, mentorship must continue. I believe that these mentors must have a very clear understanding of the problems we, as women, as minorities, or as both face. They can not dismiss us, or concerns when we tell them of the discrimination, biases, exclusion that we may face in our jobs. They can not be in a position to contribute to the issues by avoiding the issues created by those that discriminate.   If they are within a company/corporation, they must be given the authority to address issues without fear of retaliation. If they do not have this authority, the environments will not change. In addition, these corporations must be willing to look outside of their environment, which lacks the internal STEM minorities and women, for the right fits for mentors of their hires. To create programs that do not provide an effective path to success is to turn their backs on another generation of children that have been told that they can dream to be whatever they choose.  Corporations and those in them, must understand that their system is built on the issues they want to change. They can not fire everyone to do so. But they must hold themselves accountable for the actions, attitudes, etc. of their employees. They must also accept that they may not be as enlightened as they need to be and in fact may contribute to the problems of hiring and retaining under-represented STEM professionals. We hope they understand all of this.

To answer the question, role model, mentor or both. For some, one or the other is enough. For most, both are critical.

At Balance Innovation Center, we will, upon raising capital,  follow in the footsteps of those that came before us in other professions. When we could not play in professional sports leagues, we created our own. When we could not decide on the roles we played or the films that were being made, we built our own. When we could not play or listen to the music we wanted, we built our own. By building our own innovation center, our mission is to provide career paths that allow us to just do our job in a non-hostile environment. Our mission is to provide a path where there is a potential for economic growth through equity in startups. Our mission is to provide mentorship and role models through our STEM program and collaboration with other STEM programs. Our mission is to provide confidence to all we touch, that allows them to go on to careers wherever they choose to work.

Our leadership team has been fortunate in building a career in STEM, despite the challenges we have faced. We are now wanting to reach back and give others a leg up to success.