Tips for young women who love STEM

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Joi Harris has loved science, technology and math since she can remember. In sixth grade, Harris joined the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program, or DAPCEP. From that point on, she knew she wanted to be an engineer.

The odds were against her. Minority women represent less than one in ten employed scientists and engineers. In a 2015 study, 100 percent of women of color reported experiencing bias. Black women in particular were 77 percent more likely to report “having to prove themselves over and over.”

Yet Harris went on to earn a bachelor’s of science degree in Industrial Engineering, and a master’s of business administration degree from Wayne State. She joined DTE Energy in 1991, and quickly moved up the leadership ranks.  Harris is now the vice president of Gas Operations, serving more than 1.2 million homes and businesses in Michigan.

Harris is one of only a few African Americans in the nation who run natural gas utilities, and she’s working to change that trend.

Here’s her advice for young women who want to pursue a career in STEM:

  1. “You need a thick skin, but you have to always demand respect. Coming up through the ranks, there weren’t always a lot of colleagues who looked like me. I’ve had countless people say things that I thought were disrespectful to me as an African American, or as a woman, and I had to sensitize my peers on occasion.”
  1. “Take on assignments and responsibilities that make you more competitive. Don’t shy away from projects that will give you a new skillset. Successful leaders in STEM need a deep understanding of their field, as well as a broad understanding of the business. We also need soft skills, like how to work with different personalities and how to effectively communicate. It’s easy to focus on things you enjoy most, but we need to push ourselves to tackle challenges that help us develop.”
  1. “Find a mentor, but take responsibility of your own career. I had a wonderful mentor who guided me over the years, and advocated for me as I progressed. Your mentor can help you immensely. But it’s your responsibility to manage your career. I talk to employees about their career goals all the time, and I’m always surprised when people don’t know what they want to do long-term. It’s important to do a self-evaluation to determine strengths for your current as well as future organizations.”

Harris is one of two DTE Energy leaders who were honored at the Women of Color in STEM Conference on Saturday, Oct. 15. Harris was presented with the Career Achievement Award and Tabice Ward, director of Information Protection and Security, received a Special Recognition Award.

DTE Energy supports the annual Women of Color STEM Conference as a diamond partner to help bring together 4,000 students, professionals and business leaders interested in science, technology, engineering and math.