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The hidden GEM opening doors for diverse grads in STEM

Photo: Former Xerox CEO and GEM Fellow Ursula Burns

Percy Gilbert’s path to becoming a senior manager and electrical engineer started off like many young careers do. He had to first pay his dues. As a GEM intern at NASA Lewis Research Center, he had to perform tedious tasks, per his job description. Despite his internship being roughly 30 percent menial tasks, he showed up early to meetings and work. Hopeful and eager for knowledge, he sponged all the industry wisdom he could, imagining the day when he would be the authority. He asked well-thought out questions. He took challenging work off key staffers’ plates and delivered outstanding work on all of his assignments, completing them under the deadline he’d given to his managers. He didn’t tell his managers that he also had a much-shorter deadline for himself, or that he had built into his action plan all possible contingencies. He was driven from day one.

Percy understood that an internship was an extended interview and so he treated it that way. In the initial NASA interview, he had shared his goals, expectations, and performance appraisal aims. After he received the offer, he confirmed all verbally agreed upon objectives via email with his recruiter and manager. He had heard a lot of horror stories about internships and was confident this would not be one of them. He planned to air any concerns that might come up with his recruiter.

At the start of the internship, he let his manager know that he was very open to feedback and advice. As wins started piling up, he began writing his resume, detailing accomplishments with metrics when possible. He moved further into the proactive, forward-thinking mindset of long-term horizons, seeing himself in a position of leadership.

Percy turned his internship into preparation for a job

He never thought he would meet one of the senior managers he most admired, but one day he bumped into him on the elevator. The well-prepared intern demonstrated quiet confidence about a trending industry topic and in an off-hand manner asked him, “What do you think?” The senior manager viewed himself as the authority. He enjoyed the brief conversation, wished the young man luck, and said, “And if you ever want to talk further, just make an appointment with my assistant.”

Percy’s spirit of gratitude extended to everyone who had helped him. He was respectful of this opportunity to learn, grow and realize his potential—despite it being one-third forgettable tasks. During his internship, he acted as if he were a guest in someone’s mansion and got to know the long-time residents living in other parts of the home; ultimately linking them into his own social family. He wrote thank you letters on Crain’s stationery to all of them. At key intervals, he assessed his goals, like learning the important players (catalysts and decision-makers) in the Center’s main verticals. During the internship, he researched topics thoroughly before asking a full-time colleague or manager for help. When problems arose, he took the time to reflect and formulated his own insights and solutions before consulting others. Full-timers began to see him as a standout intern, and a very resourceful and creative problem-solver.

“The GEM Internship was very enlightening. It helped me to establish a firm foundation as a technical contributor in the industry.”

At the end of the internship, he asked the same senior manager how he would feel about writing a “strong letter of recommendation?” He also asked two other key players, both of whom had facilitated his sitting-in on important meetings and assignments outside his department. Percy made the most of his internship; the start of a journey that has ultimately led him to becoming a Vice President of Enterprise Systems at IBM.“The GEM Internship,” Perce explains today from his office at IBM, “was very enlightening. It helped me to establish a firm foundation as a technical contributor in the industry. The GEM Fellowship was also instrumental because it provided me with the stepping stone to achieve my Ph.D in Electrical Engineering from Purdue University.”

Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns was also a GEM Fellow intern

That GEM internship provided Percy with a 2-year fellowship that helped him obtain his Master’s degree. Since 1976, The National GEM Consortium has been awarding Fellowships and internships to exceptionally talented students from underrepresented groups. Some of our most famous alums started out as interns, such as Ursula Burns, former Xerox CEO; Reggie Van Lee, former Booz Allen EVP; Powtawche William Valerino, NASA senior scientist; Mary Spio, CEO of the leading Virtual Reality company, CEEK VR; and San Francisco’s Dr. Juan Santiago, professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford. GEM alums also include Bay Area natives and Wonder Women like Shameeka Emanuel, senior product manager at Amazon and Joan Tafoya, a senior director at Intel. GEM’s alumni list is a veritable who’s-who in STEM and other professions.

GEM is a network of leading corporations, government laboratories, top universities and top research institutions that provide highly qualified scholars of color with full tuition scholarships for Master’s and Doctoral degrees in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). GEM also provides its Fellows with internships and job placement in STEM organizations and leading firms.

TJ Rhodes is a recent GEM alum who spent two summers at Adobe Research as an intern. Although a lot of winning happened for TJ during his internships, he maintains that “The big lesson I learned is patience and perseverance. Things don’t always work out right when you want them to, so it’s important to be patient and persistent and still pursue things that are important here. That’s one of the cool things about Adobe. They give you the freedom to work how you like to work and in the style that you want, which helps me to be more productive, but you also have to remember that your work style has to align with completing all your tasks in a reasonable amount of time. My advice to future interns is to be productive, have fun and learn something new ─ that’s the point of an internship.” TJ is now a highly-valued and well-respected hardware prototyping research engineer, as well as a member of Adobe’s Black Employee Network, and Hispanic and Latinx Network.

GEM provides candidates with internships and full-tuition scholarships for STEM graduate degrees

For more than forty years, GEM has provided the best and brightest diverse talent to Silicon Valley and beyond. We all know that diversity is a major component of scientific and business impact. But we’re losing a huge number of our future scientist because of lack of funding. GEM’s Fellowship application process is highly selective, but even still, we’ve awarded 4,000 Fellowships to exceptional African-American, Latinx, and Native American scholars since our launch more than 40 years ago. Yet unfortunately, on the flip side, we’ve had to decline 500 highly qualified applicants every year because of a funding shortfall.

The National GEM Consortium CEO Brennon Marcano speaking at Culture Shifting Weekend 2017

As we recently celebrated July Fourth, it’s important to celebrate GEM interns who impact the industries they succeed in. The GEM Fellowship enabled Percy to complete his Masters in Electrical Engineering at Purdue University tuition free. It should be noted that electrical engineering is one of the most challenging disciplines within the engineering field. It also enabled him to land that pivotal NASA internship, which ultimately helped him earn his position at IBM, where he has been steadily moving up the ladder since 1992. Today, Percy is a Vice President in IBM’s Enterprise Systems Technology Development & Flash/Memory Development division. GEM helped TJ to begin his now blossoming career at Adobe Research. The experience all GEM Fellows have gained through internships allowed them to start their path to independence. Let’s celebrate that as well.

Brennon Marcano is the CEO of The National GEM Consortium. Find out more about GEM here.