Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than people. - Colossians 3:23 NLT
In this Re.engineer Trending Leader feature, we asked our newly appointed Chief Brand Strategist to provide some perspectives on leadership, STEM, and authenticity. As an essential Re.engineer volunteer, Alicia Washington has a brilliant vision for how we reverse the downward trend of minority representation in STEM. Honestly, we are so lucky to have an opportunity to partner with her as we expand our mission across all Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Alicia has a extensive background in manufacturing, specifically within the maintenance and reliability discipline, and with her hands-on experience in the field and in the strategic war room, she can talk the talk and walk the walk! Welcome aboard, and let's go change the world!
Alicia Washington is a native of San Antonio, TX who graduated as valedictorian in 1996 from Sam Houston High School. Determined to be successful in life and help her mom, a SAISD elementary school teacher, she ambitiously applied to at least one school in each of the 50 states. Ultimately, she decided on the University of Oklahoma (OU) and graduated in 2001 with her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering.
While attending OU, Alicia was involved in campus activities and proudly fulfilled her legacy of joining Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. in the spring of 1999. Alicia attributes a lot of her school success to her line sisters and other classmates who kept her motivated and showed her the ropes at OU. She also interned with great companies like Baker Hughes and Marathon Oil while in college. Each opportunity helped her build invaluable life skills. “My first college internship helped me to develop emotional intelligence and problem solving skills quickly. My leader sent me to different well sites around the state to learn drilling technology. This was before GPS was a thing. I printed out directions online and prayed for the best. Nothing builds perseverance like being lost in the middle of nowhere during peak tornado season and all of a sudden the sky turns dark!”
Alicia began working at Dow, Inc. right out of college as a Production Engineer and later became a Reliability Engineer. She left Dow in 2004 to join a supervisory development program at another company. She acquired her MBA in 2007 from the University of Phoenix before returning to Dow in 2008. She has held roles in maintenance and reliability, operational excellence and leadership. She is currently in a global reliability leader role and supports multiple plants in North America, Asia and Europe. Her next career goal is to hang up her hard hat for good and pivot into a more customer-facing business role.
Q: You have an amazing background and with all of your success early in life, why did you choose a career in STEM?
Alicia: Like many kids who grew up in my era, I was sure I wanted to be either a doctor or lawyer like the Huxtables but I fell in love with math and physics of all things. Then in the 11th grade I got the opportunity to intern with City Public Service in San Antonio (now CPS Energy). The opportunity came with a college scholarship and a paid internship the summers after my junior and senior year. This was the first time I interacted with engineers and what was even more unique about this experience was my leader was a Black female over operations and my mentor was a Black male from Prairie View A&M University. I saw myself in them both and became confident that I, too, could master a career in engineering. Now in all honesty, I originally applied for the biomedical engineering program at my school. Due to low enrollment the program was dropped before my first semester and I enrolled in the mechanical engineering with pre-med option program. After 5 hours of chemistry, I dropped the pre-med option and knew engineering was my niche at the time.
Q: From being a supermom and wife to leading maintenance and reliability teams around the world and even volunteering your time to support so many organizations like Jack and Jill, how do you continue to deliver excellence in the midst of supporting so many people and projects?
Alicia: I am a spiritual person and one of my favorite verses is Colossians 3:23 which in the NLT version says, “work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than people.” I try to remember this once I’ve committed to a task or organization. Yes, there are times when I’m not at my best but before I close the page on a deliverable, I make sure I’ve given it everything I have. My grandmother used to say she would rest in heaven. I didn’t like to hear that when I was young but now that I’m older I think about it often and it fuels me to get the work done. As long as we keep waking up, we have another opportunity to give selflessly.
Q: What has been the most difficult challenge you’ve had to overcome as a STEM professional?
Alicia: Honestly, the most difficult challenge even now is blocking out noise and thoughts of not belonging. As a minority and a woman in STEM, I’ve been looked over, talked over and often times made to feel as though my voice wasn’t welcome in the room. When those feelings of self doubt start to seep in, I remember that often the loudest person in the room is overcompensating for the silent internal struggle he or she is dealing with by hiding behind the “power mask.” In that moment I remember to see our similarities instead of our differences. We all fight external and internal battles. I’ve been known to follow up one-on-one with those people at the right time but ultimately I can choose which battles are worth me fighting. I can’t change people or their personalities but I can advocate for myself and choose to keep a positive attitude no matter what I’m facing.
Q: We believe that our personal expressions should translate into how we operate as business and community leaders. We call it “Bringing Your Whole Self” into any situation. How do you ensure that you are authentic to yourself and your work?
Alicia: I do a lot of analyzing. Some would even say I over analyze situations. One thing I’ve learned is to listen to my inner voice. If something doesn’t feel right, I hit the pause button. I utilize peers and mentors to talk through my concerns until a decision is made. I’ve had to tell leaders before that I wasn’t in alignment with the path forward. Although they didn’t like it, they had to respect my decision. Doing what feels right no matter what is the best way I can be authentic to myself and my work.
Q: You are a natural leader and have accomplished so much in your career. What advice would you give to other young professionals or students looking to take their career or education to the next level?
Alicia: The only advice I would give is to think it through, weigh the pros and cons and in the end if fear is the only thing holding you back, do it anyway! Fear is like a critical block valve. It’s designed to fail safe but as motivated professionals we have to be able to override our fears.
Q: At Re.engineer, we believe in challenging the status quo. Tell us about the most impactful opportunity you have conquered.
Alicia: I’ve worked on many projects and initiatives of which I’m extremely proud. However, for me the most impactful is the work I had to do in complete silence. My years as a people leader were definitely the most trying and lonely. There were so many things happening behind the scenes that I couldn’t share with anyone. There were times when my leadership made staffing decisions I didn’t agree with but wasn’t given a choice. For the most part I was always able to find the best case scenario for many of my direct reports, however. They were not usually happy with the decisions and of course called me all sorts of names behind my back and to anyone who would listen really. As a person who values integrity, this was hurtful. However, those employees kept a job. Whether it was in a new company that had been divested or a different department, they were able to feed their families and continue to thrive. Most will never know the battles I had to fight on their behalf nor the emotional or physical toll those years took on me. But when I see those folks still thriving, my heart smiles despite the side eyes and eye rolls I get from them (yes grown professionals do this in the hallways, break rooms, etc.). Leadership comes with many challenges and sleepless nights but you have to do the right thing even when you’re not supported. You have to find the win-win scenarios even though you are sometimes mistreated by the very people you are looking out for. Leadership is bigger than you and the moment you are in. Many people enter leadership for power or status of some sort. This is why such a large percentage of leaders in corporations and our nation are such poor examples of how leadership should look. If you are not in it to serve others, you have completely missed the opportunity to make the biggest impact (albeit maybe in silence) of your lifetime.
Q: Your article in the Winter edition of the Re.engineer Magazine, “Making your student work experience work for you,” resonated with many of our subscribers. What was an eye opening experience for you as completed your internships?
Alicia: I had no idea when I started college that the internship opportunity I had in high school would open so many doors. My university really pushed student work experiences and there were many sophomores and juniors who had not secured these opportunities yet. I think I landed 5 interviews the very first time I submitted my resume. It was overwhelming but such a blessing. When I began to look for full time work, I received multiple offers. I didn’t always understand the value of my internships as I was experiencing them. I remember lots of downtime and sometimes being all out bored at work. I would finish tasks quickly and beg for more to do. This is why I wanted to write the article. Had I truly understood the value of those experiences then, I would have never allowed boredom to set in. I would have been adamant about spending every extra minute acquiring as many valuable tools as possible to add to my toolkit.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
Alicia: This is a great question. Many things including an 8 year old who still prefers my bed over his! LOL. However, from a professional standpoint it’s the thought of running out of time before I get to maximize my impact. STEM has changed so much since I first started my career. There is so much innovation happening all around me and so many talented people with whom I want to collaborate. I want a chance to experience it all and deliver my contribution to leaving our planet a better place for my son and future generations.