In this three part series, these technical experts will look at the overarching problems women face in STEM careers and what they’re doing to go above and beyond the stats. Read Part 1 here.
Kellee H. | Sales Engineer, Workiva
Hey Kellee, tell us a little bit about your background and what has led you to where you are today.
I owe a lot of my academic and professional success to the foundation I built in college—particularly in regards to my sorority.
I went to Iowa State University for Industrial & Manufacturing Systems Engineering. It’s a statistics-heavy major and when you’re going through your gen eds studying things like physics and thermodynamics, sometimes it makes you wonder, “What am I doing this for?” They’re such tough classes, and it’s clear the department is trying to weed people out. If you’re on your own it’s a really difficult experience to get through. About 10-15% of my class, depending on the year, were women…which may not sound like a lot, but was definitely more than degrees like computer science. Having those women in my field—and most importantly, my sorority—made all the difference.
What made you interested in joining a sorority?
When people think of sororities, they imagine what they see in tv shows and movies. Before I got on campus, I literally tore up and threw away the recruitment letter when I got it in the mail; I wasn’t interested in it at all. But once I got on campus, I realized how involved they were in all the cool things on campus, like homecoming, the polar plunge—so I started to shop around. That’s when I found my sorority, Alpha Sigma Kappa, a social sorority for women in STEM. 90% of the women in the sorority are either studying science or engineering, and women who are in our house are 50% less likely to switch out of technical majors. Surrounding yourself with women who are going and have gone through the same experiences as you is a huge motivator and confidence builder during those early classes where people typically fall through the cracks. I was able to build relationships and have mentorships with women who I could identify with and look up to.
Can you expand on your sorority experience, and what made it so valuable?
Not only did my opportunities to engage with my fellow female classmates go up, but so did my opportunities to shape my future. My sorority sisters helped me find internships, directed me towards some classes and away from others, and when I interviewed at a place a graduated sister worked at, she coached me through the process to ensure my success. Before I graduated I thought I wanted to go into manufacturing, but several women in that field warned me against it, and it took my career down a completely different path. I would have been stuck on a factory floor with 12-hour shifts and never-ending work. Instead I’m focusing on a career that I’m excited about and look forward to excelling at.
That kind of mentorship is invaluable, especially to women who don’t see themselves represented in these technical fields. I remember being in a room of other professionals in my field, all of them older, white men in their 50’s and 60’s. We got the idea to write who had the most experience to who had the least experience on a whiteboard, and when I saw my name at the bottom of the list with only a few months, compared to these men who all had 10-15 years of experience, and I thought to myself, “What am I doing?” I had no example of how I could get there. And there have been a couple of other jaw-dropping instances…I was told for my first internship they hired me because they thought I was a black woman due to the way my name is spelled. The same company wouldn’t invite me to networking events because they’d be playing football and didn’t think as a woman I should join. I’ve hardly ever worked with another woman on my team, and it can feel isolating. Which is why I’m especially glad I have my sorority. I have this outlet I can plug into.
How do you empower women in tech?
Because of everything I got out of my sorority experience, I decided to volunteer on the national level to consult with other chapters and build leadership and national convention. The first convention I went to was in Minneapolis back in 2014 and I haven’t missed one since. We focus on leadership skills, have workshops on sorority business and recruitment, and build connections with women from all over the country. We installed a chapter of Alpha Sigma Kappa at Virginia Tech last year and have interest groups at several schools including U of South Florida. We’re on the up and up, and it’s super fun to see Greek life not be inaccessible or exclusive, especially in this niche part of supporting women in tech. Also, on a person level, it’s super rewarding and super cool to see someone come in as a freshman and want to be a leader in the technical space in their campus and not know a way to do that, then leave four years later with this support of these awesome women aspiring to technical careers who can support each other.
What would you say to women interested in a technical degree?
To any woman considering a traditional education in a technical field, I encourage you to pick up a passion project. In that early education stage it’s SO easy to lose focus on why you’re putting yourself through it all. It takes awhile to churn through the gen eds to get to the core of what you want to learn, so picking up a passion project will help you develop your skills and remind you why you’re working so hard. For example, if anyone wants to build our website, we need help!