This week’s #WCWinSTEM is Ericka Jefferson, MBA, President and Founder of Black Women in Science and Engineering (BWISE).
A foreword from #VanguardSTEM:
As we continue to celebrate conferences and set out to equip our community with insights and skills that will position them for interpersonal and professional success at these important meetings, I couldn’t think of a better woman to be our Women-Crush Wednesday in STEM (#WCWinSTEM) than Erika Jefferson, MBA. She is the President and Founder of Black Women in Science and Engineering (BWISE), an organization focused on bridging the gap for Black Women in STEM, and knows the importance of networking for success—a key tenet of conference going.
Erika is a graduate of Louisiana State University and has a degree in Chemical Engineering; she completed her MBA at Georgia Tech. I’m going to tell you a bit about Erika and then yield the floor so she can tell the story of BWISE and discuss strategies for effecting networking (her thoughts have been captured below, beneath the page divider).
Erika began her career at Nord Butmi as a Plant Chemist in Macon, Georgia, and since then has been traveling and expanding her knowledge base in engineering through various companies. She has an extensive background that covers both engineering (operations/lean six sigma) and business (sales, business development, team management) and has worked for Fortune 500 companies such as Amoco (now known as BP) and Chevron. Since leaving the corporate world, Erika has become an established entrepreneur.
Black Women in Science and Engineering (BWISE) is Erika’s latest venture, which is focused on preparing and developing its individual members (both corporate and academic) for leadership or entrepreneurial roles in the STEM fields. BWISE utilizes career training materials and networking events to reinforce the key factors associated with attaining success in: leadership, career development, professional development, professional networking and entrepreneurship. Why BWISE? Erika created BWISE in response to the lack of support for black women in these fields. “STEM is isolating for many black women.” Erika is passionate about providing an empowering network for learning, professional and career development, and encouragement for others.
Erika believes that highlighting #WOCinSTEM is important for maintaining the network of black women and other #WOCinSTEM entering STEM fields. She says, “People need to see successful scientists and engineers that look like them and have shared experiences to their own.”
Thank you for BWISE. We appreciate you, Erika, and all that you contribute to the world of #STEM.
~ Chrystelle Vilfranc, #VanguardSTEM #WCWinSTEM Coordinator
By Erika Jefferson, MBA
Last year, I attended a global woman’s symposium. As I sat in that ballroom of almost 1,000 women in energy, I noticed a significant number of Black women in attendance. Although certainly not a majority, I was encouraged to see so many professional (mostly STEM) Black women at a technical industry conference. What I did not see, however, was much networking with each other.
While there were pockets of us huddled together at the luncheon, I suspect they may have been coworkers, friends or had other prior connections. I sat observing this phenomenon for most of the first day before I decided to connect with each one that I saw. The seeds for what would become Black Women in Science and Engineering had already been planted months before (I already had business cards), but this would be the first time I put thoughts to action. The vast majority of ladies that I approached were enthusiastically supportive of creating a formal network of those of us working in these traditionally male cultures.
Leaving that conference, I was emboldened to reach out to even more women who were working in these highly technical fields, frequently feeling isolated and disconnected. What started one year ago as 50 or so engineers and scientists, has exploded to a network of almost 700 around the country, with chapters in Houston, Chicago, Atlanta and Washington D.C. The driving force behind our growth, has been the ability to connect others with shared backgrounds and experiences.
Now more than ever, I believe Black women need to encourage and support each other’s efforts and accomplishments. I can see the difference between women who have felt supported and those who have not. In my own career, I have sometimes struggled to find my voice at work. That is why I felt compelled to start BWISE. I have both received and given support to others. We all need to reach across, up and down the corporate and academic ladder to mentor and promote our sisters in the struggle.
Today, women are working in every imaginable industry, doing jobs that just a generation or two ago, our forebears could only dream of. Yet, the numbers of us working and reaching senior levels in STEM is depressingly low. There is tremendous power in the network, and I have seen how forming meaningful connections has benefitted both parties, both personally and professionally. It is critical that we seek out, develop and maintain these strategic connections. Moving the needle of diversity and inclusion, will require working together to achieve measurable and attainable goals for women and people of color. This is imperative for what I term collaborative connectivity. To do this, you must put as much effort into building your network as you do any other priority in your life.
Your career is like a young seedling: it must be hydrated and fed to grow into a strong healthy plant. Think of your education and background as the food and your network as the water. Both are critical for continued development. Also important is the diversity of your connections, which are strategic because they are purposeful and not random. They should be mutually beneficial and not one-sided. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to a senior leader at your organization. I have heard from many executives that said they welcome and are impressed when their folks reach out to them and connect. Just be sure you are prepared and strategic in your approach. Often, they are looking for the next rising star, and that very well could be you.
Sometimes your biggest advocate is someone who looks very different from you, so don’t be limited by race, gender, age or any other factor in selecting members of your personal “board of directors.” These are your counselors, your advocates and your cheerleaders. They are on your team to advise you and help guide you on your career path. Make sure you are reciprocating these actions to someone in your network, as well; many successful people have both mentors and mentees.
Building a network of connections takes time and intention, and you will sometimes put in more effort than you get out. Collaborating on projects with people of mutual interests is also a wonderful way to increase your connectivity. Making strategic connections can have a lasting impact on your career and enrich the lives of many others.
Copyright © 2016 by Jedidah Isler
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