Troubling Statistics for African Americans in STEM Careers
If you were to walk into any technology-driven enterprise in Westchester back in the 1970s, you would be hard-pressed to find one person of color among the ranks of engineers. That’s because minorities in the field of engineering were nearly nonexistent in Westchester 40 years ago—or anywhere in the US, according to Irving Pressley McPhail, EdD, of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) in White Plains. As NACME’s CEO, McPhail is focused on increasing the number of statistically underrepresented minority students earning degrees in engineering (minority students defined as African Americans, Hispanic/Latino Americans, and Native Americans/Alaskans; interestingly, Asian Americans are not considered an underrepresented minority in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields). NACME does this by providing scholarship money to a network of elite universities that then recruit, enroll, retain, educate, and graduate these students.
In 2013, the number of minorities entering the workforce with engineering credentials was an estimated 13.4 percent, according to McPhail. In spite of these gains, McPhail is concerned. “The problem is that underrepresented minority students make up a much larger percent of total population than 13.4 percent,” he says.
Perhaps of even greater concern is the fact that African Americans are not keeping pace with other minority groups with respect to gains in engineering. In 2013, 9 percent of the total number of engineering degrees awarded to minorities went to Hispanic students, while 3.2 percent went to African Americans and 1.2 to Native Americans and Native Alaskans.
As an African American himself, McPhail says, “I believe there is a real crisis in the African-American community across the board…and in what’s happening in our schools. There are far too few of our young people who understand engineering and how exciting STEM careers are… We have to stay focused on this issue; if we don’t, we [the global technology-driven firms] run the risk of losing our competitive edge in STEM.”
Hispanic Businesses Becoming More Mainstream
Fannie Aleman, president of the Westchester Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in White Plains, says there’s a major cultural change happening within Westchester’s Hispanic business community. “We are evolving, remaining true to our roots, while still becoming part of mainstream America—breaking free of traditional thinking and becoming more strategic,” she says.
Aleman also explains that the strong growth in Hispanic and Latino businesses in Westchester can be attributed, in part, to these business owners making a shift into less-traditional business arenas. “Today, more Hispanic business owners are looking to open a business in high-growth industries and where they can fill a market need,” she explains. In another break from tradition, she notes, “We are pushing to have more women break into industries like STEM and construction that were traditionally dominated by men.”
Aleman suggests that the biggest challenges facing Hispanic and Latino business owners in Westchester are not actually unique to Latino-owned businesses. “The biggest challenges are associated with licensing and regulations because many small business owners don’t have the time to navigate confusing websites, paperwork, et cetera. But I think this is true for all small business owners—not just Latinos and not just minorities,” she says.
African-American Entrepreneurs Driving Growth, Breaking the Mold
In 1996, Robin Douglas launched The African American Chamber of Commerce for Westchester & Rockland (AMCCWR) when she realized there was no central organization addressing the African-American business community. Politicians and business leaders who wanted to meet with the African-American community, she says, “would just come to our churches and tell us what they wanted us to know. And [church is] not business,” she says. Today, the AMCCWR is 150 members strong, and the African-American business community in Westchester has a centralized presence. Still, Douglas believes there is much room for improvement in communication between Westchester’s policymakers and her chamber.
“We don’t get the same level of support as other ethnic minorities living in Westchester County. Specifically, I don’t believe that the county’s Industrial Development Agency (IDA) office works in tandem with the African-American community as it does with other groups—even when we approach them to participate. So you have this miscommunication or lack of support that’s causing some inequity,” she says.
Britta Vander Linden, spokesperson for County Executive Robert Astorino, disputes Douglas’ view. She points to numerous initiatives aimed at promoting minority businesses within the Latino and African-American business communities that the Astorino Administration has launched, including: financing organizations that serve small and minority-owned business, educating minority businesses on how to navigate the often complex process of securing government contracts, and partnering with larger businesses in need of subcontractors to make sure minority businesses are aware of the opportunities. “One result of these efforts has been an almost doubling in the number of county contracts awarded to minority businesses since Astorino came into office—from 277 in 2010 to 493 in 2014,” Vander Linden says.
That debate aside, one major shift in Westchester’s business community has Douglas extremely excited. “The biggest change of all is [the increase in] African-American women-owned businesses,” she says—a boom that echoes the national trend, which saw businesses owned by African-American women grow 67 percent between 2002 and 2007, as reported by the US Department of Commerce. Robin Harmon-Myers, owner of Harmony Designs in Mount Vernon, is the perfect example of a female business owner driving this growth trend. The tenacious African-American entrepreneur turned a dilapidated 100-year-old building in Mount Vernon into an elegant 2,500-square-foot furniture store and design studio. She then built a successful retail, interior design, and consulting business. On the state of African-American businesses in Westchester, she provides a cautiously positive outlook: “Considering that we are still in the recovery stage in the aftermath of a serious economic downturn, [most of] the minority businesses that I know and support are doing okay. To survive, we learned that we have to have a strong foundation in business basics—business planning, clear visions, marketing plans,” she says.
Interestingly, Harmon-Myers feels one of the biggest roadblocks to success for African-American business owners in Westchester is overcoming self-directed stereotypes. “One of the greatest challenges is undoing the mental conditioning that we were taught as minorities, and as women,” she says.
Sasha Guillaume, a first-generation American of Haitian descent and owner of Mrs. G’s Services in Port Chester and the Bronx, knows a lot about breaking stereotypes. Guillaume is one of only a handful of minority business owners in Westchester’s home healthcare services industry. Guillaume, who launched Mrs. G’s Services with his mother in 2009, explains his unique situation: “Minorities are the face of home healthcare aides in Westchester, but the business owners are primarily Caucasian. I am different because I’m a minority owner.”
In 2013, Guillaume expanded, launching Direct Care Carrier, a Port Chester-based transportation service that transports home healthcare providers in the case of last-minute requests.
Today, Mrs. G’s Services is staffed by between 325 and 350 home healthcare providers and has won major contracts with the county as well as with multiple private long-term care agencies. Though Guillaume cites “easy access to information and resources for businesses,” in Westchester, his clear competitive advantage gives him a slightly different perspective. “No other agency in Westchester will drive their home health aides to a patient’s home. So when you have that kind of service differential, it just doesn’t matter what you look like,” he says.
In the Education Workforce, Male Teachers of Color Left Behind
The landscape is pretty dismal for teachers of color in Westchester, according to Bettye Perkins, CEO of Today’s Students Tomorrow’s Teachers (TSTT), a White Plains-based national foundation aimed at addressing the serious workforce diversity gap found in our nation’s elementary and high schools. “Our numbers in Westchester mirror the national numbers—only about 13 percent of all teachers are teachers of color,” Perkins explains.
For Perkins, this diversity gap is about more than inequity in the education workforce; it’s about the broader problem of classroom performance and workplace readiness for students of color—a problem that impacts the entire business community. “A new Harvard study found that when students of color saw someone at the blackboard that looked like them, their academic performance improved,” Perkins says. “The issue is that we have a growing population of students of color in Westchester, and there has been no growth in the number of teachers of color. There are many school districts in this county that don’t have a single teacher of color.”
And the situation is worse yet when it comes to male teachers of color. “When you look at the 13 percent of teachers of color, male teachers make up only 2 percent,” Perkins notes. In May, to combat this concern, TSTT launched a new initiative aimed at increasing the number of male African-American and Latino teachers in Westchester.
The Male Teacher of Color Initiative will mirror TSTT’s current collaborative model, which has resulted in 150 TSTT alumni teachers and a pipeline of 800 high school and college students throughout 10 states. For this Westchester initiative, TSTT will collaborate with all of the colleges in Westchester that have schools of education; all have agreed to help fund students in the program with at least half of their tuition. Equally important is the collaboration with participating public school districts including Peekskill, Ossining, Mamaroneck, Hartsdale, Mount Vernon, and Yonkers. Students from those districts will be selected to participate, and they will receive mentoring before even entering college.
TSTT plans to grow the project in support of 50 students who will each receive college scholarships. “It’s a long-term investment in students from the start of high school through college. Then we will place these teachers back into their communities as teachers and mentors,” Perkins explains.
A New Dose of Diversity for Westchester’s Medical Industry
When Westchester Medical Center (WMC) set its sights on leading the way in inclusion and diversity best practices, they called in the big guns. In March, WMC hired Mecca Santana, who served as the chief diversity officer for the State of New York, for a newly created position as WMC’s vice president of diversity and community relations. Santana was brought onboard specifically to look at best practices for internal inclusion and workforce issues, as well as external issues including how WMC can better engage and support the broader community. Internally, Santana and her team are focused on assessing how to hire the best, brightest, most diverse workforce, as well as how to develop, promote, and retain employees.
With respect to external diversity initiatives, Santana is looking at how Westchester Medical Center engages with the community: What is WMC’s external profile? And how does the public view the hospital? “This involves [engaging in] economic development, because so much of our external presence [is] about how Westchester Medical Center can support the communities that we ultimately serve throughout the Hudson Valley,” she says.
“We are forging relationships with community-based organizations and collaborating with diverse populations,” she adds. “For example, we are building external engagements with the minority women-owned business community, helping them to really understand how Westchester does business so that they can play a larger role in the contracts business.”
The Future Looks Brighter
US Census Bureau data slowly rolls out this summer, providing concrete figures on minorities in the workforce. But, without looking at these hard facts, the minority leaders with whom we spoke almost universally conveyed that—while there is still much room for continued progress—the climate for minorities in Westchester’s business community has undoubtedly improved, and they believe the future looks bright.
Financial planner Jesus Lopez captured this optimistic sentiment well: “Now is much better than it was 20 years ago, and I think the future will be much better than today. My children will be completely fluent in Spanish and English, and they will be highly educated. I don’t know if they will even be considered minorities.”