By Sahitya Allam
On the evening of Tuesday, February 23, in Campus Center Ballroom B, the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) held a “Black in Corporate America” event to highlight the unique experiences of African Americans with jobs in industry. Four panelists, three of whom were female, described how they felt being a minority within a company, how they were treated by others, and the lessons they gleaned from these experiences that they would like future Black engineers entering industry to understand.
The event began with the panelists introducing themselves and providing background information about their education levels as well as their current and prior job experiences.
Timothy Ellis, a senior majoring in industrial engineering who has participated in four internships over the course of his undergraduate career, discussed the varying political and social atmospheres in different parts of the country and how that affected his interaction with the members of the companies he was employed at.
He gave the example of an internship he had at a semi-corporate, manufacturing company in Connecticut, which was very conservative in its outlook. He only counted four black employees there, and no black interns, which he believes was due to the perception of an uninviting atmosphere towards minorities. He conducted a small experiment after working in the company for a short period of time: he noticed that his coworkers made sure to say “bless you” to the three middle-aged white women working there, so he decided to sneeze overtly and gauge their reaction towards him sneezing. Surprisingly, no one bothered to say a simple “bless you” to him.
However, pretty soon, he realized that this was not racism, but rather ignorance and unintentional disrespect. Many of these people were not accustomed to interacting with African Americans in their daily lives, and so their understanding of black culture came mostly from stereotypes portrayed in sitcoms and the media. During lunchtime, they asked him about grilled food and Koolaid, assuming he would eat only this.
Timothy advises students searching for an internship to keep potential racism in the workplace in mind, but to not let it deter them from pursuing an enriching job experience and the chance to educate others who are ignorant about African American people and their culture. He tells others to learn to differentiate between racism and ignorance and to not be so quick to pull the race card whenever a colleague makes a hurtful comment.
Donielle Minor, a biopharmaceutical engineer, discussed the importance of overcoming stereotypes of African American women in the workplace to counter the abundance of prejudice directed towards women like her. She recounted a conversation she had with her manager at her first internship. He told her outright that she got the job because the company lacked diversity. Her resume was good, but she was hired not on the basis of her qualifications, but because she was black.
Such an encounter would surely make one feel embarrassed and inadequate, and would usually set up a self-fulfilling prophecy of poor performance based on the knowledge that people are already expecting one to underperform. But this did not apply to Donielle. She worked hard to perform beyond the expectations of her manager and coworkers, surprising them on her remarkable job performance and go-getter attitude.
Besides being diligent, Donielle also advises job seekers to clean up their social media accounts meticulously, even if what they post is not unbecoming or in contrast to the company’s values. She mentioned a person she knew had been fired for posting about the Black Lives Matter movement on social media, even if the movement did not concern the company and the person’s solidarity with the movement was not damaging to the company in any way.
Patricia Eumeny, an internal consultant at Nestle, also discussed at length the stigma against African American females in the workplace, and her efforts to work against it in her career. She recalls she was once the only black female at a workshop among a team of 50 other consultants. People were not sure how to interact with her, but she says that being friendly with others can help to ease that tension. However, she cautions against being “too friendly” with others, particularly with coworkers you see every weekday and other black people in the same workplace.
She states that at the end of the day, your performance and professionalism are what matter, not how many friendships you can make. She describes a party that her coworkers once threw for her on her birthday, with a great deal of alcohol present. Although it was tempting to drink a lot on her birthday and in the social atmosphere, she refrained from doing so to maintain her professional reputation.
However, another coworker who had been working in the same company for over a year and a half drank excessively and could not show face in the company afterwards. She and Timothy both reinforced the point that losing your composure will quickly damage your credibility and your standing within a company, especially as a minority, which is not worth “a good time.”
Tolu Amele, who works for PSE&G in supply chain management, emphasized the role of NSBE in improving her access to job opportunities and the condition of her life overall. She spoke to the audience about her first co-op at a plant in North Dakota for eight months. Although it opened the door to many other jobs by providing her with crucial experience and credentials, she did not fit into the overwhelmingly white majority in North Dakota.
Practically none of her coworkers had seen an African American in person in their lives and were just completely ignorant of how to treat her. In the summer of 2012, she attended the NSBE Las Vegas conference to meet other black engineers. She states that at first she was only looking to have a good time, but since there was such a wide array of companies present, she also interviewed with a few. She does admit that your race, background, and sex can determine whether you get the interview, but what you say during the interview will actually determine whether you receive the job offer.
She counseled the students in the audience to develop their “soft skills” in preparation for the interview because as a student intern, companies are not expecting students to have a highly developed, technical understanding of their course of study. What they are searching for is a person with excellent communication skills with a strong work ethic who can benefit the company and in turn learn a great deal from mentors in the workplace.
She described one of the interviews she had at the NSBE conference where the interviewer asked her to tell him what her track coach would likely say about her. She was not sure how to respond to the question and was taken aback that the interviewer did not even seem to be that interested in her response – he was doodling on the back of her resume. It was very intimidating; she came out of it thinking she blew it. However, 30 minutes later, she got a call from the interviewer with an offer for the job. She states that this is a perfect example of how presenting yourself as the ideal package is more important than the color of your skin, what language you speak, or any other distinguishing racial or ethnic factor.
Each of the panelists gave thorough, profound responses about their experiences in corporate America as an African American, inspiring the students in the audience to emulate their success in building a productive career. To learn more about NJIT’s chapter of NSBE, please take a look at their website at http://www.njit.edu/nsbe/.