Top MA tech and engineering firms join as sponsors in career development efforts
In summer 2020, the Institute of Diversity Sciences (IDS) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst launched an annual leadership academy for students of color and women who are interested in careers in technology and engineering. It was such a great success that in summer 2021, the aim is to involve a wider array of industry and alumni partners.
The Leadership Academy is led by equity and inclusion expert Nilanjana Buju Dasgupta and a core team at UMass Amherst, in collaboration with UMass Dartmouth, UMass Lowell, Harvard University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Wheaton, Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges and several other Massachusetts institutions. Last year, students of the academy were sponsored by technology and engineering sector leaders MathWorks, Dell Technologies, Red Hat, Liberty Mutual Insurance, Nye Lubricants and Energetiq.
Dasgupta says, “This program is the product of a true collaboration among higher education leaders and tech and engineering industry leaders to ensure that Black, Latinx and women students have equal opportunity to develop the professional leadership skills needed to thrive in 21st century careers in technology and engineering innovation.”
In 2020, more than 100 students applied for a limited number of seats, and 54 students – 72% women, 48% Black and Latinx and 24% LGBTQ students from 16 Massachusetts colleges and universities – were selected through a lottery. They met online over six weeks from July 6–Aug 15 and participated in live class sessions three times a week.
During the COVID pandemic, many summer internships for college students are cancelled. Internships are important for all students, but especially critical for those underrepresented in technology and engineering careers—namely Black, Latinx, and women students—so that they can successfully navigate and thrive in the technology and engineering innovation industries, Dasgupta points out.
The academy was the idea of a statewide network called Researchers, Educators, Business Leaders and Students (REBLS) that is funded by the National Science Foundation, and housed within IDS at UMass Amherst. REBLS members recognized that students of color and women majoring in technology and engineering may be disproportionately affected by a growing gap between the demand for, and supply of, internships, so they created the new initiative to bridge this gap, she recalls.
The academy’s teaching team is led by Rati Thanawala, the 2018 Advanced Leadership Fellow at Harvard University who spent 39 years working in the technology industry, and Hannah Riley Bowles, chair of the Management, Leadership, and Decision Sciences area at the Harvard Kennedy School. The curriculum was originally created with a grant from the Melinda Gates Company, Pivotal Ventures.
Thanawala, a member of REBLS, first pitched the idea to her fellow members and it quickly caught fire in the network, Dasgupta says. A core team from UMass, Harvard, and Wheaton College self-assembled to assess student interest and scholarship needs across Massachusetts colleges and universities. The team also began reaching out to industry partners, inviting them to sponsor the program.
Dasgupta says this program is a fast-paced accelerator for students planning their journey into the technology or engineering workforce. The curriculum teaches students the unspoken culture of professional workplaces, empowers them to develop professional skills, and helps them anticipate challenges in early careers through reading, reflection, assignments, and discussions with invited industry speakers. Students are coached to develop insights into their personal strengths, to communicate their strengths effectively at work, and to acquire new skills like business negotiation.
Last spring, invitations to technology and engineering companies in Massachusetts to sponsor students were met with swift and enthusiastic support, Dasgupta reports, and the companies collectively donated more than $55,000 in less than two months. Industry leaders, some of whom are alumnae, also volunteered their time as speakers who shared their experience with students.
The Leadership Academy is one of several programs of the Institute of Diversity Sciences whose mission is to support STEM research for equity and inspire the next generation of scientists, technologists and engineers seeking pathways to social good in their careers. The Institute is also launching a "Pathways to Social Good in your STEM career" speaker series that will connect alum and others working in STEM fields to current undergraduates charting their own STEM careers.