Growing up in East Oakland, I personally experienced the diverse realities of the divide between the wealthy and poor, and the ricocheting effects of violence and substance abuse. My mother was the only one to graduate from college in her family and she understood the importance of education and the doors it could open.
Her determination to ensure that regardless of our socio-economic circumstances combined with the promise I showed in math and science meant that I was able to attend an affluent private boarding school at the base of Mount Diablo in California on scholarship. This is where, for the first time, I often found myself to be the only Black person in a classroom. I was isolated emotionally and physically, living in one of the wealthiest communities in the country, worlds apart from my humble Oakland beginnings.
Despite my ability to perform academically, my continued attendance at my new school was repeatedly threatened because I questioned the school administration’s exclusionary and invisibilizing practices towards students of color. Nevertheless, I thrived and I graduated. I was accepted in and awarded scholarships from 12 of the top engineering programs in the nation.
My story isn’t unique, but in many ways, it’s not nearly common enough. Education, particularly in STEM subjects, has historically been unwelcoming to young people of color. And for those passionate about STEM, there are countless hurdles including loneliness, doubt, sexism, and racism to name a few. So let’s talk about it.
Every experience is not all good or bad, so keep learning
Being Black, a woman, and an engineer I found myself shadowed by skepticism in every space I occupied from high school to the present day. In meetings, my managers would not make eye contact with me when I spoke. My ideas seemed to land only when regurgitated by white male counterparts. My white male managers questioned whether I was paid too much because they thought my clothes were too fashionable. A senior executive told me that I seemed to be a better fit working at “one of those fancy boutiques on Rodeo Drive.” With two Bachelor of Science degrees in mathematics and mechanical engineering and a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the third top engineering school in the country, I cannot say I ever contemplated working at Gucci. All of these slights told me I didn’t belong as I was, the authentic and costume-free me.
The micro and macro aggressions I experienced, while staggering and hurtful, only made me more reflective and self-aware. The times when people who looked like me and tried to minimize me, were especially informative. I used those painful interactions with people who I assumed would understand my experience as a way to deconstruct my own biases and become a stronger ally and advocate for others.
Surround yourself with people who believe in you
From my early education and into my career, I was often the only Black person in a host of STEM education programs and it was lonely. I quickly grew to understand how easy it can be to look for the exit and self-opt out of spaces where you don’t see yourself represented.
Spelman College graduate Marian Wright Edelman once said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” It is no coincidence that it was during my undergraduate studies at Spelman College that I realized the power of representation coupled with social and emotional support when it came to success.
Create networks of peers, mentors, and mentees
The importance of this can’t be understated. Who you know, and who you surround yourself with will have an incredible impact on how you envision your future and realize your maximum potential. Connect and enlist a team of people who can see you, especially when you cannot see yourself, and who are authentically committed to your success and want to support you along your journey. You need people who will nurture your spirit, remind you of how you have grown, and of your superpowers during the inevitable storms of life. You need people who will shout with joy and applaud the loudest when you win because your wins are their wins.
Leverage perceived exceptionalism rather than internalize it
Ursula Burns, the first Black woman to become a CEO of a Fortune 500 company (Xerox), writes about how there was a pattern where her colleagues would reconcile her success as a Black woman by elevating her to an “exceptional status.” They viewed her as incredibly gifted, instead of any other talented and hardworking Black person.
I lived this early on in my career. As an “only” or one of a few Black women in my engineering classes at Georgia Tech, the labs at NASA, the meetings at BP, and countless other spaces, I became the unicorn in the room. My achievements became my last name. When I was introduced it was, “This is Danielle. She has degrees from… She’s worked at…” Folks thought they were being complimentary, but instead, it felt “othering.”
What were considered rare accomplishments for someone who looked like me became the buoys that I grabbed hold of when I found myself in spaces that were not welcoming or generative to my professional development. I used the perceived exceptionalism to access roles and responsibilities that would otherwise have been considered uncustomary or too high-risk for someone with my academic and professional background. I successfully pivoted from engineering to working on a trade floor, to retail and marketing—all for the same company.
My career is built upon what I and my community of support imagined for myself based on the few, yet mighty, role models who proved that my dreams were possible. Now as the first female CEO of SMASH, I am helping students prepare for the barriers, somatically and environmentally, and challenges they will face, academically and socially. I am not the only one who has this lived experience in STEM nor am I alone as I take on this lift.
I may have been well into my 20s before I learned the power of community and the value of perseverance. I’ve come to understand that even in STEM, where precision is requisite, there is more than one way to arrive at the right answer for any problem presented. That is the power and beauty of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
What if we took such a holistic approach to support the next generation of students of color to build the breadth of skills needed to sustain and define their own path of success in STEM earlier in life? Imagine the future of the “club” and the meaningful impact our next generation of STEM leaders of color could achieve with these tools.
Danielle Rose is the CEO of SMASH.