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Candid Conversations: Fixing Racial Inequity’s Leaky Pipeline 

published

03.14.2023

From left to right: President and CEO of Huston-Tillotson University Dr. Melva K. Williams, NI CEO Eric Starkloff, and NI EVP of Global Operations Scott Rust

During Black History Month, Dr. Kazique Prince, global director of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging at NI, led a panel with Dr. Melva K. Williams, NI CEO Eric Starkloff, and Scott Rust, EVP of global operations at NI to discuss racial equity and how to take actionable steps to achieve it.

As President and CEO of Huston-Tillotson University, Dr. Williams is in a unique position: She is responsible for nurturing some of the brightest minds of the future—and believes that we should pour our resources into everyone to build a world of innovators. Huston-Tillotson University is a historically black college and university (HBCU) based in Austin, Texas, and it is full of talented students with all types of backgrounds and interests. While Dr. Williams remains in awe of her students on daily basis, she still worries that some of her students may miss out on pivotal opportunities they deserve because of underlying issues of racism and inequity seen in classrooms, communities, and corporate offices.

As a black woman, Dr. Williams is familiar with navigating institutions where she is the lone voice. While she wants to protect her students from bigotry and discrimination, Dr. Williams knows she must realistically prepare her students to thrive in challenging environments and make the biggest impact despite identity politics.

I believe in the power of human potential, and racial inequity is a barrier to everyone hoping to unlock their full potential as an individual as well as a detriment to society as a whole.

 

- Eric Starkloff

Although all the panelists have different perspectives and experiences, they unanimously agreed on one sentiment: Racial equity can help us tap into humanity’s natural genius. Starkloff opened, “I believe in the power of human potential, and racial inequity is a barrier to everyone hoping to unlock their full potential as an individual as well as a detriment to society as a whole.” If we don’t open a seat for everyone at the table, “Think of what we lose—we lose the potential for the next great inventor, artist, or visionary.”

In a country with an extensive history of racism and segregation, healing trauma engrained into our social fabric can be complicated, challenging, and uncomfortable. So, why pursue racial equity? Dr. Williams’ “why” is personal—if you see others around you as a collective family, why wouldn’t you want them to succeed? To move forward together and excel in innovation, education, and technology, we must uplift people around us to do well—whether they look like us or not—before opportunities benefiting everyone are missed.

Dr. Williams’ work at Huston-Tillotson is very strategic; she wants to equip the minds of the future with the right skills to succeed at companies like NI. NI is no stranger to solving the world’s greatest challenges, and we’re dedicated to actively facing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging issues head on with honesty, even when it isn’t easy. After all, a testing engineer’s mentality is to learn from mistakes or failure.

For some, it’s hard to process that from early childhood some underrepresented groups don’t have the same access and exposure to quality education and rigorous math and science curriculum, which feeds into inequitable outcomes later in life. Rust noted, “As we’re doing more at the top of end of the funnel, we need to do more along the way, so people don’t fall out of their potential.” NI has focused on cultivating cohorts of brilliant engineers for generations. Rust realizes this goal means NI must create a welcoming and supportive space where employees can “reach deeper into the pipeline from the beginning, provide mentorship, and create a place for people to be themselves.”

NI also partners with Code2College to increase STEM interest among minority and low-income high school students. NI’s global early talent development program, Generation NI, is curated to help students find a career that aligns with their dreams, passions, and strengths through developing interdisciplinary skills.

As a higher education leader, Dr. Williams wants to end this “leaky pipeline” where minority and underserved students miss out on critical access during their youth. Communities with lagging resources and infrastructure must be rebuilt from the bottom up, and some groups might need deeper investment to achieve equity. Dr. Williams reminds us that equity and equality are not one in the same through an analogy: A $50,000 renovation on an older house with more internal issues doesn’t go as far as the same budget on a newer house that only needs cosmetic touches. Starkloff agreed, “The scale of inequities can be daunting, but people with certain privileges and power have a duty to understand the extent of change needed.”

Starkloff reflected, “Many people think overt bigotry was pushed to the fringes and that we’ve entered a post-racist world, but we haven’t addressed the real underlying issues of inequity and privilege.” We’re all still learning and need to shed light on history and our own innate privileges. Rust echoed, “Without deeply examining what’s really happening and teaching the history of what’s happened to certain populations, we create a trap where it’s easy to blame individuals for their position rather than the system that’s held them back.”

Avoiding the ignorance from the past starts with instilling curiosity and open-mindedness in the next generation. We can’t simply operate in fear of our perceptions. “Knowledge is the power over fear,” Rust encouraged. Discussions around racial inequity allow people to come to rational conclusions about their behavior and treat everyone with human decency. Rust relays how this process comes naturally to NI, “As a company, learning and knowledge is core to everything we do.” 

We have to look to each other to go first—to be the catalyst to the change we want to see in this world.

 

- Dr. Melva K. Williams

Dr. Williams is excited for NI’s community to continue to share learnings with students at Huston-Tillotson, so they can become excited about new careers that might not be on their radar. NI is committed to hiring diverse talent, whether that’s through more inclusive job descriptions or creating safer spaces. NI also holds other institutions accountable to DEIB initiatives as well. “We have to look to each other to go first,” Dr. Williams exclaimed, “to be the catalyst to the change we want to see in this world.”

We thank Dr. Williams and others like her that have filled NI with leaders who continue to Engineer Ambitiously. Explore how NI prioritizes diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging every day and how we’re changing the faces of engineering by reading our Corporate Impact Strategy.