Becoming Visible: Insights for Working Women from the Women of Hidden Figures
Romaine Seguin, President of UPS Americas Region, offered insights on leadership, perseverance and the importance of working together to women business owners at the 2017 Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) National Conference & Business Fair.
Many of you have probably seen the movie, Hidden Figures.
It’s the incredible, previously untold story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, three brilliant women who worked for NASA in the early 1960s. They were the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that put the U.S. first place in the Space Race.
But, because, since they were African American, none of that mattered when it came to the most basic of rights. When they had to go, they had to use the colored women’s bathroom. And for Katherine Johnson, that meant running at least half a mile.
Twice a day.
Often with an armful of books because she couldn’t spare even a moment away from the calculations she was doing.
Honestly, I don’t know how she did it. And I’m a runner!
Thanks to Katherine and women like her, today, running is a choice for fitness or fun, not a necessity. And because of her and women like her, who paved the road for so many of us, I’m privileged to be here, with all of you, on the 20th anniversary of an organization that has spent those two decades helping women develop formulas for success.
Now, I’m not a mathematical genius like Katherine, Dorothy or Mary, but I would like to pay a homage to them by offering a calculation of my own.
Here’s a number: 1,176,000,000.
What does this number mean to me?
Let me explain: 20 years of this event taking place, 4,200 attendees on average per event and 14,000 certified women-owned businesses. The number seems impressive when we talk about women that are making an impact in today’s world, but there are an estimated 3.2 billion women in the world.
So the number suddenly doesn’t seem so big, right? But there is a lot hidden behind that figure.
A lot of women doing amazing things. A degree of influence we can’t really calculate. Perhaps not hidden intentionally, as Katherine, Dorothy and Mary were, but in many ways just as invisible. And that’s a problem.
But it’s a problem WBENC has been working to solve since 1997. I’m thrilled to be here to celebrate that success, and the amazing work of this organization.
Think about Katherine Johnson for a moment: She fought a war against racial discrimination and gender bias, just by going to work every day. Almost everyone in this room has faced that battle on one front. But Katherine, Dorothy and Mary were fighting a two-front war.
I learned a lot from their stories. And, while their lives were very different from mine, I was surprised to find at least three correlations. Correlations that became connections and showed me what we shared, despite our differences. As women, it’s the shared experiences that make us stronger.
So, please allow me to share three insights I gathered from the women this movie portrayed.
Mary Jackson, started as a “computer”, that’s what they called the women who did what the machines do today, in NASA’s segregated West Area Computing division. In 1958, she became NASA's first Black female engineer.
But it took a judge and a courtroom to get her access to the advanced engineering classes she needed to get there. Not surprisingly, her character in the movie said, “Every time we get a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line.”
When I was a young girl back home in Missouri, I didn’t have much, but I had dreams. Dreams of making the world a better place and helping people live better lives. I wanted to make a significant impact in the world!
But they were destined to remain just dreams, because going to college was not in my parents’ minds or realm of possibility. If I wanted to go to college, I would have to figure out how to do it on my own.
One day, when I was 15 years old, I read about Title IX. Even then, I knew it was important, even though I had no idea how important it would be in my life. Before this legislation passed, women didn’t have equal opportunities under the law in academics. We were constantly denied access to medical, law, and other graduate schools; and women athletes were not allowed to participate in sports
We know from experience, that as soon as we get in a game, the rules are subject to change. From funding to networks we’re not a part of, the finish line always moves. So you just keep running. I did. And thanks to Title IX, I was able to attend William Woods University on an athletic scholarship.
When Dorothy Vaughn, mathematician and human computer, became acting supervisor of the West Area Computers, she also became the first African-American woman to supervise a group of staff at NASA. Over a 28-year career, Vaughan prepared for the introduction of machine computers in the early 1960s by teaching herself and her staff FORTRAN. Dorothy understood the problem with “business as usual” when you’re not the one running the business: “Just ‘cause it’s the way, doesn’t make it right, understand?”
Over these past 33 years, UPS has given me the opportunity to work as an unloader, a driver, in the operations, and the finance and accounting functions here in the U.S. and internationally. I’ve moved eight times and lived in several different countries. With so many different jobs in so many different places, I’ve learned that one way, be it mine or someone else’s, is hardly ever the way.
And the insight? Obstacles are inevitable; opportunities are possible. Be willing to change direction. There are three things you can be when faced with an obstacle: Defeated, dissuaded or defiant. Defiance turns obstacles into opportunities.
I told you a little about Katherine at the beginning. There’s a point in the movie where she tells her boss, Al Harrison: “You are the boss. You just have to act like one.” That one really hit home with me. And it probably does with some of you.
It starts when we’re young. Society encourages girls to be communal, consensus-builders. While these aren’t bad qualities, they often can lead us to downplay our own value. Remember what I said about defiance? If ever there was a place for it, it’s here.
What Katherine’s statement said to me was: Somebody’s gotta be in charge. It might as well be you. I have learned in life that it’s critically important to define your sky, meaning don’t be afraid to set the bar of what you want to achieve.
Whatever you’re running, a consulting firm, a restaurant, your household, start by identifying who or what you want to be within it. Then, create an action plan, find mentors and let them mentor you, look to your family for support, and pull from the resources you have. Envision the end result, identify the roadblocks, stay true to yourself and make your goal a reality! Somebody’s going to be in charge. I can’t think of anybody better than you!
I’m extremely fortunate to work for a company that values diversity and inclusion.
A company that believes every perspective is valuable, and that we, as a company, are better for what those perspectives bring.
A company proud to be a WBENC Platinum Award winner. Proud to be on the 17th annual list of America's Top Corporations for Women's Business Enterprises (WBEs), recognized for world-class supplier diversity programs that reduce barriers and drive growth for women-owned businesses.
Last year, UPS spent close to a billion dollars in procurement with small and diverse businesses in the United States. And we’re working to increase that number significantly over the next few years.
According to a third-party study, that spending helped those businesses, businesses like yours, generate more than $2.3 billion in contributions to the U.S. economy and sustain more than 14,000 jobs. UPS helps women gain visibility, and with visibility comes empowerment.
Women like Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson paved the road for us. But there is still a lot of work to be done and it is our responsibility for future generations to continue ensuring the visibility and enlarging the impact of women in the business world.
I can’t talk about the quotes that led to insights, without talking about the ones that triggered some real introspection. One in particular…
Mary’s saying, “I'm not gonna entertain the impossible,” was a reality check.
Mary, who had defied all the obstacles that race and gender throw up, was saying out loud the thing we all know to be true: We may all be in the same boat, but some of us have better berths.
We can’t hide behind the thing that connects us, gender, n order to avoid the things that divide us. Things like race, educational access, economic prospects and the privilege that comes with being on what society considers the “right” side of them. Intersectionality is like diversity, it’s not something you have, it’s something you do.
So In closing, I’m going to ask you to do three things:
One, estimate the collective power of all the knowledge and ability in this room.
Two, envision the potential of that power, defiant in the face of obstacles, those we share, and those we choose to.
And then, three: entertain the impossible.
As the character Al Harrison, Katherine’s boss, said: “We get to the peak together, or we don't get there at all.”
Ready? Let’s climb.
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