Marcia Brown-Rayford, RGP’s Life Sciences Research & Development (R&D) Leader, conducted her second annual summer camp for BrightPath STEAM Academy, an organization she founded two years ago. Dedicated to helping introduce African-American youth to careers in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math, this year’s program saw a major increase in participation with attendees from over a dozen states as well as several countries.
We spoke with Marcia about this RGP-sponsored event as well as the company’s overall Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) and diversity initiatives.
Let’s start by talking about your involvement with RGP’s overall Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) initiatives.
I sit on RGP’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) Council, which is dedicated to bringing awareness, knowledge, and tools to support and accelerate RGP’s corporate DE&I goals. The Council works closely with senior leaders, helping ensure alignment between our DE&I efforts and RGP’s overall business strategy in our “human first” approach.
Studies show that socially conscious companies that take action to address societal ills and inequities perform better overall. A key area of social inequity I’m passionate about and directly affected by professionally is the crippling gap in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) education and opportunities for disenfranchised, underserved African American youth.
The difference a strong STEAM education can make in the life of the marginalized and underprivileged is tremendous. I know because I was once among the underserved. Hence my decades-long thrust to contribute to help mitigate this gap as a steward of the future, collaborating with RGP as a sponsor and the DE&I Council to do so.
One of the pillars of your ESG work at RGP is an initiative you founded in 2019 called the BrightPath STEAM Academy dedicated to promoting minority youth participation in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. What was your inspiration to start this non-profit?
STEM/STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) is the future of the US economy and a crucible for tomorrow’s jobs, which will increasingly require a workforce fluent in STEAM. Unfortunately, America is significantly lagging in producing a STEAM-educated workforce to fill these jobs and drive important innovation. Amazingly, one survey showed that 76% of students ages 11 to 17 have no clue what engineers actually do! Worse, Blacks and African Americans are severely under-represented, with the lowest percentage of students earning STEAM degrees of any demographic and across every discipline. The marginalization of Blacks in life sciences, in particular, is staggering. As a society, we must do better to move the underserved from the margins into mainstream, not only to meet the STEAM labor demands but for society’s sake overall.
That was the inspiration behind my starting the BrightPath STEAM Academy in 2019. As a modern-day “Harriet Tubman” of STEAM disciplines, I set out to turn around, smooth out pathways, and help address these critical educational gaps that impact African American youth, their future, and our national economy. Our approach inspires and opens up Black/African American youth to possibilities that have historically seemed unattainable for many—for too long. We partner with and engage highly skilled STEAM educators, corporations, local businesses, universities, the faith-based community, and individual volunteers to advance the cause. It takes a village to heal this social infirmity.
As a society, we must do better to move the underserved from the margins into mainstream, not only to meet the STEAM labor demands but for society’s sake overall.
You just wrapped up BrightPath STEAM Academy’s second annual event. Any highlights you’d like to share with us?
Absolutely! Our 2021 summer camp was a phenomenal success, with nearly 300 onsite and virtual attendees from 14 states and three countries. That’s nearly a 250% increase over last year’s participants. We implemented a hybrid onsite and virtual approach where 15 socially distanced STEAMERs attended camp at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Engineering while the remaining 275 STEAMERs attended virtually.
RGPers Alaina Hundley and Karen Weir facilitated two RGP-sponsored artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics sessions for both the virtual and onsite WashU STEAMERs, all of whom received AI and robotics kits sent to their homes. In addition to building robots and learning AI, they also researched how COVID-19 attacks the lungs and how the vaccines were developed in accelerated record time.
Just as important, the STEAMERs also saw scientific researchers who looked like them and inspired them to consider these professional pathways as future possibilities. RGPers Daniel Calloway and Shawn Curwen—both co-chairs of RGP’s DE&I Council—also presented compelling messages on why DE&I is important in STEAM careers.
Students in the chemical engineering lab at WashU
How has the program evolved since it first started?
The program has evolved in several key ways. For this year’s 2021 summer camp, we partnered for the first time with my alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) McKelvey School of Engineering, to simultaneously host 15 STEAMERs on campus to tour three engineering labs focused on COVID-related research. This included virus particle and transmission research and how artificial intelligence and robotics are applied in this research.
WashU’s McKelvey School of Engineering Dean Aaron Bobick joined the STEAMERs for lunch and shared the importance of African Americans in STEAM education and careers. The STEAMERs then received a certificate of completion from BrightPath and WashU as mini-diplomas to demonstrate the message that a university diploma is “touchable” and reachable.
Due to the success of the program, WashU has requested to partner again next year to further expand the program and potentially to other colleges and universities.
BrightPath also received a generous grant from Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS), which sponsored the COVID-19 research sessions as well as science kits. Members of BMS’s Black Organization for Leadership Development facilitated the science sessions and were instrumental in BrightPath’s grant funding success.
What advice did you and your guest facilitators and speakers give these young people?
We conveyed the importance of DE&I in STEAM careers and that they are very much needed in these professions. We also encouraged and coached them to never be afraid or intimidated—step up, speak up, and be unapologetically present. This year’s camp showed them that without their voice and presence in STEAM professions, the labor market, economy, and the Black community suffer. Lastly, we also told them to never give up, despite circumstances. They can achieve any goal they set out to accomplish. Life has many roadblocks, but they are also hidden opportunities to excel.
A student proudly shows off the robot he built as part of the Academy.
What advice do you give your fellow RGPers about getting more actively involved in ESG initiatives?
Some background first. It’s been shown that volunteering and getting involved in ESG initiatives yields some unexpected benefits. Engaging in volunteer efforts helps counteract the effects of stress, anger, and anxiety. Humans are hard-wired to give to others. By measuring hormones and brain activity, researchers have discovered that being helpful to others delivers immense personal pleasure with self-healing properties.
The more we give, the happier and more fulfilled we feel. Giving is therapeutic, both psychologically and physiologically. Studies have found that those who volunteer have a lower mortality rate than those who do not. Volunteering and giving back can lower high blood pressure, enhance thinking skills, lessen symptoms of chronic pain, and reduce the risk of heart disease. With all those intrinsic benefits, my fellow RGPers should feel pumped to identify an ESG initiative that appeals to their passion and earnestly pursue getting more actively involved.
We encouraged and coached them to never be afraid or intimidated—step up, speak up and be unapologetically present.
What are the biggest impediments to getting involved, and how can they be overcome?
I’d say there are three:
First, waiting for the perfect moment. The perfect time or scenario will never arrive. We make time for what we find important. Consider the treasure of benefits volunteering affords and actively pursue them. You’ll be glad you did and thank yourself later.
Second, scheduling. Those who get involved and volunteer statistically report having more available time than those who don’t. Part of the reason why is that volunteerism tends to make us better time managers.
Third, feeling that our contributions or expertise aren’t needed. Every contribution helps and goes a long way with ESG initiatives. Nonprofit organizations have the same operating functions as for-profits. This allows a broad swath of opportunities to leverage one’s expertise and other non-professional skills to help make the world a better place.
Is there anything we missed that you’d like to add?
Yes, a big shout-out to RGP—and especially CEO Kate Duchene—who have linked arms to sponsor and support us since our inaugural summer camp last year. The BrightPath STEAMERs and I are forever grateful for this ongoing partnership. We see the STEAMERs’ lives changing for the better right before our eyes. With RGP’s funding and support, BrightPath STEAM Academy is helping change lives, cultivate talent, and enrich the young African-American STEAM education landscape, one STEAMER at a time.