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.