This week on the Finding Fertile Ground podcast, I interview Michele Heyward, a civil engineer who built the U.S. power grid. Now she's a tech startup founder building the future of work at PositiveHire.
Michele grew up in rural South Carolina in a three-bedroom house full of kids. She had four siblings. She describes herself as the weird kid, really good at math.
“My mom and my siblings tell the story: I learned my alphabets going A through Z. And then I started learning them Z through A because I was bored. I didn't have anything to do. And so I would find ways to challenge myself…”
Encouraged to pursue science and engineering, she went to engineering camp 30 years ago at 13 years old.
“But what really got me sold on engineering was when I was 12, a Category Five hurricane hit South Carolina and my mom's younger sister and her family live near Charleston where the hurricane hit...They had a newer brick home that was destroyed during the hurricane while they were in it. I couldn't understand: how could a home that new be destroyed by something called a hurricane? And that's how I literally got interested in civil engineering and decided to major in it.”
She learned about people who had designed an indestructible egg-shaped home on the coast, and she thought,
“How do you build a home or structure like that? It really started me into the path of civil engineering.”
After working in the corporate world for many years, Michele got tired of being “the only.”
“Something that is really common, unfortunately, is the ‘only’ experience for a lot of Black, Latinx, and indigenous women in STEM. What I mean is you're the only one, you're the only Black woman. You're the only Latina engineer on your team, group, department, company. For years out in construction, I was the only Black woman engineer. I was only Black woman, period…so many other women quit.”
Michele stayed at her her previous employer, a mega environmental engineering firm called URS, for 12 years.
“I told myself somebody else is going to come who doesn't have the wherewithal to do what you've done this amount of time by yourself being the only.”
Then she received a message from God that said, “you're not supposed to be here.”
“I cried. I'd been through so much being the only, but it was time for me to go and build out something else…now it's time to go execute. It was time for me to go put in the work.”
Michele founded a company, PositiveHire, that connects Black, Latinx, and Indigenous women who are experienced scientists, engineers, and technology professionals to management roles.
“As a Black woman engineer I've seen companies complain they can't find diverse talent, when their real issue is retaining Black, Latinx, and Indigenous talent in STEM. The issue isn't a pipeline problem but the lack of responsibility that management teams have in creating workplaces which will retain and attract Black, Latinx, and Indigenous talent.”
Since we come from the same industry, Michele and I had a fruitful discussion about what it’s like working in spaces run by white men and how important it is to change the culture of a company before focusing on recruiting people of color. We also talked about how to write inclusive job descriptions and postings that bring in diverse candidates.
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I help professional services firms avoid BORING and boost employee engagement, productivity, and readership. I translate technical, complex, and lackluster language into accessible, dynamic, story-driven text. Get known in your industry through outstanding thought leadership content. Walk your talk through outstanding, effective communications with your employees and clients.
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