Ask any leader: diversity, inclusion and equity is foundational to innovation and long-term success. Raquel Tamez, CEO of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, says that means appreciating similarities and differences within your team and beyond.
Guiding Hispanic engineers to realize their full potential is at the core of SHPE’s mission, and it’s what drives Tamez, who was a U.S. Department of Labor trial lawyer and General Counsel and Chief Legal Officer before taking the SHPE helm in 2017.
She told E100 how STEM organizations can strengthen diversity, inclusion, equity and advocacy and shares the significance of Hispanic Heritage Month.
– Katherine Brennecke, The Engineering 100
As a lawyer leading an organization dedicated to supporting STEM students and professionals, what is it about the SHPE mission that drives you every day?
For me, it’s about building on SHPE’s legacy and strengthening our bonds as a Familia. And the only way you do that is by meeting and talking with members – by connecting with them. Obviously, that’s become a lot harder in the wake of COVID-19, but we’re still making those connections and supporting our members in every way we can. It’s all about empowering them. Not just in their careers, but in their lives.
How do organizations like SHPE help strengthen STEM in the United States?
In order to compete globally, our corporate and academic institutions need more diversity – and more diverse perspectives. That’s the only way that STEM can reach its full potential in the U.S. This is at the core of what SHPE does.
Our mission is about empowering the Hispanic community to realize its fullest potential and to impact the world through STEM awareness, access, support, and development. We envision a world where Hispanics are highly valued as the leading engineers, innovators, scientists, and mathematicians. SHPE members across the country engage with their respective student or professional chapter to build leadership skills and to increase their sense of belonging within the engineering and STEM disciplines. We want to show Hispanics that they are the future imperative; they’re the ones who will usher in a new age in STEM.
What are the biggest challenges you see now for Hispanic students who are considering engineering as a career? And what can engineers do in their own companies to address those challenges?
I think the most important thing you as an engineer can do is to share your story and be a role model for others. You need to be willing to tell the “whole” story, because stories of overcoming obstacles, being tenacious, and defying the odds provide young people with examples of how they too might persist. Every time you get a chance share your excitement and love of your profession with young people, and serve as a mentor when opportunities arise, in both formal and informal ways. Mentorship has a far bigger impact than anyone realizes.
To me, the biggest challenges Hispanic students face today are:
- Being the first generation to go to college.
- Being employed while attending college.
- Affording college.
- Working to support family.
- Being ready for college.
- Dealing with intersectionality.
We can’t talk about where we’re going until we address where we are, and it’s important that we include challenges like these when telling our story.
We are nearing the end of Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15), which is officially a “tribute to the generations of Hispanic Americans who have positively influenced and enriched our nation and society.” What does this month mean for you and SHPE?
Obviously, this is a very special time of year, both for SHPE and for me personally. Over the past few weeks, in the various speeches I’ve given, I’ve talked a lot about the idea of the journey: the one my parents took when they came from Mexico to Houston; the ones I’ve been on, both as a professional and in terms of my own identity; and the journey we Hispanics are on together. Our journey as a people is a powerful one, and I think it’s really important that we take this time to acknowledge and honor our history and the incredible achievements we’ve made – while also staying focused on the future.
This is also when we’re finalizing preparations for our national convention. For the first time in our history, this year’s convention will be all virtual. The team and I have been working 24/7 for several months to create the most engaging and empowering experience possible. We’re super excited about the programming, the competitions, and of course, the networking that happens at all of our conventions. We’re even hosting a virtual career fair, where hundreds of employers will be interviewing and making job offers on the spot.
This has been one of the most challenging years in SHPE’s history — and an incredibly difficult one for Hispanics everywhere. But I’m so proud of how we’ve weathered the storm. If there’s one word that defines who we are as a people, it’s “resilient.”
Engineers solve problems. Diversity of background, thought and experience bring fresh ideas to the table and provide better solutions. What practical, actionable advice do you have?
In terms of practical, actionable advice, you can create a climate that values diversity even beyond racial or ethnic diversity. Every organization has gender differences, disciplinary differences, religious differences, and/or age differences. But it’s how you move those dynamics forward that matter, and that starts with acknowledging that there’s always more you can do to value diversity and inclusion.
So it’s important to educate yourself and your team about things like micro-aggressions and implicit bias and work to reduce or eliminate them. According to a study by the Center for Talent Innovation, most Latinos in the U.S. do not feel that they can bring their whole selves to the office. The vast majority of Latinos (76%) repress parts of their personas at work. They modify their appearance, body language, and communication style — all components of executive presence, that intangible element that defines leadership material.
It’s really about creating a work environment where every team member can be themselves, where people are valued for both their similarities and differences. The evidence is clear: the more an organization values and champions diversity, the more success they have.
What does success look like for you? What makes a good day at work? A good year?
It depends on how we’re defining success. If we’re talking about sheer metrics, I think the numbers speak for themselves: a record 13,400 members; 286 chapters across the U.S.; unprecedented attendance at our past three conventions (and all our events)—just to name a few.
But success for me means so much more than how we’re doing financially — crucial though that is. If I can give my team members the tools they need to succeed; if we improve a program or a process and make it a little better; if I get one email from a SHPE member talking about how the organization has helped them — if any one of those things happens in the course of a day, I consider that a good day.