In today’s special feature episode of the Trailblazers podcast, we engaged in a panel conversation with three Spelman College alumnae: Dr. Monica F. Cox, Dr. Carlotta Berry and Dr. Rochelle Williams. They discussed being among some of today’s most accomplished hidden figures, how to build a supportive community for black women and ways to start being #VisibleFigures in STEM.
- [04:45] Provide an overview of the movie and share what Hidden Figures was about.
- [05:30] Which character did each of you identify with most from the movie?
- [08:44] You all attended Spelman College and had a love for engineering. Could you speak to that?
- [11:00] What stood out most for each of you in the movie?
- [16:24] What specific scenes resonated most?
- [21:43] Was there anything else that continues to talked over and non-STEM venues?
- [24:00] Do you black men also question your role as engineers?
- [33:23] How important is community for women who are the first and maybe the only in their professions?
- [34:49] What are the main takeaways from the movie, from a STEM perspective?
- [37:12] Are black women in STEM hidden?
- [44:30] Do you think that engineering is any more hidden than the other sectors of STEM?
- [47:49] How do black women in STEM become more visible?
- [49:45] What can we do to change the public image of STEM to increase the number of girls and young children of color who go on to pursue careers in STEM?
- [53:30] How do we educate the public on what you women have been contributing to STEM and why it’s important to have that diverse perspective and experiences?
- [58:54] What’s next for the world’s hidden figures? How do we continue this conversation after this award season and movie have passed?
- [01:03:12] How can we build community around this initiative and ideas we’ve discussed?
Since my research area is robotics I like to tell people a lot that it’s not just technical research for me but it’s also a recruiting tool for me. So, I do a lot of things with K-12 related to robotics, because I think it’s a wonderful hook to bring more young people into the STEM fields and I think a lot of what I do is because of Spelman and the fact that I know the value of sisterhood and reaching back to bring someone else along and that if we are ever going to change the face of this profession to reflect the world in which we live in, to have the diversity in it that is the diversity that we see every day. And so because of that I related the most to Dorothy and the fact that she didn’t just steal the book from the library but she went back to work and read it to everyone else and taught them how to program the computers late into the middle of the night, so much so, that eventually her boss had to recognize… ~ Dr. Carlotta Berry
It’s all about perseverance, the hard work you do when you’re tired of doing the hard work you’ve already done. And I want people to know that if you want to do it, you can flippin’ do it. It’s not easy by any means, but it’s possible and there are women out here who have paved the way to make this happen, so that you too can do it. ~ Dr. Rochelle Williams
Leadership to me is a form of activism. So, often we think that activism is just protesting in the streets or starting some other kind of movement but I think that STEM is a movement within itself, because we’re behind the scenes making major decisions about our future and about innovation and about who will believe those innovations. And I just want people to see the bigger picture of what we’re doing. Delayed gratification is definitely something that’s a part of STEM education. Just speaking about higher education, it’s a hierarchy and bureaucracy. And you have to do your time. But what I’ve seen is if you do your time and if you do what you do well, then you begin to have a voice, you have a seat at the table and you’re making the decisions that are changing what goes on. ~ Dr. Monica F. Cox
Thanks for having us.
STEPHEN: So, let's do this before we get started - maybe if one of you would like to provide an overview of the movie and share what Hidden Figures is about and talk about the plot of it, maybe for those who didn't watch the movie.
ROCHELLE: Okay. I think that we can kind of provide different perspectives about it but in general it's about three very powerful African-American women who engaged in science, technology, engineering and math elements at Langley in Hampton Virginia at NASA and they brought their various perspectives, their backgrounds and love of mathematics together to help with human space exploration particularly with John Glenn and his flight in the 1960’s.
STEPHEN: Alright. So, which character each of you most identify with the movie?
ROCHELLE: I am Mary Jackson all the way. I am the new Monet's character. Although I'm young I feel like I just always have this desire and this burning sensation just to always go for what's always told me that's not possible. I mean there are even situations in the movie when she walked into the classroom after she got awarded the court order to take this night class and everyone's looking at her like what are you doing here. I can relate to that story in 2005 when I was pursuing my PhD at a predominately white institution. I walked into a graduate level of physics course and the first question someone asked was, are you in the right class?
ROCHELLE: So, I think we're seeing that moment played on screen. I think that's when my tears started because I was like wow like some of us are still going through the same things these women went through twenty thirty forty fifty years ago to break down barriers.
STEPHEN: Right, right, right. Any thoughts?
CARLOTTA: I think that I probably identify the most with the main character that Taraji played, Katherine Johnson and I think it's probably because similar to what Rochelle said that a lot of times you feel like people do kind of question your credentials and they don't understand the value that you bring to the team. I think it took a while for them to realize just how important she was if you think about one of her co-workers in the movie he would constantly question her credentials and what she could do and he gave her the document and asked her to do the calculations and she's holding it up to the light and she's finding mistakes through all of those obstacles. And I think that really resonated a lot with me because we deal with that a lot where people will question your credentials and are you here because of affirmative action or because someone gave you a step up or a favor and it takes a while before they can actually recognize the value that you bring to the team.
STEPHEN: Right, right.
MONICA: I can relate to the Dorothy character because I am kind of bossy as you can tell even from me wanting to clarify that.
ROCHELLE: A little bit.
MONICA: I'll say I'm orderly. I am a leader. Let's just call it that.
ROCHELLE: Yeah, that is your ministry you are the leader.
MONICA: Thank you so much and exactly and I just am the one who will go out before other people and try and question things and do whatever it takes to make sure that the people around me are taken care of and that their voices are heard. I could completely understand the daily frustrations that Dorothy Vaughn had by doing a job that she didn't have a formal title to do yet she continued to do it because she understood the impact that her work would have onthose close to her. And I also really appreciated in the movie her kind of stealing the book the Fortran book and all that many people say that's steal that's just kind of dishonest. I think that it shows more of her foresight and her ability to engage in a way that other people weren't able to understand. So, I just think that's normal. You do what you have to do to be a leader and to make sure that you are pursuing your passion in your ministry as Rochelle said.
STEPHEN: The interesting thing I thought that I wanted to first acknowledge is that you all attended Spelman and have this law for engineering, can you speak to that?
CARLOTTA: I think what’s Spelman did for me because every school I went to after Spelman was a majority school is it really helped to build me up and built that foundation and give me that sense of self-awareness that I could carry into any classrooms similar to what Rochelle said. After going to a place like Spelman where your professors were invested in your success and they knew your name and they nurtured you, I could walk into a room and be the only woman or the only person of color and have somebody question why I'm there and sit down with confidence to know that I was going to be successful. I think an experience to the HBCU that's what it does for you and gives you those opportunities to go in those other places even when the doors are closed.
ROCHELLE: Yes and I'll add and say the one thing that I really despise for people to say is that when you go to an HBCU you don't get a real world experience. And to those people I told them I’ve traveled around the world with these HBCU degrees and I have had Deans and College Presidents have to explain themselves to me in order for me to do something for them. So, I want young girls to know if you want to go to Spelman, if you want to go to Southern, if you want to go to any HBCU out there in front of you, go! It's not going to stop any door from opening for you as long as you do the work and you continue to do the work that you're supposed to do in order to get to where you want to be.
STEPHEN: Yes, yes. I love that.
MONICA: And I just want to add one quick thing about Spelman too because I came from a very rural environment and Spelman was great for me because it was a place where I did see a lot of black women who are doing amazing work in STEM. We didn't have engineering at Spelman because it's a liberal arts school but this is a wonderful foundation for me, because one of the first women to obtain a degree, a Ph D. in mathematics in the country was there and she mentored seventy people Dr. Faulkner.I think all of us maybe engaged with her…
MONICA: … at some point but although we see people in the movies who seem to be these UNICORN so to speak at Spelman we had an opportunity to see people every day who had these amazing aspirations and wonderful experiences much like the women in the movie.
STEPHEN: Talking about the movie let’s jump to that. What stood out most for each of you in the movie?
MONICA: I thought it was interesting to see just how isolating the experiences were for the women although you know that things were different back in the day we knew about segregation and about some of the complexities of being, I guess a woman or being black in a predominantly white environment. Just to be reminded of the discrimination and some of the barriers that people had to overcome throughout the movie in so many different ways, I think that was the thing that stood out, just this difficult recurrent team of overcoming.
CARLOTTA: I think the thing that resonated the most with me is that how much people were resistant to seeing your value. I even thought about the fact that they call them calculator is a calculator being like an inanimate object. And even once you know she was able to show her value and what she could bring to the team and what she knew it's like they just wouldn’t see us. So, it's kind of like this isolation or marginalization is just so strong that they were resistant to it until they couldn't deny it anymore because they didn't have anyone else on the team who could do what she did. So, at that point they had to look at her and they had to see her and value what she did.
ROCHELLE: And I add to that by saying sisterhood to me that meant more to me than anything just saying how these women were truly there for one another. And I know I would not be where I am today, had it not been for best friends and line sisters who loved me through the hardest times in my life which were getting these degrees.
STEPHEN: So, Rochelle from your perspective what was real?
ROCHELLE: Jesus! I mean growing up in Louisiana, I grew up in a Baptist church I knew who he was but you know how you always are told like you can't rely on your grandmother's Jesus or your mom's Jesus like you have to come to know for yourself… to me that’s so when I came to really understand the role of faith in my life. And so for engineering it's something that I've always wanted to do. So, there are only two things that I am very sure of in this world when I was young and that was I wanted to be an engineer and I wanted to go to Spelman. And it's because of faith that I even made it that far. I have amazing parents who made sacrifices that I probably will never be able to articulate and they allow me to do everything that I ever wanted to do, so for me engineering has been real because I love numbers, I love science, I love figuring things out, I love problems. But faith has like really made it real for me just the faith to know that tomorrow is going to be better because of something I'm doing today.
CARLOTTA: When I was in graduate school at Vanderbilt I used to always say if I end up getting this doctorate after six years it's going to be from the grace of God because there is nothing in me that would merit me getting this far either. One thing I share with a lot of people is I come from a line of teacher my mother was a teacher, my grandmother was a teacher but they didn't know what an engineer was, they didn't know what STEM was. No one understood why I was in school so long past high school and they could value and be proud of what I was doing, but I didn't have role models. A lot of times when I'm at work a lot of my coworkers are talk about their dad was an engineer or their uncle was an engineer or they grew up playing with televisions taking them apart and all that. I didn't have that experience as people of color we don't get that. So, that was always real to me is that I'm actually walking in a space that I never saw anyone else walking in. It's kind of like stepping out and not knowing whether the bridge or is actually there and that's always been real to me because we're still trailblazers even to this day. It may not be like the characters in the movie but everything we do we don't know if anyone else has made that journey before us.
MONICA: And I want to just point out something just a connection from what I'm hearing from Rochelle and Carlotta is that although we're talking about the 1960's and the original book also goes back even before that it's sad to think that we have the same situations that are kind of going on today. The women who you saw in the movie and who are portrayed, they were pioneers. But why do we still have pioneers in 2017 like in the same way? Why are we still breaking those barriers and what happened between that time and this time so that we didn't have more people who are visible? I just think that these are questions that we need to think about and maybe we can address a little bit more in the future.
MONICA: I kind of want to get into the support that you see. In the movie you see that Katherine's mom was very supportive and that eventually her husband began to understand what she was doing but I think that that is something that is important if you're going to be in a stressful situation or if you're going to be in a profession like this you need to understand that the people around you help you to either lift you up or tear you down. And that's really important in a personal perspective whether it's your spouse, siblings etc. So, that was very real, the relationships in the community that happens at work but also that happens in your personal life.
STEPHEN: H ave you seen guys this movie more than once?
ROCHELLE: I've seen it three times.
MONICA: Yeah, twice for me.
STEPHEN: I feel like I'm like wanting to go back and see it again. What specific scenes resonated most?
CARLOTTA: For me, it was actually the bathroom scene the one where she would leave for forty five minutes every day to go to the bathroom.
STEPHEN: Oh my Gosh!
CARLOTTA: And she would come back and he would say where are you going and why are you taking all these breaks and once again to me that reflected on things that we go through that our colleagues and our peers just have no clue about. They feel like when they see you you're going through the same experiences they are but they don't understand I am running faster jumping higher doing everything you're doing it and I'm doing it and going a mile to the bathroom and back every day.
CARLOTTA: And it was that scene that resonated the most with me.
ROCHELLE: And I'll say outside like I mentioned earlier it was the Mary Jackson walking into the classroom scene for the first time.
ROCHELLE: But even when her shoe got cut in the wind tunnel like that stuck out to me because I will never forget I went to the high school for engineering professions in Baton Rouge. And I was once in a school bus and we always tried to make sure we dressed nice to go to school and one of the senior ladies said to me she was just like you should always remember who you are don't get cut up because you want to be an engineer thinking that you have to conform to what people want you to look like or be. If you want to wear heels every day wear heels every day and that she was like that's what's going to make you an outstanding black woman because you can do both. You can be smart and you can look great and you can dress well and you can enjoy your life while doing it and so when I saw her shoe get cut in that wind tunnel it brought me back to that conversation of we have to be smart and look good and do all these other things but sometimes it's to the detriment of the goal we're trying to get to and so that when stuck out to me just because of that flashback to that conversation in high school.
MONICA: And I want to build upon what Carlotta said when Catherine was breaking down in the room in front of her colleagues and with her boss when she got called out. I think that was something that was very important because I've often noticed that we as black women engage in like we have these micro-aggressions. And someone will say something to you and you cannot push it to the back of your mind. But I think that there are breaking points and if you look at various scenes within the movie you'll see times when someone showed their true personality. We try to be professional and I think that we do a great job but there are times when you're pushed and you kind of show a little bit of your real self and your thoughts because you have gone to a point where you don't want to take whatever it is that's coming at you anymore. And I think that something that was very subtle in the movie but very real in the movie too.
ROCHELLE: And very real Monica because those situations happen and before we can even react I feel like there are fifty million questions that go through our heads in like a matter of seconds because we don't want to be labeled the angry black woman. I t's like we have to figure out how do we even address this in a way that's not going to make everyone think that we're this type of way but at the same time be very justified in how we're feeling in that moment because of what you've done to me.
MONICA: Right and that I think you also get to a point where if you've been in a situation long enough and things have been happening to you, you then say I have to speak up, because I cannot be this person and I cannot suppress this anymore because I know that this is going to be a detriment to my health into something that's more important to me long term.
CARLOTTA: And I think that's why it's so important that we do things like this podcast because there are people who could be allies and advocates for us but because a lot of times we don't as Rochelle said say anything because we have to be strategic about what we do and don't say. They can't really advocate for us because they don't even understand our experience it's kind of like walking a day in our shoes. They just don't have any idea because of these micro aggressions and you just cannot fight every battle. So, sometimes if you don't see anything, people don't realize well maybe that wasn't really appropriate.
MONICA: And I want to bring up one other thing that I have heard in other podcast. People are talking about the Kevin Costner character and then the engineer with Mary Jackson who are like the Great White Hopes like oh, why they the Great White Hopes. And if you have a think about engineering it is a predominantly white in a predominately male environment and many times white males are in the positions of power particularly maybe at predominately white institutions or organizations and you do want them to be your advocates. I've seen it over time and I can even say in my position as an administrator, that my direct supervisors are people who are very aware of the issues that I face as a black woman administrator and faculty and they are the ones who explicitly call out issues particularly with my colleagues and peers who have tried to manualize who I am and what I do as a professional. So, I completely agree that you need to have people who don't look like you who are in positions of power and who speak up for you in engineering.
STEPHEN: Wow there’s so much in that. I feel like you’re probably going to have a lot more people watching this movie again. I just looking at all these nuances, is there anything else that you think continues to be talked over in the media and non-STEM venues that you want to bring up?
CARLOTTA: I think one thing that resonated with me, also thinking of Janelle Monet's character is that she wanted to be an engineer and when the guy asked her would you already be one she said I would already be an engineer . I can’t remember exactly the way she framed it. But a couple of years ago there was this hash tag on Twitter that went viral that talked that #Ilooklikeanengineer and it was based upon this campaign with this young lady had been in a marketing campaign for a company as a software engineer and people said yeah right that's a model she's not really an engineer. And I think a lot of it as walking out there and people looking at us and going Hey you actually do look like an engineer you like a STEM professional which means we have a serious marketing problem. And therefore we have a recruiting problem. We can’t bring more young women and people of color to the field because people still look at us when we walk in the room and question, well should you be here? Are you here because of some special allowances made for you? So, I think that's another big one as well that resonated with me because of the movie.
MONICA: And then another point that I want to bring up about that Carlotta is just something that I've heard where people would say that there was a lot of laughter, it was too fun and the movie should have been more serious because these are women who are going to really terrible times and when I heard that on the podcast I thought, we actually laugh like to get through what we do as women as black women engineers we have to have fun, we have to have outlets because we're not serious all the time. And I think that there's also this other piece going back to what Carlotta said too where there are stereotypes. There are stereotypes within their own communities and there are stereotypes I think outside of our community, particularly our professional community. So, it's definitely we don't fit in. As you get more educated, sometimes people question who you are, where you think you're all that you think that you know something and you're trying to act a certain way you have a PhD but then there are other people who are kind of in this country club of academia who say you have a PhD but you have to prove that you belong here. So, where do we belong?
STEPHEN: And to Carlotta’s point earlier, I'd love to ask because it wasn't just people outside of our community in the movie that question them. Janelle Monet's character, her husband questioned her doing engineering degree as well as Taraji’s character when she told him what she did and you kind of question that. Do you find that you do that for a black man who also question your role?
ROCHELLE: Oh, yes. I'm single now because of that. Yes.
ROCHELLE: Oh, yes.
MONICA: Talk about that Rochelle.
ROCHELLE: I mean and another piece of this is mental health for black women because we deal with a lot and I don't think I've been able to even articulate like how much of my personal life has been affected until I started going to therapy so that's something I don't think women should ever be ashamed to say because until we start to say you know what I go to therapy once a week I see a counselor I'm able to talk this out, other women are going to understand and be empowered to know they can do those same things too. But back to being single, I was dating someone and even though they supported me they really didn't understand what I was going through. When I would have these conversations which is being like a bruise off like oh you're just thinking too much about it or it wasn't that serious of a situation. And when you don't have someone who can fully appreciate what you are going through it makes it very difficult to take that person seriously and want to move forward with somebody. And so I found that it's very difficult being that I was traveling so much to find someone who was okay with that. Someone who is okay with if I want to move to France and work on one assessment or continuous improvement and help their accreditation systems or if I want to just quit my job in Baltimore and pack everything and move to Texas because I feel like I can make more of an impact at an HBCU than I can in the nonprofit policy arena then I want to do that. And I think maybe a lot of it is me still wanting to do things that I want to do, but a lot of it is also how do I find someone that I'm a good fit with who will understand this is the type of life I choose to have.
STEPHEN: Right. On behalf of black men everywhere I apologize for that behavior. I'm married to an incredibly smart woman who probably makes almost double what I earn and I appreciate that, I love that. I'm her biggest fan and believe that at some point she's going to run the company she’s with. Hang in there God is working on another guy for you, you're single for a reason right now.
MONICA: So, Stephen after the show we're going to have you connect some of your friends with Rochelle.
ROCHELLE: No, we’re not going to do that. No.
CARLOTTA: I was going to jump in Stephen and also say that it's dating relationships. I'm married so it's my husband but it's also just family and friends who can never really understand what you do. When I tell people that I work in excess of sixty hours per week they just can't relate and they just don't understand that, because it's a paradigm shift for them because in their mind a job is eight to five Monday through Friday you work forty hours a week. So, some of it is self-imposed because I'm maybe a little bit of a workaholic. But some of it is also because of the career path that we've chosen. And it's like that jump higher run faster thing I told you about before is I just cannot afford to take my foot off the gas and see what happens. I have to be in control of the situation. So it's hard and I know I've been in Rochelle’s shoes and she can’t find someone who absolutely values everything that she would contribute to her professional career as well as a personal relationship but its educating people to understand the thing that what we do and how important it is.
MONICA: Exactly. And I think too that it's really important for a person to know what he's looking for prior to even connecting with someone. In the previous podcast that Stephen mentioned earlier I talked about my husband and how supportive he is but one thing that I've learned over time is that I do have to make deliberate efforts to separate my work from my personal life because I have to develop my relationship too. If I have to shut some things off although it's easy for me to work all of the time I’m just because balance although people may say it's not real, it's something that in a profession like this you have to deliberately try to have.
STEPHEN: Right. Absolutely.
ROCHELLE: Yeah, I agree with that and I think a lot of it for me has been I just love what I do like I love going to work every day. I love trying to solve this problem about how do we get more black women into engineering, like I love that.
STEPHEN: And so it is relate to Octavia’s character, Rochelle?
ROCHELLE: I do. Yeah, I was just like I know I have to work on, how do I put my personal life into that love equation too.
STEPHEN: As you touch on that I can probably relate your comment just now to what Octavia’s role did in the movie supporting and bringing so many women along on this journey. How do you relate to any of the characters maybe you relate to more than one but Rochelle feel free to share of maybe which characters you related to the most?
ROCHELLE: Well, definitely a Janelle Monet's character just because of her being young and having to be everything to a lot of different people. But there's a part of me in every single one. But I'm finding the more I figure out who I am I do see a lot of myself also in Octavia as well and it really goes back to what Monica mentioned earlier is just I know that my purpose is to support others. I don't think I'll ever be the one to run something because it's not my desire but it is my desire to help you get to where you want to be. It is my desire and my purpose to help you figure out how do we get something done and how do we solve this problem and get it done. I've never had to be in the forefront to make something happen but give me all the variables and I'm going to solve this problem and I’m a get you to where you need to be.
STEPHEN: I love it, love it. Monica, I know you're Dorothy Vaughn.
MONICA: Yeah a little bit but I was thinking about it too and I was kind of thinking about each character as relates to maybe a part of the movie just because I do think that Katherine was focused on a lot of the mental pieces, the calculations. I also look at the fire that Mary Jackson had you know she was a mouth, maybe just always speaking up and challenging the system. And just putting her words in action to challenge the system itself and then I think Dorothy was somewhat of the legs. She was the person who went forward and made sure that the execution occurred. She was going to program the I.B.M. computer when other people weren't there and she just stayed one step ahead so that everyone else could follow too. And I just think each of those ladies represents characteristics that all of us need to have as women in this field to be successful.
CARLOTTA: Oh, you betta say that word Monica.
MONICA: Thank you.
CARLOTTA: I was going to say what I think about a lot is this was actually a scripture that I used quote a lot when I was in graduate school to whom much is given much is required. And since my research area is robotics I like to tell people a lot that it's not just a technical research for me but it's also a recruiting tool for me. So, I do a lot of things with K-12. related to robotics because I think it's a wonderful hook to bring more young people into the STEM fields and I think a lot of what I do is because of Spelman and the fact that I know the value of sisterhood and reaching back to bring someone else along and that if we are ever going to change the face of this profession to reflect the world in which we live in, to have the diversity in it that is the diversity that we see every day. Then it is just so important and so because of that I related the most to Dorothy and the fact that she didn't just steal the book from the library but she went back to work and read it to everyone else and taught them how to program the computers late into the middle of the night so much so that eventually her boss had to recognize. Can you teach these other folks how to do it too?
CARLOTTA: So, I just think that's so important I think as women of color in this field that is predominantly white male. That is so important that you can't just say well I got mine and now you go get yours. We just can't have that attitude.
MONICA: That brings up another point from the podcast that I heard because people who are not engineers were just wondering how can someone do that, is that real no one's going to go and after five o'clock spend time learning how to program to help someone out. That's not realistic and Stephen that's what I was thinking about you also with this podcast, because that is real. You do what you have to do to get the job done and that's what I mean people to know it's more than a movie. There are people who are in libraries right now in laboratories and in places taking care of business to make sure that STEM is advanced in this country.
ROCHELLE: Right because isn't that a part of our accreditation and engineering lifelong learning.
STEPHEN: That’s right.
ROCHELLE: I mean this is nothing new for us this is what we do.
STEPHEN: How important is community for women who are the first and maybe even the only in their profession?
CARLOTTA: I think it is extremely important because most jobs I've had including before I was a professor even when I worked as an engineer. I was one of maybe two or three or none like now I'm the only woman of color at my school who does what I do. So, having that community one so you can talk to someone to go am I crazy or did I really sense this, did this really happen? And also for people to give you coping strategies. So, sometimes you say well you know I walked in class one day and the student asked me if I was really a doctor. Do you think they asked other people and so my goes girl yes that has happened to me as well. So, sometimes having that community of people who understand what you've gone through to support you and to hold your arms up when you get tired. I think that's really important.
ROCHELLE: Yeah and for me community has always kept me grounded like it has always reminded me why I'm doing what I'm doing.
MONICA: And I think community also motivates you. It propels you to the next level because I have seen other people who are in positions of power and are making changes and they're the first in what they do whether it's a position higher than mine or if it's an area that's different from mine and then that helps me to know I can move forward too if they did it I can do it and if I have questions about how to do what they're doing then I can do that also.
STEPHEN: So, ladies let's discuss a little bit more detail maybe how this movie translates to real life? What are the main takeaways from a science, technology, engineering and mathematics perspectives, STEM perspective?
CARLOTTA: Since, I am a professor I think mine translates into I want people to see this as fun. When I tell people what I do that I teach engineering, oh that's for nerd that sounds so boring. So, I feel one of my life missions is to help people to see how exciting it is that I do that I'm not nerdy, that I'm actually personable, I'm warm, I'm friendly unlike Rochelle I'm definitely not a girly girl, I don't do the heels, I don't do the cute skirts and all that. But I want you to know that I'm real and I'm an engineer and I'm not Sheldon or anyone else. I'm not Dilbert I'm not any of that. I want to totally break the mold and make them understand why I do what I do and I want to make it so exciting that you go I want to do that too.
STEPHEN: Love it.
CARLOTTA: I think that's really important.
STEPHEN: Love it, love it, love it. Rochelle what’s your response to that?
ROCHELLE: I'm just going to sit here and twirl my hair and twirl my skirt. But to me it's all about perseverance. the hard work you do when you're tired of doing the hard work you've already done. And I want people to know that if you want to do it you can flippin’ do it. It's not easy by any means but it's possible and there are women out here who have paved the way to make this happen so that you too can do it.
MONICA: And I just want to add that leadership to me is a form of activism. So, often we think that activism is just protesting in the streets or starting some other kind of movement but I think that STEM is a movement within itself because we're behind the scenes making major decisions about our future and about innovation and about who will believe those innovations. And I just want people to see the bigger picture of what we're doing and delay gratification is definitely something that's a part of STEM education. Just speaking about higher education, it's a hierarchy and bureaucracy. And you have to do your time. But what I've seen is if you do your time and if you do what you do well then you begin to have a voice, you have a seat at the table and you're making the decisions that are changing what goes on and that's something that I want people to know too.
STEPHEN: You know Monica you touched on this a bit earlier but I’m curious of kind of those voices that you open, are black women in STEM hidden?
MONICA: They are and they aren't and I'll give you an example about that. I was in an interview with a student who was so amazed at some of the things that we're talking about here and I told her I know at least fifty black women if you gave me a piece of paper after I write down the names of fifty black women now who are in STEM who are doing phenomenal work who probably have PhD.'s. And I think that I know people in that community and Rochelle and Carlotta may know them but they're hidden to the average person, for whatever reason, and I think that comes back to branding. It comes back to our being so focused often on our work and trying to do a good job in the communities where we are, the professional communities. And we sometimes don't disseminate information and ways that people who will never come to our environments can understand what we do.
CARLOTTA: I think I agree with what Monica’s saying. I think it's a mainstream issue. We all know each other because we're all part of that support network and that community that we talked about earlier. So, we know each other because we support each other through this process but because we're in the STEM fields we're not well educated or we'll versed on how do you market yourself how do you brand yourself. We had a workshop some years ago that Monica and I are attended and talked about branding and we really are thought leaders and we need to share our work on Twitter, on Facebook, on social media platforms. And that was absolutely foreign to the people in the room because we publish in technical journals we go to technical conferences but if we're going to change the face of what we do we have to break out of those traditional pathways and get ourselves on television shows about engineer and things like that. And we just don't think to do that. So, that's what makes us hidden not to mention that we're so spread out all over the country that marginalization and isolation there may be one in this pocket and one in that pocket. How do we all come together. We're never going to be in a critical mass somewhere that people would see.
MONICA: Right, unless we're at a technical conference.
CARLOTTA: Exactly. But mainstream people won't see that.
MONICA: Yes. Right.
ROCHELLE: Right .But I always tell people we are competing with basketball wives and the real housewives, no shade, because I love those shows. But that's the reality like we need to put ourselves on those type of levels. I remember that the National Academies was working at one point for the new McGyver to be a woman. I don't know what happened with that but that's how we need to start making this visible to people. I don't think we're hidden in any way because like Monica said we can run all fifty probably even one hundred women that are doing the things in their respective fields but it goes back to how do I carve out that time to make sure that I have a social media presence, that I have a web presence so that people will start to see that we do exist.
STEPHEN: I'll tell you, I'm in the marketing profession and you ladies are touching on something that is real to me. There are so many people that have approached me in the podcasting space about being guests on the podcast and I’ll jump off and they’ll say I’m the go to person for this. And this goes even beyond STEM but speaking to black professionals in general and they'll say hey I'd love to be a guest and I'll jump off and I'll Google them.
Here’s the fun in that. I'm the one that reached out to Monica and Monica had a Twitter presence that called out to me and when Monica and I connected I was blown away that she even responded to me. Monica has such a presence online so there are so many people who don't have that. And we are through out the Jane Doe but often times that Jane Doe reaches out to trailblazers and says, well I'd love to share my story and I have a very amazing story to share but the people who would be in my community or any other media community that wants to follow you post episode, post podcast, post T.V. show has no way to connect with you if you don't have a social presence if you don't have a website that's inviting and actually presents you as this go to figure. So, there's so much to be said for making sure that you have the right brand presence to represent you beyond your employer if you're working for academia or corporate America, making sure that you have your own presence beyond that showcases your strengths.
MONICA: But you know what Stephen, excuse me. But there's another part where I think that what we do begins to feel normal. Like you don't know how did that actually get, what you do because it sometimes feels like this is just what other people do every day and when you happen to see someone who's outside of your field that person says Oh that's amazing. Like you get to do this, you get to go to conferences, you travel to Barcelona, you presented in this way or you graduated as a PhD student we appreciate what we do but because we're around so many other people who do the same thing I think we forget to identify how unique that is…
… and to kind of look at it from a historical perspective because if you look at it, Hidden figures was created based upon a book. And that book documents the history. But how many books do we have that document the history of all of the hidden figures that we would talk about.
STEPHEN: How many books? Never were because they didn't document.
STEPHEN: Let me ask you in the different do you find that engineering is anymore hidden than other sectors of STEM? So, people in Math or other elements of the sciences applications within the sciences you think engineering has more visibility or less visibility?
ROCHELLE: So, in medicine we don't really see the problem of women not being able to pursue this like we see it in engineering, like we have millions upon millions of dollars being put into the retention and inclusion of women and women of color into engineering. But you don't see that same issue in medicine. You see women working to become doctors and to become dentist. So, it's like what’s special about medicine where they don't have to worry about this focus recruitment efforts like we see in engineering. And I think that's a lot of this problem that we need to figure out like what's wonderful about medicine and what's not appealing about engineering.
STEPHEN: Be careful Dr. McStuffins comes on and feels like you’re throwing shade.
ROCHELLE: No it's not at all because I want us all to win but I really want us to win an engineering to win it's because I love it.
CARLOTTA: I want to tell you what I think Rochelle, I think people see the medical profession or doctors as sexy you know what I mean so when you meet somebody you know like I'm a medical doctor like Oh. Where if you meet someone and you tell them you're an engineer they go what’s that I don't know what an engineer is. I hated math in school is that a lot of math? It doesn't get that it's a stigma on engineering that that's not on the medical profession per say. People are in awe of you if you say you're a medical doctor but you're an engineer I teach engineering and I have students to select that profession because their parents told them we make a lot of money and that's what they need to be and they’re sitting in engineering school and don't know what an engineer does. So, it's a marketing problem that all comes back to a marketing problem.
ROCHELLE: They have Grey's Anatomy, they have Doc McStuffins, they have CSI. So, what do we have promoting women in engineering on the mainstream.
MONICA: Exactly and I just wanted to kind of add to that it’s just my personal experience is that I'm a course department Chair and my assistant was saying that even construction workers were coming in and I was not in my office but my assistant was saying that oh you need to wait until the Chair comes back to go in and fix this issue and the person said well let me know when he comes back. And my assistant was amazed because my name is on the door but he said, he like when he's here? We will come back and do what we need to do and I think that's something too. There are such stereotypes that people can't even get over the fact that someone may be young or they may be a woman or they may be black in this profession too.
CARLOTTA: I think one of my favorites is I spend a lot of time grading obviously and I've done it like at the car repair place or on an airplane or even at my daughter's basketball game last night. And people will always see me doing that I go are you a student? Are you in college? Are you in high school? No I teach. Oh you teach high school? No I teach college. What? What are you teach? I teach engineering. Really?
CARLOTTA: Yeah. But the assumption is always first you must be a student because you can't possibly be educating somebody when they see me marking up papers. So, it's just interesting and they say it all comes to marketing and so I take that time to educate them about what I do, how I do it, how rare we are and how we need to not be so rare all of that.
ROCHELLE: Even when Black don't crack, we face agism a lot like Carlotta said people don't take us seriously because they were think that we’re students.
MONICA: Right and it also gets back to even going beyond teaching because that's the thing that a lot of people think about engineering too that you're just kind of a teacher. So, you are even being a professor what you teach but they don't understand that people can also do research they can also be administrators and that we are often expected to do multiple things as engineers too particularly within academia. So, that is one disclaimer too. We're talking about this on academic perspective and being professors and engineers and women and black.
STEPHEN: I love this conversation and we're talking about this offline but I'm going to just speak this existence. You women are need a podcast.
STEPHEN: This is an amazing.
CARLOTTA: Two snaps on that.Yes.
STEPHEN: Let's talk about this visibility of black women and engineering. How do black women in STEM become more visible?
CARLOTTA: I think the movie's a great beginning. I think that brought a lot into the mainstream of conversations like if you just look on your Facebook thread of people going, man I didn't know anything about that. I got so many people who tagged me on the trailer said you've got to go see this the first person I thought about was you because although Monica said we don't like being referred to as unicorns. To a lot of my family and friends I am a unicorn. I'm the only one they know like this. So, when this movie came out they were like that’s you that's who you are. So, we actually have to get more things like that into the mainstream. So, I think not only do we need a podcast but the three of us need to get a production company and make some more movies and make some television shows.
MONICA: Uh-huh. I agree because it seems that we are not connecting with the Hollywood types. I do see people I don't want to name their names because Stephen, as soon as I try to start some deal with someone then they’re going to be like didn’t you diss like Shonda Rhimes didn’t you diss Ava or something. No, I'm not chasing them. I'm just saying that I don't know anyone who knows them. And we don't run in the same circles and I think that we need to get out of our comfort zones and somehow connect. So, where is our larger conference, our larger platform where we bring together people who are at the peaks of their profession not just in stand or not just in Hollywood, not just in marketing but we are there together and we are there as equals to say we recognize that you're amazing in what you do but we're coming into this place naked and we're trying to figure out how we can now build something that elevates our people in our communities. And puts the egos aside that's another issue too. We are all important in our own eyes. But we need to learn how to recognize the importance of other people and other groups too and work together to build something greater.
STEPHEN: Thanks Monica for that. Carlotta touched on this earlier about making things fun. What can we do to change our public image of STEM to increase the number of girls and children of color who go on to pursue careers in STEM?
CARLOTTA: I think we really have to give people things in palatable small bites. In other words yeah there's a lot of calculus and physics and all these really overwhelming technical concepts related to engineering, but we have to break it down into some buy such chunks that people can understand. Help them to relate to something that they do every day and go hey you know that's engineering you're doing right there right. You know you don't a little bit of science right now. I think that's really important because what happens is speaking of a marketing problem is a lot of people get turned off from the science and math fields because of an experience in elementary school having a teacher who doesn't understand math trying to teach you math. Oh I hate math, no you just don't like the way it was taught to you. So, I think a big part of that is learning how to translate these things into terms that common man can understand.
STEPHEN: Both hands raised right here on that. My chemistry teacher in high school was what turned me off completely. And I just never got into the sciences beyond that. Yeah. I love that it would make things more practical and more relatable.
MONICA: And you have to meet people where they are too. I think if you look at what a lot of people are interested in particular if I talk about women. Little girls think about fashion or they may think about their hair or hair care beauty and that's engineering too their elements of engineering in that and so how do we somehow identify problems that we have whether it's Rochelle we talked about this humidity like hair in the south that's engineering. How do you combine chemistry and how do you look at ways to combat that, so that it helps people like we need to look at the real world application in our communities and say you can change people you can change lives in a new way and do it where you can make money too.
ROCHELLE: Another viewpoint is just that informal hands on learning. I fell in love with engineering in second grade because my mom put me in a model rockets class. So, every weekend I went to this class and we just built model rockets and from there I was like I was hooked, and to see the progression. So, at first I'm just building rockets I have no concept of any physics or math behind it. But as I get older and start going into other engineering camps like by the time I was in fifth grade. I'm learning the physics behind building a model rocket. I'm learning about drag and force and the equations that go along with it and that’s what carry me throughout my entire K-12 career. So, I think it’s meeting people where they are and giving them something tangible to touch because as you get older and as you mature in the profession of engineering things becomes more abstract. So, whatever you can touch at a young age I think that makes a huge difference in someone wanting to have that burning desire to stay in it.
CARLOTTA: And it was like I was saying earlier that that's what I used robotics for because it does touch on so many different fields including math and science and electrical engineering and mechanical engineering and you can have a student playing with a robot and they have no clue what they're doing and my daughter is on a first Lego league and I was sitting there with the kids and I said okay you're going to be the software engineer today and you're going to be the mechanical engineer today and the kids are like I don't know what that is. That's building the robot that's part of the mechanical part and my daughter programming the robot that's the software part and they're like oh okay. So, just like Rochelle said you've got them playing first the play transitions into the actual area and they don't even realize that its a hook to get them engaged first like the rockets for Rochelle.
MONICA: Could you say how old your daughter is Carlotta coz that's fascinating?
CARLOTTA: She's eight and because she has me as her mother she's been doing STEM since birth.
STEPHEN: I love that, love that. So, how do we educate the public on what you black women have contributed to STEM and why it is important to have that diverse perspective and experiences that you would share?
CARLOTTA: I think that our presence is important. I think you educate people by having conversations with individuals. One thing that I often get from people who have stereotypes about engineers or people in STEM is you’re very different than what I thought you would be or I've never met a person who's that funny who's an engineer. Like you just don't fit that profile and I think a lot of it just comes back to exposure which is going back to even what you're saying about Hidden Figures. People now are seeing STEM or seeing math as maybe a viable career because they can see what people do with it and they can actually have a face and a character that is in that place to show them the potential. That's what we are every day we're faces and we're like ambassadors of STEM and of engineering.
MONICA:: I'll say Shonda Rhimes book Year of Yes that she released last year really helped transform my thinking about that, because I used to be very selective about where I would spend my time and who I would spend it would because I felt like I had so little to give to others. But, living out making sure I say yes to any opportunity that comes my way within reason has really opened doors and it has opened doors so that I can speak about things that have happened in my past, my love for engineering, my love for black women, my love for HBCUs, talking about policy. All of those things have opened because I shifted my own mindset into realizing I'm not here for myself I'm here for others.
CARLOTTA: And I think very similar moving in nontraditional circles like I was saying earlier we're all technical people, we all went to graduate school, we know how to function in those areas but breaking outside of our comfort zone is the way that we really are going to change the world's perspective of who we are and what we do. And it's going in those places I think Monica probably does to the best of the three of us with her very strong social media presence because if you notice on social media she's not just talking about her research, she's not just talking about what she does as a technical professional. She talks about what she saw on reality T.V. last night or what's going on in politics etc. And I think that's how we have to do it. We have to start moving in those circles that are not the ones that we're traditionally expected to be in.
MONICA: But that requires that you're really vulnerable as well and I think that's something that is scary because I am over fifty people and they could kind of say well my department Chair is not very serious like why she tweeting about the new edition story. She should grade papers or she should write my policy document but I have to consciously say that I want to represent what I do in a very authentic way and I'm going to pull down that mask and I'm going to let people see that I am a real person with real feelings and if there are consequences that are negative I'm willing to move forward with that.
ROCHELLE: I think you are speaking on vulnerability and you know uncovering that mask is while a lot of us are afraid to have that public social media presence because we've been told that we have to be one hundred times better and ten times smarter. So it's how do I put this out for the world to see without letting people think any less of me like I'm already fighting and I'm already struggling for people to take me seriously. I have a rachet side. I don't want you to see that. So, you know what I will keep my page private but like Monica said it like we have to get into that mind frame of being authentic our authentic cells and letting the world see that.
CARLOTTA: Right. I think Rochelle is right. We do a lot of code switching in our professional career. So, that they don't ever see the real true you. Living in two worlds is what they call it. And so because of that if I'm on social media and I'm sharing that I watch Real Housewives of Atlanta last night someone from my job may go oh my goodness clutch my pearls you watch that I thought you were an intellectual. And we're so afraid for someone to see that other side of us and then take that as well that she's not serious about her technical career. She can't possibly have both.
MONICA: And I'll tell you a strategy that I engage in when I was interviewing for my current position I had a blog and I was very active on social media. So, I went into my interview and I showed my potential employees what I did and said follow me on my blog, you can follow me on Twitter direct message me and this is me and I still got the job like I'm saying I talked to an Associate Dean who was in-charge of hiring me as well as my Dean who is my direct supervisor and I have been very transparent and because I was transparent prior to getting this job I noticed that people celebrate me because I am so open on social media and on Twitter. And I do have many of my faculty and staff who follow me and they have conversations with me on Twitter if I put up a quote or if I talk about something. So, it's worked amazingly well. But I could see how that strategy could have gone in a very different direction.
STEPHEN: Yes. Insert #blackgirlmagic right there.
MONICA: Thank you.
STEPHEN: I love that Monica. So, as we get to wrap up this call and I’m enjoying this conversation so much. But I love us to maybe talk about what's next for the world’s Hidden Figures? How do we continue this conversation after this award season that this movie has past and we're for the frustration with other things in the world today?
ROCHELLE: I'll give an example. So, my mom, sister and I are about to celebrate our fifteenth Delta-versary shout out to Eta Kappa chapter at Spelman College. But a lot of us were STEM majors and we're all still very close to this day and one of the things that we plan on doing for our anniversary is a service project and so we been like thinking like what do we want to do, what impact do we want to have in the Atlanta community and we want to have a panel discussion, go into one of the girls one of the schools in Atlanta and meet where girls and just tell them all of our stories all of us that are engineers slash lawyers slash cycling studio owners slash policy makers but we all have STEM backgrounds. And so that's one thing that we plan to do and it won't even take place until October and the very question that was asked was, is Hidden Figures still going to be relevant in October and my response was, well we're doing this to make it continue to be relevant in October and for years to come. So, it's really about going into your communities and figuring out how you make a difference right there.
CARLOTTA: And I think it's our responsibility like Rochelle said to keep the conversation going. I think something we can all do is although we don't have a company a marketing company right now starting even a marketing campaign on social media. It's a Black History Month. So make every month Black History Month by starting something else on social media like a hash tag where all of us start posting. I am here in Indiana. I'm working as an electrical engineer. Rochelle is in Texas. She's working as a researcher and we start putting some of these hidden figures out there on social media post one a day or two a day so that we actually get our faces out there so that even though we're spread out everywhere there becomes a collective place where we can all be seen.
STEPHEN: What’s the hash tag?
CARLOTTA: I think Monica proposed #VisibleFigures I like that one.
MONICA: Yeah yeah I think that's true because being hidden is all in the eyes of the person who is saying that we're hidden. And I think that we as professionals in STEM think that we are very visible and we know people who are very visible it is just a matter of connecting them to the larger world. But going back to your question too I think some ways that we can engage are to really work on our leadership. If I can even talk a little bit about the times that we're in with a new presidential administration we need to get out of our comfort zones and start thinking about translating who we are from STEM into other arenas. For example, there's a guy who I know who's running to be a Mayor in Cincinnati and he is an engineer and that's amazing. That's wonderful. That's a way to somehow trims in the boundaries of engineering but go into business go into politics. I think that we also need to recognize that we need to communicate information to other people. So, the lessons that we have learned during our lifetime and our careers we need to pass on to other people so that they can build upon that also. And just highlighting what Carlotta said earlier and just Stephen what I told you in the next few years I want to have a media company. I want to be the one who's on A.B.C. or N.B.C. or doing a biopic about some of the women or some of the people in STEM. Why don't we have on some people on STEM in the same way that you see that on TV 1. We have so many stories to tell during our lifetime. And we need to continue to tell those every week every year until we leave this earth. So, it's time to start to put our resources together. We should do a Go Fund Me page. What do you think?
STEPHEN: I'm all for it and I just inspire you even more to say not that you want to but you will! You absolutely will start a media company.
STEPHEN: And bring some of that to light. So, how can we build community around us? What are some ideas for you as well as for other women in STEM that are listening to this conversation? How could they begin to build community around this initiative around these ideas that we discussed?
CARLOTTA: So, something I would build on thinking about what I had suggested earlier about starting the hash tag and posting photos of us and what we all do is, making those connections because sometimes with us being so isolated there's potential collaborators out there and people beyond just engineering who we could possibly work with but we don't even know we're out there and we don't even know what that we exist. So, coming up with some kind of way for us all to come together so that we can finally connect with that Tyler Perry or that Ava Du Vernay or and pitch to them our story or our idea. Right now, I don't think they know one of the things I do a lot with is FIRST Robotics. And several years ago, Dean Camen and I met Will.I.Am in some Hollywood party and he told him about robotics and about STEM. How can we make it loud to get it outside and so he brought where I am into the first robotics community and taught him how to build a robot and how to compete. And that was his way of trying to transition some of the technical things we do into that Hollywood arena where we just have to make more of those types of connections so that it becomes ubiquitous. Engineering and STEM is ubiquitous with being a celebrity or a movie star or something like that.
ROCHELLE: Right. I think we also need to engage in some types of master classes too. I just saw something on Facebook where all of these famous people are offering master classes maybe for $90 dollars for like a 5 hour session or something like that. But we need to engage in that lifelong learning so that we can begin to obtain new content like learn new content because right now we're so busy but we don't know what we don't know sometimes. So, where do we get that information? How do we really educate each other in that spirit of community?
STEPHEN: Ladies thank you so very much. This has been an amazing amazing conversation and as Monica suggested it let's begin to use the #Visiblefigures to start up this conversation and keep this conversation going and let's see what happens from here.
ROCHELE: Thanks Stephen.
MONICA: Thank you.
CARLOTTA: Thank you.
Connect with our panel:
- Rochelle: LinkedIn, Blog, @iHeartEngr
- Carlotta: LinkedIn, Rose-Hulman Profile, @DrCABerry
- Monica: LinkedIn, Blog, @MonicaFCox,
Monica F. Cox Bio
Monica F. Cox, Ph.D, is Professor and Chair in the Department of Engineering Education at The Ohio State University. Prior to this appointment, she was an Associate Professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University, the Inaugural Director of the College of Engineering’s Leadership Minor, and the Director of the International Institute of Engineering Education Assessment (i2e2a). In 2013, she became founder and owner of STEMinent LLC, a company focused on STEM education assessment and professional development for stakeholders in K-12 education, higher education, and Corporate America. Her research is focused on the use of mixed methodologies to explore significant research questions in undergraduate, graduate, and professional engineering education, to integrate concepts from higher education and learning science into engineering education, and to develop and disseminate reliable and valid assessment tools for use across the engineering education continuum. She has most recently engaged in research exploring the persistence of Women of Color faculty in engineering.
Carlotta Berry Bio
Dr. Carlotta A. Berry is an Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. She is the Co-Director of the NSF S-STEM Rose Building Undergraduate Diversity (ROSE-BUD) Scholarship and Professional Development Program. She has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and electrical engineering from Spelman College and Georgia Institute of Technology. She has a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Wayne State University and a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Vanderbilt University. Her research interests are in robotics education, interface design, human-robot interaction, and increasing underrepresented populations in STEM fields.
Rochelle Williams Bio
Rochelle Williams is a Louisiana girl, Spelman woman, and lover of all things New Orleans Saints football. No stranger to implicit and institutional biases, she is an advocate for women of color in STEM and the relevancy of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. In her pursuit of #ComprehensionOverCareer, she currently works as a Research Scientist in the Office of The Provost at Prairie View A&M University. She works on projects at the intersection of continuous quality improvement and STEM education, supporting the research infrastructure at PVAMU.
Dr. Williams serves as Program Chair for the Minorities in Engineering Division for the American Society for Engineering Education and is an active member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. She has a B.S. in physics from Spelman College and both her M.Engr. in Mechanical Engineering and Ph.D. in Science and Mathematics Education from Southern University and A&M College.
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