Now in its 20th year, the Women of Color STEM Conference returns to Detroit on Thursday, bringing resources for professionals and students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related careers.
The conference includes workshops and seminars for professionals and opportunities for college and pre-college students to network and learn from individuals already working in a STEM career. In addition to the opportunities to learn more about STEM fields, a number of awards are distributed to distinguished STEM professionals.
This year, Joi Harris, vice president of gas operations for DTE Energy, will receive the career achievement award, given based on “accomplishments over a career, role model potential and how they navigate obstacles in their careers,” she says. “It’s quite the honor.”
While many women have a difficult time trying to break into leadership roles in STEM fields, Harris said her experience was somewhat unique.
“Many who are interested in leadership struggle with credibility,” Harris says. “I was fortunate that my relationship with my company started in the 10th grade. I’ve had 25 years to cultivate connections within the organization.”
Throughout her career, Harris has worked to inspire and educate youth historically underrepresented in STEM fields in part through her work as vice president of the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program.
DAPCEP, a 2015 recipient of the City Council of Detroit’s Spirit of Detroit Award, is a nonprofit working to educate and support those historically underrepresented by connecting youth with role models and teaching programs like robotics and computer programming.
Harris said the biggest challenge in getting youth, especially young girls, involved in STEM fields is that they simply aren’t interested. One of her solutions is to target children at a much younger age.
“Historically, [DAPCEP] targeted 8-12th graders. Now we shifted that program all the way to Kindergarten. I think the research shows that if you don’t get them by the 4th grade it won’t work,” she said. “Giving them exposure early — and the math and science foundation early — are the biggest challenges.”
Harris says another reason to attend the conference is because many businesses will be recruiting.
“The conference is geared toward students, professionals and business leaders,” she says. “Students can get mentoring, coaching and role model exposure.”
For those already established in their careers, Harris says volunteering can make a huge difference in a child’s life.
“We forget how impactful one conversation can be. I encourage those entering into their careers to offer their services to nonprofits,” she says. “It’s so rewarding. It really is.”