Black History Month is a month to shine the spotlight on the contributions of black people who have shaped the world as we know it. You may not be black, and you may not like history, but you can help shine the spotlight. Looking at science and technology history, a few people have been nothing short of inspirational – some still alive and kicking and some long gone. People like Dame Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu, Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu, one of my all-time favourite inventors – Granville T. Woods, and many more like them have paved the way. I never grew up feeling out of place racially, but the more I advanced professionally, I began to see people that looked less like me in the teams I worked in. There is an impetus for everyone in STEM to shine a light on black people doing amazing things and to inspire the next generation of leaders.
If you asked 16-year-old me what she wanted to do when she grew up, she would have told you, “I don’t know”. At the time, I had not seen many black people celebrated in STEM, let alone black women in STEM. Growing up in Nigeria, girls were always encouraged to get into STEM and I had some form of advantage in that respect. The only downside was that girls had very few people in STEM to look up to – besides doctors – and many ended up pivoting into other careers. Since my interests did not fit into the “doctor” mould, I had to begin putting jigsaw pieces together to see what shape my career would take. It took some effort, with love from family, friends, and mentors to find a way to combine my interest in design, technology, and energy. My dad has a research background and my parents run a consulting firm; so it was not unfamiliar for me to delve into project work. I finally felt the spark working with clients in the manufacturing and energy industries. These all gave me a framework through which I could see myself making a contribution professionally, whether or not I had role models.
Although some people are as bold as lions and can go for their dreams and bulldoze obstacles, there is no doubt that others need someone to believe in them to develop confidence in themselves. Regrettably, more people from diverse backgrounds need people who believe in them to make up for what they cannot visualise for themselves. They may see themselves more as misfits often. Mentors, sponsors, and role models, therefore, can make a dent in their career trajectory. But to amplify those contributions we all can shine the spotlight on people already making a difference. Besides my day job, I volunteer as the IET Institution Liaison for the London Network and London Young Professionals Network to support engineering institutions in inspiring and influencing people in STEM.
We need to get the word out! I continue to inspire myself by looking up diverse groups of people making a difference. Thus, reminding myself that I can also contribute, no matter how small. Can you think of three black people doing amazing things in your field or area of interest? If not, why not spare a few minutes to look that up? If you can, however, think of three people, why not look up even more names?
Do you know anyone who considers themselves a misfit in their career? Why not think about how might you help shine the spotlight on role models for them?