What role can mentors play in shaping career choices?

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With the backing of General Motors, Black Girls CODE recently launched a Detroit chapter with a series of activities at the Detroit International Academy for Women. Kayla Shelton, a construction supervisor for DTE Gas, spoke on a panel during the inaugural activities aimed at encouraging more young women of color to explore STEM education.

What makes this remarkable is that Shelton was speaking from experience. Only a few years removed from graduating from Harvard University, the native Detroiter is passionate about helping young women, like those she spoke with at the academy, understand why they should be celebrating their interest in math, science, and technology.

Here is our conversation, taped on her 26th birthday, about the role strong mentors played in her career choice and how being on a robotics team in junior high helped her land at Harvard.

Podcast Transcript:

David Lingholm:  [00:03] With the backing of General Motors, Black Girls CODE recently launched a Detroit chapter with a series of activities at the Detroit International Academy for Women.

[00:13] Kayla Shelton, a construction supervisor for DTE Gas, spoke on a panel during the inaugural activities that was aimed at encouraging more young women of color to explore STEM education.

[00:24] What makes this remarkable is that Shelton was speaking from experience, only a few years removed from graduating from Harvard University, the native Detroiter is passionate about helping young women, like those she spoke with at the Academy, understand exactly why they should be celebrating their interest in math, science, and technology.

[00:44] Here’s our conversation, which happened to be taped on her 26th birthday, about the role strong mentors played in her career choice, and how being on a robotics team in junior high helped her land at Harvard.

[00:58] Just to start off, Kayla, I’d really like to dig in a little bit, because you’ve been at DTE for quite a while for somebody who’s still under 30. How did you get started with DTE?

Kayla Shelton:  [01:09] That’s an awesome question. It’s interesting that you mentioned that, because the date that we’re recording actually is my 26th birthday.

David:  [01:17] Happy birthday.

Kayla:  [01:17] [laughs] Thank you. I’ve been with the company since I was 18, which means that I’ve really grown up with DTE in the forefront of what I’ve been doing thus far.

[01:31] When I started off with the company I was just a freshman, straight out of college. Someone, actually, from the company reached out to me and said, “Hey, I know that you’re doing mechanical engineering, You should look at doing an internship with DTE. It might be a really awesome opportunity.”

[01:49] I said, “Sure, why not? Let me sign up. I don’t have anything to do for the summer yet. This might be a great experience for me.” Little did I know how much that summer would have an impact on my career.

[02:01] I worked at the Trenton Channel Power Plant in the reliability area, and had so much fun during that summer, really getting exposed to what it takes to go from coal to electricity, and learning about all the different materials, mechanics, and equipment that goes into it.

David:  [02:21] Especially when you’re in your freshman year at college, you haven’t had any coursework that’s going to tip you off to this at that point.

Kayla:  [02:29] Nope. [laughs] No, not at all. I think that’s what I found to be so exhilarating and exciting about it, is that I was learning something that was a little bit ahead of my peer group in that way, that I was getting exposure so early.

[02:42] It helped me to shape what my career was going to look like, what my degree was going to look like, what I decided to get into in college was going to look like. After that I said, “Wow, this is the light at the end of the tunnel. This is what I can see myself getting into when I leave college.”

[02:59] It gave me the motivation I needed to continue the course, because after that I had to take things like physics and thermodynamics, which were not the most exciting engineering courses to take, but I knew what was coming at the end. I knew that there was a path for me if I just stepped the course.

[03:19] Having that experience at such a young age really helped to shape me choosing my degree, and then also choosing some of the programming that I did within college.

[03:28] After having that wonderful experience in looking at the reliability at Trenton Channel, and also at River Rouge, I ended up joining a program at Harvard where I got a chance to go to places like Mississippi for the Army Corps of Engineers, and New Orleans looking at the engineering that was going on post‑Katrina.

[03:49] Then going to Brazil to look at alternative sources of energy, because energy was my background. Energy was my bread and butter at that point. By the time my junior year and senior year came I knew a little bit about what it took to take and make energy. That made a very easy transition for me.

David:  [04:06] What an incredible experience, though, for you. You can relate so quickly to things that your peers were probably struggling a little bit with.

Kayla:  [04:18] Yeah, I was really fortunate to have the amount of knowledge gained from everybody, from the crews that were out there doing the service work, to engineers that were looking at different metrics. Looking at capacity levels, that was something that blew my mind in such a way that helps me to remember that when I was going through all my coursework.

David:  [04:41] I shouldn’t say none, but I haven’t met very many college or high school seniors that say, “You know what? I want to be a mechanical engineer.” How did that journey into a STEM field start for you?

Kayla:  [04:58] Wow, for me that started off very young. I had wonderful teachers and awesome parental support while I was going through middle school and junior high. I had a teacher and my mom say to me, “Hey, you seem to really like math. You seem to really be taken into science, and you’re really good at it. You should consider engineering.”

[05:20] I said, “Well, I don’t know what an engineer does, but that sounds like a good idea.”

[05:24] [laughter]

Kayla:  [05:25] To go on a little bit further into high school, I got involved in other engineering programs. I believe I was in a robotics camp at U of D Mercy when I was a freshman. In my junior year, I went to U of M’s campus to explore some of the engineering programs that they had.

[05:45] Getting involved and getting exposed to what an engineer does helped me to solidify that engineering seemed to be a good path for me, because those were all things that I liked to do. I loved math, I enjoyed science, and I didn’t want to work in a cubicle for the rest of my life.

[05:59] Seeing that those were options right out of the gate, in high school, that helped to solidify why engineering was a thing that I wanted to pursue in college.

David:  [06:10] Recently you spoke at a panel for Black Girls Code. It was something that General Motors organized.

[06:18] Why was it important for you to be a part of that panel? I think I know the reason why.

Kayla:  [06:23] [laughs] A lot of it has to, actually, do with my experiences. I had so many people that helped me in the course of going through junior high, to high school, to college, and even now in my career, that mentorship is a really important part of what I do, and within DTE.

[06:46] I remember in high school I used to tutor people in math. In college, I was the mentorship chair for the Harvard Society of Black Students and Engineers. We did awesome things with the middle school students in the Boston area, as well as in the high schoolers.

[07:02] Even in DTE I am a mentor for the Step Program, which is our program for interns during the summer to help them in bridging that gap between being in college and being at a working environment. Last year I also was a part of the Girls’ Engineering Exploration Program with the Society of Women Engineers.

[07:25] That gears towards the same age range as Black Girls Code, between the ages of seven and nine, but helping them to explore those options as an engineer. I believe for Black Girls Code, their age range is from 7 to 17, as far as getting them exposure to coding

[07:43] Knowing that there aren’t a lot of people that look like me doing what I do, having that representation matters, because we were actually doing the panel at an all‑girls school in the Detroit public school system called the [inaudible] National Academy. They cater students from K‑12, so it’s an all‑encompassing school.

[08:04] Knowing that they can see women of color, specifically, that look like them in the STEM fields helps them to see the light at the end of the tunnel, like it did for me when I was a part of Trenton Channel and Rouge when I was 18.

David:  [08:22] I know you’ve had some mentors here at DTE. What has the transition been like for you, from full‑time college student doing internships during the summer at DTE, to coming on board? Now you’re a construction supervisor. Did you see this three years ago, four years ago?

Kayla:  [08:46] I don’t think I would have been able to pan this one out. When I got started with DTE full‑time they were just starting the formation of what was now a rotational program for DTE Gas. They saw that they were having a lot of management positions going to folks that were on the electric side, but not having enough talent base within gas to be able to then promote people as they saw fit.

[09:13] They said, “OK, let’s try something new. Let’s try a rotational program where we have employees going to different areas of the gas organization, learning a little bit more about each of those areas.” Then that would set them up for if someone retired, if somebody got promoted, or left the company, to have that talent pool to be able to pull from when those opportunities arose.

[09:36] I went from being a co‑op [laughs] , to now being a supervisor over a represented workforce out in Milford. The learning curve was quite high, quite high.

David:  [09:52] Although you’re not afraid of learning curves.

Kayla:  [09:54] No, that’s been the telltale of my journey thus far. Coming from being a girl that was born and raised in Detroit, and planting herself at Harvard was certainly a huge step for me, and a huge transition.

[10:10] I can remember even moving in was the first time I’d actually stepped foot on Harvard’s campus. I remember my mom giving me this quote. She said, “If it’s good enough for JFK, and if it’s good enough for Barack Obama, then it’s good enough for you.”

[10:23] [laughter]

David:  [10:23] I like it.

Kayla:  [10:24] That was the mantra that I used during those transitions when you’re going through the ups and downs of trying to adjust as a freshman. You’ve had that same mantra here, that if it was good enough for Joi Harris, it’s good enough for me.

[10:42] I took that and ran with it. I had a really awesome group of people I worked with, specifically at Milford, since that was my first rotation within the program as a full‑time employee. Those technicians that were out there were rock stars and awesome teachers, because, for me, I was still in that student mode, before I could even get into leadership mode.

[11:06] That was the best path for me in that transition, was learning that I would never stop being a student, and that the people around me are your best assets and resources for growth and for transition. They were awesome, as far as the staff. Those that I worked with and that reported to me were really helpful in me bridging that gap.

[11:26] [background music]

David:  [11:26] Thanks a ton for the time today, Kayla. I really appreciate it.

Kayla:  [11:29] Oh man, this was great, definitely.