Engineer Corlis Murray and her granddaughter Arianna walk through Abbott's headquarters in Chicago in February. (Courtesy of Abbott)

As seni­or vice president of qual­i­ty, reg­u­la­to­ry and en­gi­neer­ing ser­vices at Abbott, Corlis Murray over­sees en­gi­neer­ing and a $400 million budg­et at a com­pany with 99,000 em­ploy­ees in more than 150 count­ries. And she is one of the only Af­ri­can American women who is a top en­gi­neer at a For­tune 500 com­pany (if not the only one).

Murray is se­ri­ous a­bout re­cruit­ing more women and mi­nori­ties into sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing, and she wants STEM-re­lated com­panies to do more than they are doing.

In this post, she writes a­bout her jour­ney to the top po­si­tion she has at Abbott and what oth­er com­panies can do to di­ver­si­fy.

By Corlis Murray

When I was 17, I dressed up each day for work in a yel­low and orange shirt to as­sem­ble tacos, bur­gers and fries at Jack in the Box. I made $1.76 an hour.

My boss thought I had a bright fu­ture a­head of me there, and even told me I was an i­de­al can­di­date for the com­pany’s man­ag­er track pro­gram.

Around the same time, IBM came to my in­ner-city Dallas school ask­ing to take on a sum­mer high school en­gi­neer­ing in­tern. My guid­ance coun­sel­or and math and sci­ence teach­ers rec­om­mend­ed me.

I didn’t know of any en­gi­neers in my fam­i­ly — or among my friends. In fact, I didn’t even know what an en­gi­neer did. But I quit my fast-food job for the in­tern­ship op­por­tu­ni­ty. My moth­er, who had no i­de­a what en­gi­neer­ing was, sup­port­ed my decision.

Today, I’m one of the only Af­ri­can American women I know of who is a top en­gi­neer at a For­tune 500 com­pany. I over­see en­gi­neer­ing and a $400 million budg­et at a com­pany with 99,000 em­ploy­ees in more than 150 count­ries.

Still, the lack of rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women and mi­nori­ties in STEM is stub­born­ly per­sist­ent. With the world's population made up of half men and half women, just 15 to 25 percent of people work­ing in STEM are women, and only 1 in 7 en­gi­neers is a woman. And just 1 in 50 is an Af­ri­can American woman.

The issue is not a lack of in­ter­est or de­sire. The prob­lem is that many young women and mi­nori­ties with an ap­ti­tude for math and sci­ence nev­er ex­plore re­lated fields and nev­er con­vert to work­ing in them, be­cause they are not ex­posed or en­cour­aged in a way that helps them see what could be pos­si­ble.

That is trag­ic. It’s also mend­a­ble.

I keep this issue close to heart in every decision I make. Seven years ago, I found­ed a high school STEM in­tern­ship pro­gram at Abbott, where 60 percent of our in­terns are women and 50 percent are mi­nori­ties — we source in­terns from di­verse schools near areas where we op­er­ate. At ages as young as 15, the interns are work­ing on high-vis­i­bil­i­ty pro­jects, such as Freestyle Libre, a de­vice that eliminates the need for pain­ful, rou­tine fingerpricks for people with diabetes.

Of these in­terns, 97 percent go on to ma­jor in a STEM field in col­lege, ad­dress­ing the very real issue that mi­nori­ties and women tend not to choose these sorts of degrees.

But the fix is big­ger than my com­pany or me. It’s big­ger than a hashtag, a sum­mer camp or a STEM day.

We need people in pow­er­ful po­si­tions — edu­ca­tors, policymakers, sci­en­tists — to join together to reach girls and mi­nori­ties early, paint­ing a pic­ture for them of what the fu­ture could look like. These are our not-so-dis­tant-fu­ture in­ven­tors who will cre­ate the next life-chan­ging tech­nolo­gies that will be on the shelves, in doctors’ hands and in­side hu­man bod­ies, re­defin­ing what’s pos­si­ble.

But it takes a vil­lage — of par­ents, teach­ers and com­panies — to help girls and mi­nori­ties re­al­ize their po­ten­tial.

I was luck­y. My high school in­tern­ship with IBM de­mys­ti­fied en­gi­neer­ing for me. My fam­i­ly and men­tors sup­port­ed me. I also brought a good dose of stub­born­ness and grit; other­wise, I would not be Abbott’s top en­gi­neer today.

The Af­ri­can American man who took me out in the field to troubleshoot main­frame com­puter sys­tems — the same ones you may have seen in the mov­ie “Hid­den Fig­ures” — at a time when most female en­gi­neers stayed at their desks showed me that people who looked like me could suc­ceed. He dem­on­strat­ed how my nat­u­ral a­bil­i­ty for math and sci­ence could be put to use in a deep­ly mean­ing­ful way.

We rec­og­nize that the earli­er we can reach stu­dents, the bet­ter. We sup­port pro­grams that spark an in­ter­est in sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing from el­e­men­ta­ry through col­lege years, reach­ing millions of stu­dents glob­al­ly over the past dec­ade.

So I say to com­panies fo­cused on en­gi­neer­ing and sci­ence that no mat­ter what they are doing now to pro­mote more women and mi­nori­ties in STEM fields, they could be doing more. For ex­am­ple, un­less they already have one, they should con­sider the bene­fits of es­tab­lish­ing a high school in­tern­ship pro­gram.

If that task seems daunt­ing, it’s for a good reason. This is a long-term, en­tre­pre­neur­i­al ven­ture. It can be deep­ly per­son­al. You are not just reach­ing out to stu­dents: You are in­vest­ing in their lives. We have had stu­dents from wealth­y back­grounds and stu­dents from very low-in­come back­grounds. We have made accommodations for stu­dents who need­ed to work to sup­port their fami­lies. We have bought stu­dents busi­ness at­tire for pres­en­ta­tions and have Skyped with fami­lies deal­ing with heav­y health issues. I of­ten talk with par­ents hesi­tant to get them on board.

But I’ve been through it, and if you want to do some­thing sim­i­lar, I will glad­ly give you the blue­print, com­plete with the nit­ty-grit­ty lo­gis­ti­cal de­tails.

Let’s work to­gether. Let’s cre­ate a world where we achieve true di­ver­si­ty of people and ideas to de­vel­op in­no­va­tive tech­nolo­gies that will change life as we know it.

One of our former high school in­terns, now an en­gi­neer at Abbott, re­cent­ly joined me on stage at the USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington. She shared her per­spec­tive on push­ing through bar­ri­ers. Lines of kids from ages 7 to 17 came up to me af­terward to tell me that they, too, want to be en­gi­neers. Oth­ers con­tacted me on so­cial media to tell me they were in­spired to men­tor young people in STEM.

A vid­e­o of me talk­ing with my grand­daugh­ter was shown to the 1,500 people in the audi­ence. My grand­daugh­ter is 7. She loves cheer­lead­ing (and is very good at it), American Girl dolls, and math, sci­ence, Eng­lish and history. She has grown up know­ing her grand­ma is an en­gi­neer.

In the vid­e­o, my grand­daugh­ter asks me what it means to be an en­gi­neer. I tell her it means you get to build things — ev­er­y­thing that ex­ists has been en­gi­neered.

“Like sand cas­tles?” she asks. “Or snow forts?”

Yes, just like that,” I an­swer. “Also rock­et ships. And com­puter games. And de­vices that help your heart pump.”

We still have far to go to bring women and mi­nori­ties into STEM pro­fes­sions, but I find it com­fort­ing to know that my grand­daugh­ter’s ex­am­ple of an en­gi­neer is a black woman. And I hope my sto­ry can show oth­ers that no mat­ter who you are, you can look like an en­gi­neer.