The U.S. produces about 93,000 engineers each year at the bachelor’s degree level and just 30,000 are from underrepresented minority populations or are women.
Niasia Williams, who grew in New York, is one of the few Black women with a career in STEM and she is working to help other Black people get involved in science, technology, engineering and math — a major task, since Wiliams herself is still in school.
In her new role as national chairwoman of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), Williams can make a difference. Williams works as an engineer at Pratt & Whitney (a unit of United Technologies, which sponsors NICEE and many other STEM programs) all while working on her second master’s degree, this one in STEM education.
Williams, 23 grew up in the Flint and Detroit areas of Michigan. She realized while in middle school that she wanted to be an engineer. Accepted into Rutgers University as an Honors National Science Foundation STEM Scholar, she often found herself the only woman and the only African American in her classes.
Williams wanted to change this, so, according to her website, she became a curriculum developer for an afterschool and summer program which served 300-plus students in the North Camden, New Jersey School District. This way, she was able to encourage young kids to consider careers in STEM.
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She also began mentoring for the Big Brothers Big Sisters program and joined Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.
Williams first joined National Society of Black Engineers in her sophomore year, and became the sophomore class representative for her chapter in 2013. Since the meetings were not close by, Williams had to make four-to-five-hour trips every two weeks to attend. This did not deter her.
Williams went on to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, often being the only African-American female in her class or the only African American. She has a master’s in mechanical/aerospace engineering. And she did an internship at Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.
Williams took time from her mission to diversify STEM to tell Moguldom more about being the new national chairwoman of the National Society of Black Engineers.
Moguldom: What was it like being named national chairwoman of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE)?
Niasia Williams: Being named national chair of the National Society of Black Engineers is extremely humbling. There are only three people in the entire society that know the results of the vote on the last day of the convention, so until a name is called no one really knows who the membership have entrusted the society to. When my name was called, it was almost an out-of-body experience.
Moguldom: What will your responsibilities be?
Niasia Williams: I have many responsibilities now. It’s being an active CEO of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. I am responsible for setting the direction of the organization, coordinating the activities of the leadership body, development and monitoring of national programs and objectives and many more things. Our organization has a senate structure that I am accountable to, so reports are made to them on a quarterly basis. In addition, I am responsible for making public statements and appearances as the representative of NSBE in support of the organization’s goals.
Moguldom: Are you surprised at the slow pace of diversity changes at most major tech companies?
Niasia Williams: I think most members of underrepresented groups in technology would hope that major diversity changes in technology companies would have happened by now. However, I cannot be surprised because these companies were built during times where diversity was not a priority and difficult to institutionalize. Not only that, it takes years to prepare and set someone on the path to becoming an engineer or other STEM professional. Though there have been many strides made, there is still a gap in exposure and education access that would allow for the next generation of tech interests to be as diverse as our population. NSBE’s efforts are to push for parity in the tech industry for African Americans through our strategic 10K by 2025 goal (to graduate 10,000 Black engineers annually by 2025) and other underrepresented groups through our 50K coalition (a collaborative of 40 organizations to produce 50,000 diverse engineering graduates annually by 2025.)
Moguldom: Why do you feel diversity in tech is vital?
Niasia Williams: Yes, it is absolutely vital! Research proves this. If we as “techies” want to continue to create the most innovative technology and world solutions, we need people of different backgrounds who bring different perspectives, skills, experiences and thought processes.
Moguldom: How did you get interested in tech?
Niasia Williams: I was always creative and curious as a child. I was pretty good at math and science as well. I looked for an opportunity to mix art and science in one career. In addition, both my father and stepfather were mechanics. I got to watch cars be built and pick out parts as a child. That probably had something to do with me becoming a mechanical engineer.
Moguldom: What led you to become involved in National Society of Black Engineers?
Niasia Williams: I was really unhappy when I got to college and saw that I was one of five African Americans across all engineering disciplines in my freshman class at Rutgers University Camden. It didn’t get much better from there. I was the only African American to matriculate into the Rutgers School of Engineering. I graduated as the only African American female in my undergraduate class and the only African-American student in my graduate class. In my freshman year, I began working for an afterschool and summer program in the Camden, NJ, community, which allowed me to mentor young students — teach math, English, and science — and change their perspective on what they, as youth, were capable of. As a rising junior, I continued this work with other sorority members during my summer internship. There was a regional board member who noticed me doing this work in the community and asked for me to serve as a community outreach chairperson. That’s how I became actively involved.
Moguldom: Why is National Society of Black Engineers an important organization?
Niasia Williams: When I was a young African American girl striving to become an engineer, I did not have the support of teachers or community members to push me forward. There were no examples that I was aware of and so I was fighting an uphill battle. Even in college there were preconceived notions and structures in place that could easily drive a person like me with much potential away from STEM. I was lucky to have a mother who gave me some emotional support; however, when it came to curriculum and navigating a new college space there was much to be desired. NSBE allows for that supplemental support. We offer the early exposure programs, the tutoring, SAT/ACT support, college transitional support, scholarships, professional development, etc. that may not be available if someone were trying to traverse the landscape on their own. I love that through NSBE, I am able to be the example to others that I didn’t have. As an organization, we now have 18,000 active examples for our community.
Moguldom: What has your experience been like being a Black woman in tech?
Niasia Williams: Though I am in a company that tries to push an inclusive environment, there are still challenges at times. There are times where I am the first or one of the first examples of African-American women with technical expertise that my peers see. In my field especially, you don’t find many African-American women and I would like to help change that. The good thing about being in a network such as NSBE is that you are able to easily connect with others, find mentors, and get support from people who have similar experiences.