Monday, November 11, 2013

Keynote Address: SHPE National Conference

I heard a story recently about a diversity initiative at a fortune 500 company.   A consultant was brought in to help make the business case for diversity.  The consultant explained how Latinos are the fastest growing population in the US, outpacing the growth of every other racial and ethnic group.  She further explained how this was affecting its customer base and future talent base.  One enlightened executive staff member got it…
 I mean you could almost see the light bulb go on above his head.  He stood up and exclaimed, “Yeah, we really need to make a change in our leadership….. if we continue to promote middle aged white males to our executive ranks, we’ll never be prepared for the current and future business opportunities in front of us”.  Another staff member, un-phased by this plea, asked him directly “are YOU willing to give up YOUR seat?”.  The light bulb ….
 burst into flames.  The enlightened individual sat down, defeated.. 
I’m sitting there thinking, Diversity CANNOT be about giving up a seat.  They have to be wrong!   After much discussion with my colleagues, we agreed if diversity initiatives are to succeed at any level of a company, they cannot be about numbers or seats….. they must focus on the culture itself. 
He said “are you willing to give up your seat”…… I replayed that over and over in my mind and at first, I couldn’t figure out why this wasn’t making sense to me…. Why would they say that?  Then I realized the fundamental problem here was that this team really did not have the same definition of diversity than what I have.  Diversity means to me, bring other perspectives to the table who think differently because of their life experiences.  This difference in thought creates new ideas and innovations that are not possible otherwise.  So diversity to me, is not about losing a seat, or giving up something… Diversity is about creating a competitive advantage in your organization that will allow you, your team, your company to win.  We must not hire and promote candidates simply because they’re diverse.  This is not sustainable …… and it could be argued that recruiting and promoting people only because of their ethnic background is counterproductive to the success of an organization.  We must not recruit or promote Latinos who may not be skilled, into senior leadership roles.  Instead we must be very intentional about this…. We must promote skilled engineers and scientists who happen to be Latino. 
This idea is what brings us all together.  Our students come to this conference because they are smarter, more professional, more experienced and more prepared for the workforce than any other engineering or science student in America.  Our companies keep coming back in greater numbers because they continue to see the value of SHPE programs on the development of the students and professionals they hire here.  But if we are to continue to execute on our mission statement and strive for our vision, we must think deeper than we’ve done in the past….  because we want more for our country and more for our community.  We want our country to realize that our community is the answer.
Behind me is our current mission statement.  It’s only about 2 years old, but already it’s making us think differently about how we do what we do.  One of the most prominent features of the SHPE mission statement is the assertion that SHPE “empowers the Hispanic Community”. 

The more we look at this mission statement, the more we realize we haven’t always been focusing our efforts on empowering the Hispanic community.  At least not in everything we do.  So this statement has gotten our board to start talking.  In our strategy sessions, we’ve realized that we need to approach our work at a different angle.  We started asking ourselves questions…are the decisions we are making going to result in maximizing the impact on the community?

I know we’re not the only ones out there, thinking about this concept.  In the audience, I’d like to recognize Will Davis, the current President of the Mexican American Engineering Society (MAES) as well as the board members of Great Minds in STEM (formally HENAAC).  Would you please stand up. And would everyone please give them a warm welcome.  One of the reasons the leaders of GMIS and MAES are here is because they are thinking what we are thinking…. If we really want to maximize the impact on the community through STEM, if we want to realize our vision of an empowered Latino community, we must do it together through meaningful collaboration. 
Collaboration is only one of the keys to our future.  We also must also learn to think differently.  The world is changing before our eyes.  The demand for skilled engineers and coders is so high, many companies are recruiting holders of 2-year technology degrees right out of community colleges to fill these roles. In fact, enrollment in community college is at an all time high.  Today there are about 30M people enrolled in advanced education in the US, more than 1/3 of them are in community colleges.  And of all those enrolled in community college, about 20% are Latino, but only half of them end up completing a degree.  We must look at this community and find a way to provide them professional support and development through SHPE programs to change the statistics and help them become the answer to the technology demand question. 

I love this saying: “If all we ever do is all we’ve ever done, all we’ll ever get is all we’ve ever gotten”.  
If we want a change in our country, our schools, our businesses, our politicians..….We have to act differently… We have to provide value differently. 
We already provide an amazing value to students who know about SHPE, but what about the millions of students who do not? What about the universities who are fighting and struggling to recruit and retain Latino students because they know the Latino Community is the answer to their STEM crisis?  We must build our relationships with our colleges and universities and prove what we already know….  that students who started pursuing their engineering and science goals as part of our Junior chapters are far more likely to finish High School and enter college.  And SHPE university students persevere at much higher rates than the national average.

The world is changing and SHPE must also change… we must provide more than just high achieving college graduates.  We’ve graduated 10’s of thousands of engineers from colleges and universities across the country, and for years, we’ve brought your companies here to network and hire them.  And many of our sponsors have successfully recruited thousands of students through SHPE.  However, the makeup of our companies is still not diverse.  Every one of our companies has some struggle with creating a leadership that is representative of the customers they are trying to serve.  Through SHPE Corporate Chapters, connected and empowered employee resource groups, we can consistently provide value to the employees of our sponsor companies.  We must help our companies execute on retention and employee development through the creation of employee resource group communities and provide them access to our educational programs.  If we change the way we think and execute on it, we can help our companies become as diverse as the changing demographics of the customers they are trying to serve…. We can help them win.
We must also provide a system for supporting, developing and advancing these SHPE leaders into the corporate leaders of tomorrow.  To our professional chapter leaders—I guarantee that if you focus on empowering the working professionals through skills development, networking and the tools and knowledge to guide their careers, you will be executing on our mission and have true community impact through SHPE.  Together, we will show corporate America that the Latino Community is the answer. 

The world is changing and SHPE must also change….. We can no longer expect to convert the masses by preaching to the choir.  If we continue to shout about our programs to people who are already converted all we’ll do is get them tired of hearing our voices…  Remember our mission statement says nothing about empowering members to realize their fullest potential…. It says we must empower the Latino community… This means changing our relationships with elementary schools, community colleges, universities and corporate America. 
For all our stakeholders…..SHPE must challenge their approach and utilize our nearly 40 years of experience developing the Latino community ……to help them answer their questions. 

If we do this, If we start thinking about how to make the Latino Community the focus of all our questions it will ensure that the Latino Community is the answer to everyone else’s.
Thank you