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Trailblazers in STEM, Latinas Leading the Charge

By Christine Bolaños.

Latinas are among the fastest growing demographic in the United States. Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics (STEM) careers are among the most sought after. It makes sense, then, that more and more Latinas are pursuing STEM fields and joining the ranks of scientists, technicians, engineers, professors, financial advisors, business analysts, researchers, program officers, data strategy consultants and more. Below are the stories of eight Latinas who are making waves in some of the country’s and world’s leading companies, furthering the impact of Latinas in STEM, and paving the way for the next generation of innovative minds who will change the world.

Laura Dee

Senior Research Scientist
Global Analytical Science Department
Colgate-Palmolive

Dominican Republic native Laura Dee immigrated to New Jersey with her family when she was 11 years old. She did not know any English and attended a school with few Latinos so she focused on her love of the universal language of math.

When Dee reached high school age, her family moved to the ethnically diverse town of Union City, but by then she had mastered the English language. She says her science teachers noticed her gift in math and pushed her to take more advanced science classes.

In senior year, her Advanced Placement biology teacher organized a field trip to Stevens Institute of Technology in the nearby town of Hoboken to see a tech talk about genetics and DNA analysis.

“I fell in love with the topic and I fell in love with the school,” Dee says. “I said that same day, ‘This is where I’m going to go, this is what I want to study and I want to know how to get involved in this genetics and DNA world.”

Today, Dee is a Senior Research Scientist at Colgate-Palmolive in the Global Analytical Science Department. Through her 15 years at the company, she has become a gas chromatography and low-resolution nuclear magnetic resonance expert.

In her position, she makes an impact by ensuring the products the company puts into the market are what the company says they are, contain the ingredients the company says the products contain and are safe for consumers. The department also ensures all guidelines are followed and the integrity of products put on the market are “good and safe.”

She wrote numerous standard operating procedures for active ingredient analysis and training to Colgate personnel around the world.

Dee leads the Hispanic Action Network, or HAN, the local Latino business group at Colgate-Palmolive. HAN celebrates diversity by sharing Latino culture, offering a professional development program geared toward Latinos advancing at the company and taking part in community service such as hosting high school tours at the company’s technology center with the purpose of attracting students to STEM fields.
This aligns with her commitment to Latins in STEM.

“Women make up only about 24 percent of people in STEM and a very small percentage of that are Latinas,” Dee explains. “There is a lot of work to be done but I think we’re moving toward closing that gap by going back to communities and encouraging kids to not be afraid of math and science.”

Andrea Ximena Cortés Beltrán

Metrology and Test Asset Management (MATES)
Industrial Engineer
The Boeing Company

Andrea Ximena Cortés Beltrán says her bilingualism, strong work ethic and loyalty to her Hispanic roots have opened doors to experiences she could have never imagined. The Austin, Texas born, and Guadalajara, Mexico, raised, industrial engineer always felt a pull to math which was like learning a new language. Career path tests in high school suggested she study a career in STEM, and despite dreaming of following in her father’s footsteps as a teacher, she realized her destiny lied elsewhere.

“Supporting flight tests for the company I work for in a Hispanic country, and representing women in STEM at panels and special events are a few examples of how my Hispanic roots have influenced the person I am today,” she shares.

Cortés Beltrán earned her Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from Universidad del Valle de Atemajac (UNIVA) in Guadalajara. After graduation, she worked for a mechanical-electrical company and taught English. After a year, she moved to Seattle, Washington.

She went on to earn her master’s degree in industrial engineering in 2012 from the University of Washington. As an Executive Development Institute alumna, Cortés Beltrán sat as co-chair for the 2014 and 2015 Hispanic classes.

Her passion for achieving her goals and helping her community is evidenced in all she does.

As Industrial Engineer supporting the metrology organization at The Boeing Company, Cortés Beltrán works on special projects at an enterprise level to improve processes and reduce costs. She leads most of the projects but is also a co-lead or collaborator on some.

“Every day is different,” she explains, “I have to make time to work in the eight to ten projects I support every day so time management, leadership and organization skills are key!”

She considers her team’s greatest accomplishment and impact within the company to be solving problems that lead to cost savings. For example, safety is a number one priority at Boeing, but there were concerns about metrology technicians having to carry more than 300 pounds of equipment by hand.

Cortés Beltrán led a team to identify the solution by going through a lean process that would lighten the load for the technicians, as well as save time. A process that would take technicians one-and-a-half days now takes only two hours. Cortés Beltrán and her team earned a safety and quality award at the enterprise level for their problem-solving innovation.

She gives back to the community as president of the Institute of Industrial and System Engineers of the professional chapter in the Puget Sound area. The group supports STEM events and works closely with the University of Washington students to improve their professional skills.

Cortés Beltrán also supports the activities of Society of Women Engineers and Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

“If you are considering ‘giving back to the community,’ keep in mind inspiring not only communities in the USA,” she says, “Think about reaching out to younger generations in Latin America that have lots of potential and need just a little bit of your time to get inspired.”

Amy Villaseñor

Engineer Modern Software Division
Qualcomm Technology

To say Amy Villaseñor’s pride in her roots is profound is an understatement. Her philosophy as a professional and human being directly connect to her Latina background and passion for helping others reach their dreams and potential.

Villaseñor’s family is originally from Mexico and she was born in Thousand Oaks, California. The family moved to Atlanta, Georgia when she was six and she remained there until she moved to San Diego, California to take a job as software engineer at Qualcomm Technologies after college.

Besides working a demanding job, Villaseñor pulls triple duty through her volunteerism and her pursuit of a Master’s in Computer Science through Georgia Tech’s online program. Through it all, Villaseñor has never forgotten where she came from.

“My Hispanic roots, my parents and my family impacted me in the sense they taught me how to get what I want,” she says. “That if I want something I have to work for it.”

While she may have come from a low-income background and had less resources starting off to reach her dreams, Villaseñor never viewed her reality as obstacles. Instead, she used her background as an asset.

A typical day as software engineer in the modem software division consists of coding, reading through technical specifications and code reviews with the team.

“Our work gets to impact a large amount of the population who uses a cell phone,” Villaseñor explains. “I work on the SIM card team, where we are responsible for working on the software that allows that phone to utilize the SIM card’s data allowing for connectivity.”

To Villaseñor, having the opportunity to work on cutting edge technology is her greatest professional accomplishment thus far.

Villaseñor sits on the board of two employee networks including one dedicated to spreading awareness of Latino culture and outreach in the Latino community. She recently became a TECHNOLOchica as part of the National Center for Women in Information Technology’s TECHNOLOchicas program in partnership with Televisa Foundation.

She is also involved with Latina Giving Circle where she was part of the first grant-making committee. Grant recipients included an organization dedicated to providing low-income Latinos with resources for higher education and the other provides computer literacy classes to Latina-working janitors.

Villaseñor fondly remembers sitting at a round-table with the committee and the recipients. Committee members were all in their 20s. She said they were in tears when the women said they were living proof their sacrifices were worth it.

Teresa Estrada

Senior Applications Engineer
Canon Nanotechnology, Inc.

Teresa Estrada grew up in a predominantly Hispanic South Texas town. When she moved hours away to study engineering at Texas A&M University in College Station she experienced culture shock.

“I discovered the best way to keep myself from feeling homesick was to get involved and stay busy with organizations on campus,” Estrada says.

She considers herself a hands-on person, who always wanted to learn how and why things worked the way they did. Her family instilled in her the value of hard work and dedication. Her parents’ background as educators taught her to ask questions and utilize resources.

Drawn to the field, Estrada participated in a summer engineering program to prepare potential engineering students for the rigors of university study.

“We would ride a bus for maybe eight or six weeks out of the summer to Laredo which was an hour away, and take classes at the university,” she shares. “That’s where we did a lot of the engineering type classes. I knew choosing the right major was going to be the right thing for me.”

Looking back, she is surprised that as a 15-year-old she was content spending her summers this way but she views it as an investment.

Adapting to a university setting vastly different from the town she grew up in equipped her with the tools necessary to thrive in a field with few women and even fewer Latinas.

“I always knew who I was competing against and made sure I was taken seriously,” she shares. “I was mindful of the way I dressed, when someone asked me a question I was prepared to answer it and it all made me work harder.”

She also applied that mindset to the technical aspect of her field.

“When starting a career in the semiconductor field some engineers are more process-oriented and some are more equipment-oriented,” she explains. “I became a process engineer but I made sure I spent extra time learning and understanding how the equipment and machines worked.”

This formed her into an able process engineer. Today, she is a Senior Applications Engineer at Canon Nanotechnology, Inc., where she focuses on defect reduction to prepare the technology for high-volume manufacturing. She helps develop innovative ideas to advance nano-imprint lithography technology.

Estrada is a senior experience level in her specialty and the company sends her overseas to countries such as Japan to work with customers and offer her expertise to reduce defectivity related to the nano-imprinting process.

Jane Larriva Rojas

Senior Vice President-Financial Advisor
Morgan Stanley Wealth Management

When Jane Larriva Rojas graduated with her Master in Business Administration degree in 1982 she did not know what the future held in store. She was 25 years old, recently married and just starting her career.

“I thought, ‘Here I am. The world is waiting for me,'” she recalls. “I had all the confidence in the world.”

But in retrospect, Rojas realizes there weren’t people like her in her profession back then. She was Latina, bi-cultural and bi-lingual, all assets that made her stand out in the workplace.

“In the early 1980s it was a very male-oriented, good old white boy male profession,” she remembers.

Suddenly, she was scared and alone. But her male boss and other seasoned professionals took her under their wing.

“But there were also some people who were awful and tried very hard to get me out,” Rojas shares.

Despite her MBA, Rojas’ first job was as an assistant and backup receptionist. One day, she suggested to the financial advisor he might want to answer his phone as it was his largest client on the phone, but instead of offering his gratitude he yelled at her for daring to use her voice.

“You are only a secretary and you will always be only a secretary, so don’t ever tell me what to do,” she recalls him shouting.

That was the determining factor that inspired her to pursue bigger and better things.

Today, Rojas is Senior Vice President-Financial Advisor at Morgan Stanley Wealth Management in Tucson, Arizona. Rojas has numerous accolades including the 2016 Investment News Top 20 Women to Watch and Morgan Stanley’s 2016 MAKERs class.

She is on the advisory board of The Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Arizona and has spent nearly 11 years serving as president of the Association of Latino Professional for America Tucson Professional Chapter.

Rojas served as chair of the National Diversity Council for Morgan Stanley Wealth Management for three years.

“I think of myself as a local kid; nothing special and nothing outstanding,” she says. She has used her skills and background to bring Wall Street to Main Street and help high net worth clients, their families and businesses make sound financial decisions.

“I would like to say if I can do it then you can do it.”

Mariana Preciado

Program Officer
Measurement, Learning, and Evaluation team in K-12 Education Strategy
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Growing up in El Paso, Texas, a majority Latino community, Mariana Preciado was used to everyone around her sharing similar appearances, family lives and experiences. But when she went to college she was in culture shock. As a successful professional in STEM, she realizes there are young women who may have similar experiences when they move away from home so she mentors women, particularly those of color.

Today, Preciado is Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on the Measurement, Learning, and Evaluation team in the K-12 Education Strategy. She and the rest of the team help the K-12 team “measure progress against its goals, evaluate its hypothesis using rigorous evidence, and incorporate learnings from the measurement and evaluation results to improve the strategy over time.”

Preciado feels immense pride and responsibility as part of the foundation which gives money to organizations that are trying to make a positive difference in the world. Within her team, she is proud of “the collection of tools and training she has been a part of to make it easier for staff to measure impact.”

Preciado was founding director of Research & Evaluation at CollegeSpring, a college access nonprofit serving underrepresented students in Southern California, the Bay Area and New York.

CollegeSpring’s data systems were named best-in-class by IdealWare and the National College Access Network. Preciado also provided consultation services to National College Access Network, the Chase Foundation, the Microenterprise Program at Pepperdine University and the Office of Family Assistance Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education program.

Preciado’s pull to furthering quality education may be hereditary as she is a daughter of an elementary school teacher who instilled in her a love of learning and respect for the teaching profession.

Preciado began making her mark before even entering the workplace. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Yale University, where she was a Gates Millennium Scholar, and her Ph. D. in Social Psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles where she was funded by the National Science Foundation and focused on quantitative methods and statistical analysis.

“When more Latinas are involved in STEM they can ensure it reflects the needs and strengths of Latinas and the needs of their communities,” Preciado shares. “Latinas who enter STEM can help apply it in new ways. There is a big need for really smart people in STEM who have not only an interest in science and technology, but to important social issues.”

Dr. Krystel Castillo

GreenStar Endowed Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering
University of Texas at San Antonio

As GreenStar Endowed Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering at University of Texas at San Antonio, every day is different and presents a new challenge for Dr. Krystel Castillo.

“I love my job because it offers the flexibility to advance my research, and keep up with cutting-edge technologies in emerging energy field and development in the new green economy,” she explains. “I love the interaction with my students and am happy to see them succeed.”

As a small-town girl, Dr. Castillo quickly learned persistence is the key to achieving one’s dreams.

“Becoming the first Ph.D. in my entire family was my dream and I achieved it by overcoming unintentional stereotypical comments,” she says. “You have to believe that there is no ceiling and strive to excel in every aspect of your professional life. ‘Continue to move onward!’ has become my motto.”

She knew from a very young age where her future would take her.

“When asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I would immediately answer: an engineer,'” Dr. Castillo recalls. “However, during my middle school years, I faced unintentional stereotypical comments that made me think about other career opportunities.”

The support from her parents and her exposure to trailblazers in STEM helped her to carry on. One trailblazer who stood out was a dean of the college of engineering who visited her high school class.

“By meeting a successful female leader in an engineering and technology-heavy field, I decided I wanted to become a professor and researcher,” she says. “Since then, I earned two doctorates in engineering at the age of 27.”

Once at UTSA, she found great mentors who inspired her to advance her research.

“This inspiration allowed me to establish a strong research group, secure externally-funded grants and become the recipient of the GreenStar Endowed Professorship in Energy,” Dr. Castillo shares. “I strongly believe that finding a champion is essential for your success and one role model can change the course of a life because if she made it, you can make it too! I feel that many Latina girls are curious and interested in STEM but sometimes are not paired with a role model that exemplify the STEM career path.”

Dr. Castillo puts her beliefs into practice by recruiting students who are underrepresented in STEM fields for her research team.

“I aim to attract, recruit and provide superior mentorship for students under my direction, including female and Hispanic students,” she says.

Kathya Chiluiza

Supply Chain Business Analyst
General Mills

Originally from Ecuador, Kathya Chiluiza and her family moved to New York City when she was about two years old. Her parents didn’t know any English but worked hard to keep food on the table and find greater opportunities for their children.

“As I continue to move forward I want to take advantage of the opportunities I have so their efforts don’t go in vain,” Chiluiza explains.

A graduate from Cornell University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Operations Research & Industrial Engineering and a Master’s of Engineering in Engineering Management, Chiluiza is Supply Chain Analyst for General Mills where she works with manufacturing plants and distribution centers on warehousing process improvement to better material flow. She uses her keen problem-solving and communication skills, cross-functional collaboration and technical knowledge to deliver business results.

Her path to STEM began at an early age when she first developed an interest in math and science. Her skills in these areas, coupled with the values she learned at St. Catharine Academy, an all-girls private high school in the Bronx, prepared her for a bright future.

“St. Catharine Academy really empowered us as women that we could do and be whatever we wanted to be,” Chiluiza explains. “I wasn’t limited.”

That mindset led her to find out more about engineering and eventually break down barriers in her higher education and profession.

Chiluiza also keeps busy through her involvement with community service and outreach organizations, including as consultant to Partners in Food Solutions, a nonprofit that connects the business expertise of volunteer General Mills employees with small and growing food companies in the developing world. She sits on the executive board of the Cornell Latino Alumni Association where she helps promote the needs and interests of Latino students and alumni through networking, recruitment and retention strategies.

She is a volunteer audiobook reader for Learning Ally, an organization providing blind, visually impaired and dyslexic students tools essential to academic success. Chiluiza is also member of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the Gates Millennium Scholars Alumni Association.

“I’ve been involved in community service since elementary school; working with various organizations, mainly with those that support education,” Chiluiza explains. “They offer others an opportunity to succeed and sometimes an opportunity is all one person needs in order to be able to move forward and be successful.”

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