Editor’s Note: This interview is part of a project in which we hope to explore the continued lack of female representation for employees and entrepreneurs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The first installment of this series can be found here.
LaTisha Durham is an accomplished engineer with advanced degrees in her field and years of professional experience under her belt. Though she is only 29, she has already been recognized multiple times for her achievements by prominent organizations such as the National Society of Black Engineers. Durham is also the female entrepreneur behind Chic G.E.E.K.S., a startup organization that seeks to empower young girls to dream big about their futures in STEM.

I spoke to Durham about the difficulties she faced as a younger woman working in the modern STEM world, and why young girls with aspirations of working in STEM need female role models.

Edited interview excerpts below.

The Story Exchange: What made you want to work in engineering?

When I was in junior high school, my mom could not get me off the computer. “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” is all I played! My sister, who is three years younger than me, also could not get off the computer. One day, she did something that caused the computer to get a virus. It was just us two in the house, so I couldn’t ask my mom to fix it. I started to take the computer apart, because I was curious to see if I could fix it myself. I grabbed the Yellow Pages and called a random computer company. The person I spoke with walked me through how to put the computer back together and remove the virus. He spent two hours on the phone explaining the inner workings of a computer. From then on, I knew I wanted to learn more about computers.

The Story Exchange: Were there moments when you felt discouraged from pursuing an engineering degree or career because of your gender?

It wasn’t until I entered the workforce that I started to feel that, as a woman, I did not belong. Though I was entering a male-dominated world, I did not think I would experience any discrimination. At my job, we have a rotational program which allows you to work for different teams within the company. One day, my team lead walked me around to introduce me. We stopped by one gentleman’s cube, and the first thing he said was “You’re an engineer? You should be modeling.” He said it in a joking way, but I knew then I really had to prove that I can be an engineer.

The Story Exchange: Was proving  yourself challenging?

I moved up rather quickly at my job. During a meeting, as I was briefing people, one gentleman decided to challenge what I was saying. Now, this person didn’t ask [the men who presented before me] any questions. When it got to me, I received all the questions. Knowing that he wasn’t too fond of the idea of me holding the position, I knew it was a personal attack. Even though my face probably told a different story, I still smiled and answered every question. It got to a point where another team member intervened and said, “Do you want to give the brief or should she continue?” When the questions started coming, I started to feel as though I did not know what I was talking about. But [ultimately] these meetings made me feel more confident in myself and helped me to know that I am doing a great job. I can say now that he never questioned me again.

The Story Exchange: You told us in your Young Women to Watch application that young girls who are minorities feel discouraged from pursuing STEM careers even early on because they “do not see people who look like [them]” working in those fields. What’s your advice?

I would tell her to just do it! As I work with young girls or attend Career Day at schools, they always come up to me and say that they never knew black women could be engineers. It bothers me to hear that, so I continue to mentor young girls to let them know you can still be into fashion, makeup, hair and be an engineer. When I first interact with young girls, I asked them to guess what profession I am in. No one ever says engineer. When I tell them I’m an engineer, you hear a gasp. Stereotypes are just that – stereotypes. I love being a geek. I love fashion. So who is to say I can’t be a fashionable engineer?

The Story Exchange: Is that why you started Chic G.E.E.K.S.?

I started it because I myself didn’t have any one to look up to that was a woman and engineer when I was younger. Two percent of African American women are engineers. I want to make sure young girls in my community know that they can be in this field and for them to have someone they can look up to.

The Story Exchange: Could you discuss the experience of being a female entrepreneur in the process of starting up her business, especially one that is STEM focused?

Starting my own nonprofit was something I thought about a lot in 2013. A couple of my friends, who also served on the Region II Professionals Executive Board for the National Society of Black Engineers, were in the process of starting their businesses. Sitting with them during lunch one day made me realize I, too, can start a business. I started it because I myself didn’t have any one to look up to that was a woman and engineer when I was younger. I want to make sure young girls in my community know that they can be in this field and for them to have someone they can look up to. Although I am still in the planning phase, I am excited about this new journey. So many people have reached out to me to offer their help or wanting to be apart. I look forward to the impact I will make in the D.C./MD area.

The Story Exchange: How do we turn the tide in STEM – especially in regards to increased representation for minority females?

First, we need to introduce STEM to kids at an early age. There are great STEM toys out there, like Lego Robotics and GoldieBox. Second, more professionals need to mentor our youth. They are there to let you know that you are not alone – that they, too, went through the same problems as you. Third, more schools need to incorporate STEM-focused programs. Having at least one STEM course for every grade level in each school will allow students to gain a better understanding of this field. Fourth, introduce them to organizations like National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers. These organizations have really great programs for kids where they learn about STEM, working in teams, presentation skills and so much more.

For a List of All Project Posts: The Story Exchange on STEM Entrepreneurship