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Episode 196: Breaking Down Barriers to Increase Diversity in STEM, with Winifred Ereyi

Winifred Ereyi headshot

Episode Description

Winifred Ereyi has two engineering degrees, including a masters degree in systems engineering. She spent almost 15 years in the field, including three years as an oil rig engineer - the only female among over 500 men. After a four-year career break, Winifred founded the non-profit ThinkSTEM Foundation, and her own business, eWirecommunications in 2019. She is active in WITI -- Women in Technology International -- and in her local SWE Chapter – the Society of Women Engineers. Winifred describes the day when, as a 14-year-old in Nigeria, she heard a talk by a female engineer that would inspire her lifelong passion for STEM. She also discusses her career path, her advocacy for minority girls and women in STEM, and her work with ThinkSTEM Foundation and eWirecommunications.

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ThinkSTEM Foundation


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Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch, and your host. Today we welcome Winifred Ereyi. Winifred has two engineering degrees, including a master's degree in systems engineering, and spent almost fifteen years in the field before taking a four year career break, and then founding Think STEM Foundation. She is active in WITI, Women in Technology International, where she is a director of the WITI Charlotte network and in her local SWE chapter, the Society of Women Engineers. Additionally, Winifred founded her business, eWirecommunications in 2019. We are going to talk about her career path, her advocacy for minority girls and women in STEM, and learn more about Think STEM Foundation and eWirecommunications.

Winifred, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.

Winifred Ereyi: It's great to be here, thank you for having me.

Carol Fishman Cohen: We're thrilled to have you, and I want to start out by talking about your background education and your early career. You have two engineering degrees and you worked in systems engineering before your career break and starting Think STEM foundation.

Can you talk to us a little bit about how you first came to be interested in engineering and your early career, and then what led to your career break?

Winifred Ereyi: I decided to pursue engineering because Mrs. Olu Maduka, founder of Association of Professional Women Engineers of Nigeria, who I will be interviewing on June 24th, in WITI, she came to my secondary school, I was fourteen years old, and she came on a college and career readiness day. She came to share her career with us, and up to that time, I had never seen a female engineer. I had seen female judges, female lawyers, female accountants, female doctors, but no engineers.

And here she comes high heels, really telling us about her career, but she did not really start by telling us what engineering was about. She started by telling us the problems in society. She talked about access to water. She talked about electricity, having nonstop, 24 hour electricity. She talked about different diseases in the community that needed to be cured.

So when she talked about the problems in the society, then she told us that we were surrounded by science, that the world we lived in was all about science. That going out to the garden to pick up fruits and vegetables and bringing them home to cook, that was science, that there was science in those vegetables, that was chemistry. She even told us about the soaps that we use.

She told us that we were surrounded by science, surrounded by mathematics, and that in order to be an engineer, you needed to use science and mathematical principles to design products and services that would improve people's lives.

And that's, I think, one thing she left, which was that we were the change that the country was looking for. That it is our generation that will actually change the country. She's 80 years old now and she just had her birthday, and over 500 female engineers gathered to wish her happy birthday.

Like I said, I'll be interviewing her on June 24th in the Women in Technology International Summit, because she has opened the door for so many females to become engineers, she was a role model. And so I remember leaving that event and I just knew it was like my "aha" moment, and that's what I am going to become.

I love science. I love mathematics, and I am empathetic, so I'm going to be an engineer. But my personality being a leader, I did not make the decision that only I will become an engineer. I told my friends in my additional math class that we were all going to become engineers. So we actually took the exam to go to university. And then we got admitted and we all decided to study different types of engineering. So that was the beginning of our adventure into engineering. But I tell you, Carol, when we got into the faculty of engineering, there were very few girls and most of the girls did not do well.

I remember standing in front of my friends and telling them, "We know the families we've come from. We know the secondary school we've come from. We don't know the stories about the other girls, but we are actually going to change the narrative." And we did, Carol. We worked hard. It was rigorous. It was tough. There was the theory, there was the practical, there was the internship, but we stayed together. I say that every girl needs a sister tribe. A lot of them are now in weekly Women in Technology International because, once I became a director, I got my friends to join, so we've been together for over thirty years.

And we did well, we changed the narrative, I finished summa cum laude and a lot of my friends finished summa cum laude or magna cum laude. So we did change the narrative, and opened the door for other girls to actually enjoy engineering, and actually get great grades and go into the community as Mrs. Olu Maduka did, to actually make change.

So I'm still very much in touch with my alma mater, still advocating for girls and still in touch with my university, making sure that there is a representation of females, minority females in the STEM workforce. So, that is my beginning. Mrs. Olu Maduka is my very good friend, and at 80 years old, she looks like 60 and she's still very feisty.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I'm just thinking about what an honor it is for you to be able to interview her and know her, someone who was so influential to you at such a young age. And also the wisdom when she knew her audience was young, I guess middle school teenage girls, to bring the relevance of the engineering field to these real world problems was changing what stereotypes there might've been in terms of how you all might view an engineer and what kind of work that they do. So there's so much wrapped into that. And also, I love the power of your peer network, how you supported each other, and you had this joint mission, and you were going through it together, and how important that was for you. That's incredible. So what happened? When you graduated, did everyone go their separate ways and then pursue different careers and move, you're here in the United States now, move to different geographies? What happened after that in your early career?

Winifred Ereyi: That is correct. So once we graduated, the country was going through a tough time and there was a lot of brain drain happening. That means people who had abilities were actually leaving the country to pursue a second degree or getting a job outside the country. But I stayed in Nigeria for a couple of years, but I got a job with an international company called Schlumberger, an oil company.

And they had never had a black female work as an oil rig engineer. Since I had shattered the glass ceiling in my university, I thought, "Oh my goodness, why not be a trailblazer?" But I tell you, Carol, that was a tough job. I went to work on the high seas. I was the only female among over 500 guys. It was such an intense environment. And that was the first time I really began to understand what they meant that they didn't welcome girls in engineering. Because in my university, yes, there was a pushback, but there were a lot of peers that were allies.

My father was a strong influence in my life. He bought me a computer in 1984, an Amstrad computer, and basic manners, and a robot, an Atari robot, and he said my generation would be all about robots and computers. So I had all these males support me in university, my lecturer, Dr. Katende, he's now a professor, he works in Botswana and he's moved out of Nigeria. So I had all those people advocating for me, cheering me on.

And so everybody, it was a collective joy for me to finish summa cum laude. But when I got to the workforce, oh my goodness, they were like, "You're not welcome here." So I began to understand what they meant when you're dealing with different generations, about not feeling a part of the community, not feeling included.

And those guys, they allowed my friends quite interestingly, I have the penchant of going back and building bridges. But I tell you those days, it wasn't funny. I remember, we had to wear protective gear and we had a uniform we had to wear with a hard hat, because we were working on the oil rig. And I remember I would put on those things and I would put Psalm 23 because of my personal faith in my back pocket, and I'd say, "Oh, Lord, please put an arm around my shoulder, and a hand over my mouth because there was nobody to ask about how I should relate to these guys in such a way that I would feel a part of the team, they would listen to me. Because I was just twenty-one and I was going to work, and there were all these guys. So they really made me feel like I wasn't welcomed.

After three years of working there, and a lot of my friends, they went back to school to do a masters and some got jobs. One of my friends, I call her my best friend for life, would come and see me on the oil rig, she'd say, "Winifred , you're crazy. What are you doing here looking so dirty with all of this oil, and you're telling me these guys don't even like you?"

That was when I really began to understand concepts like imposter syndrome, concepts like double competence, concepts like gender blind, because those guys didn't make it easy. They didn't make me feel seen, heard, and empowered. But I stayed there for three years, really wanting to open the door for other females.

And I'm so glad that there are so many females that are petroleum engineers who work on oil rigs. Schlumberger has done a lot of work because I went to talk to them after, when I was much older, about their environments. And they've done a lot of work to make the environment more female friendly.

So that's what happened. I went to work for Schlumberger for three years and then I left and decided I wanted to join my friends and get a master's, and I went to do a master's in University of Essex in England.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That was when you got the master's in systems engineering? And that was a career change. I'm just amazed that you were able to stick it out for three years in that environment, an oil rig on the high seas, among 500 men? Really unbelievable and pathbreaking. And that you were motivated because you wanted to make it easier for people coming after you is really admirable and gutsy. I just want to say thank you. I think you've made a difference. And then you come back to Schlumberger years later and that there has been change, still the petrochemical engineering industry is a relatively tough one for women. But it's so much different than it used to be.

Winifred Ereyi: So, my dear friend, quite interesting, one of the female engineers who is really doing a great job in the oil field, I will be interviewing her. Her name is Hajara Kabeer, she's from the Northern part of Nigeria and she's really stuck it out. So I'm very impressed with the fact that she stayed longer than I have. So I'll be interviewing her, but somebody has to open the door and other people begin to get in and then advocate for changes within the workplace.

So I'm so pleased with all the changes Schlumberger has made.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Excellent. Okay, so you worked three years at Schlumberger, you then went to University of Sussex to get your engineering master's degree, your systems engineering master's degree, and what happens after that?

Winifred Ereyi: So, University of Essex, so when I was in Schlumberger, one of the things that occurred to me was that the internet was going to become a reality. I just knew that computers, that's just how old I am, computers were going to talk to each other. The internet was going to take over the world. And so that was my master's project.

When I finished my master's with distinction, one of the things was that there was such a demand for someone with my skills and expertise, so I got quite a few offers to work with Nortel Networks, because they are the research arm, called Bell Northern Research. And I really felt that I wanted to be on the cutting edge of technology.

So I went to work for Nortel Networks. And when I worked for Nortel Networks, before Nortel Networks, I did a hiatus with the research arm of British Telecom, where my focus really was to work on protocols that would run the internet as we know it today. I wanted to work with standards bodies, I wanted to walk on the core network.

So that's what I did. I went to work with a telecom company. My masters was telecoms and systems engineering. So I went to work with Nortel Networks. And Nortel Networks was everywhere. I was in England at that time, they were in the UK, they were in Canada, a Canadian company. When I started to work with them, it was pretty obvious that there were very few females in engineering. And so that is what kind of prompted me to make the next transition that I made.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And then, can you tell us what led to your career break?

Winifred Ereyi: I remember one day I was in a meeting and I just turned around and I said to myself, it was like an "aha" moment, and I said, “Wherever you go whether it is Schlumberger, or British Telecom, whether it is Nortel Networks, there are very few females and we need more females in the STEM workforce.” I looked at the sort of income I was earning as a young girl, and I looked at what my income was doing for my family, for my community of origin. And I looked at the impact it was making on the community, just like Mrs. Olu Maduka had told us that we were going to make changes. And I thought to myself, just imagine if we had more females pursuing STEM and having the sort of return on investment I am getting, just imagine what the world would be. So it was like an "aha" moment.

And then I had my daughter, it was a very difficult pregnancy, I was on bedrest. When they gave me Jessica, and she's now in Princeton, they put her in my arms. I thought to myself, I want to be part of the world that changes the narrative that girls do not have a seat at the STEM table. That is the world my daughter is going to live in. I want to be part of that.

I want to contribute to that, to the solution, to open the door for many girls like her, because she's female. To be able to pursue whatever they want to pursue without the sort of obstacles that I experienced. And so after my maternity leave, I thought to myself that I am going to set up a foundation. I'm going to go and work with the schools. I'm going to get girls, young girls interested in STEM, interested in science, interested in mathematics. I'm going to get minorities like my daughter to pursue STEM. I also wanted to homeschool my children. So that is why I decided to stay at home. And once my children were four or five, I already had a son, Jean Raphael, who is in Stanford now studying computer science. I wanted to homeschool them. And then I also wanted to not just homeschool them, but also support my community.

By this time I was living in the States, I was living in Charlotte and left England to Canada, and then I was in the States. And so, I just felt that mentoring and coaching was important for females to actually pursue engineering. That they needed somebody to have an arm around them if they were going to stay, not just getting to engineering, but stay in engineering. And that's where Think STEM Foundation came from, and that's how I birthed Think STEM Foundation.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. And you've been the leader of the Think STEM Foundation for almost fifteen years now. So can you talk a little bit about, who does the foundation serve beyond the detail that you just gave and also, what is your vision for the future?

Winifred Ereyi: So what I do is I partner with ten title one schools, and I recruit students from those schools. These are schools that typically do not have the resources that other schools have, schools from a more privileged neighborhood would have. These are underserved communities. I work with the social workers, I work with their community engagement officers to recruit students. And then I actually coach them, I mentor them, I do a lot of leadership training so that they can see the greatness that is in themselves and they can understand what value they can bring to their community and to the world at large. And so basically that is where I get my pool. I do not have summer camps, what I do, but that's why it's a foundation. I sponsor them to summer camps because of the learning loss that occurs over summer. And so I sponsor them to summer camps so that they feel they can see the practical application of the theory that they're learning in the classroom. My whole goal is to help them see themselves in a STEM career and support them through the college process. I do a lot of work with college essays, because a lot of them are first generation. No one in their family has ever gone to college. So the idea that they would even go to college, there's a lot of mindset work I do with them because, you have to not just take care of them, also their family, because there's lots of them who do not understand that they can go to college.

And that's why they fail their top grades, they still feel like the best that'll happen is they'll get a job after high school. Trying to break that barrier for them to see themselves within college, a college campus, and to see themselves thriving. Also, lots of work has to be done with college essays for scholarship search.

So I'm like a mother around them. I wrote a book years ago called The Call to Motherhood. I've not published it for the public, but it's on my shelf, self-published. And I see myself as their mother putting an arm around them, telling them that we need them within the college campus. We need them in the workforce, just because we need that sort of diversity within the STEM workforce, and because we need to design products and services that serve everybody, both the female, and the minority, and make a change in the world.

So when they begin to see the value, not just the science and math of STEM,

the value they can make to the world at large, it begins a natural curiosity, just like Mrs. Olu Maduka. I tell her I use exactly what she told me, that's what I do with my STEM outreach. But a lot of mentoring is needed. Coaching is just the beginning of the process. You have to mentor them because if not, if you don't keep an eye on them and put your arm around them and mentor them, lots of them will get discouraged when they begin to face challenges. So a lot of leadership training so that they see themselves as leaders who can manage their own emotions and lead themselves down this path that I have designed for them. We've designed it together.

A lot of the work I do in Think STEM Foundation is coaching, mentoring, leadership training, and I do a lot of advocacy with the Society of Women Engineers. I go to Congress to advocate for funds for nonprofits like mine and other organizations, so that everybody has a seat at the STEM table.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That was one of the questions I was going to ask you was, how did you get your initial funding, and how are you funded? And also commenting on the role of SWE, the Society of Women Engineers, or WITI, the Women in Technology International, professional associations in what you're doing?

Winifred Ereyi: Yeah, so SWE is doing such great work. I am so grateful that I'm a part of the SWE community, from looking at programs, designing programs, setting up courage clubs, SWE Next courage clubs, and looking at putting some SWE Next clubs in my alma mater in Nigeria. So they have very committed professionals who are getting programs, not just for current STEM professionals, both for the future STEM professionals, Junior SWE Next Initiative.

And then they go over and above and go to Congress and advocate to get people to understand the value of all of their work and to get funding. So a lot of the funding for a long time has been self-funded. My husband was working within the bank at that time, and I was working with my children so we kind of self-funded it, but because of a change in my life, now I'm branching out to actually get sponsors in businesses to support our work. So one of the best things that I've been doing as being really working with the STEM, we call it a STEM Round Table in Charlotte, where you have a lot of organizations that are working in the area of STEM, because when a report was done by Harvard they said Charlotte was number 50 out of 50 states in the area of social and economic mobility.

The leaders actually put together an opportunity task force to address the issues, and the STEM Round Table came out of that. So it's a lot of organizations within Charlotte who are working together to actually move the needle and get more people pursuing STEM. I'm on that round table, and to that initiative, getting Think STEM Foundation out into the community, in order to get sponsors. Now a lot of our work has been crowdfunding with my sister tribe and self funding.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Interesting, we at iRelaunch co- lead an initiative with the Society of Women Engineers called the STEM Reentry Task Force, where companies join in order to launch their return to work programs, and we are in our sixth year. So we have deep ties to SWE. And it's great to hear your commentary about their power as an organization. Can you tell us about your other venture, which is eWirecommunications, what it does and how you started it?

Winifred Ereyi: In 2019, I think I was just Googling and looking at all the companies that were movers and shakers in the world of STEM, not companies really, organizations like SWE, like IEEE, and then came across Women in Technology International, and I started listening to a lot of their webinars. I really go fascinated with the model that they had because in working with SWE and working with my students who were now going into university and they were now, a lot of them were graduating,

So I was looking for a model to keep on mentoring them. Not all of them were becoming engineers. Some of them were just doing computer science, like my son would say, "Mom, I'm doing computer science. I don't like physics." So not all of them could join SWE. So I was looking for a way to actually still work with my students, but not just me alone, me and collaborating with an organization where we could continue to mentor the students as they became early career professionals. Because attrition getting out of STEM is very high and people get into STEM and then they don't stay.

So really in trying to solve that problem, I started to zoom out and look at what was out there. And I came across Women in Technology International, and one of the things that fascinated me was the fact that they had networking events. They have over 500 network events every month.They have 60 networks in the States. They have networks internationally, and then I started to go for the network events and realized the networking events were all about inspiring people, doing a lot of leadership training and really making sure that no woman was left on her own.

It didn't matter where you were, whether you were with STEM and now a stay at home mom, you had a seat at the table. Finding a seat at the table has been my life mission, making sure that girls have a seat at the table. So I decided that I was going to go to their conference in California. I went to their conference and when I went, I was struck by the fact that there were very few minorities.

And so I remember putting up my hand and I put a voice behind my thoughts, and put in my mind to say, "Where are all the minority women, how come we have very few minority women?" And I shared what the Think STEM Foundation was doing and our mission, our vision. And then at the end of that conference, the president asked to speak to me and asked me if I would be the director in Charlotte to help them build an inclusive community where every woman felt seen, heard and empowered.

I went away and I thought about it, I looked at their mission and vision and it aligned with mine, and aligned with the vision where I saw Think STEM Foundation going. And so in 2019, I would become a network director and that's where eWirecommunications came into being, where I would provide leadership training. Because I knew that my young, early career professionals who had worked with me through middle school to high school, I knew they needed mentoring. I knew that if they were faced with being on an oil rig, they needed somebody to talk to. I didn't get somebody to talk to. But I felt that WITI was an organization I could collaborate with in order to actually scale the whole idea of the business.

And so that's why I came up with eWirecommunications, where we collaborate with Women in Technology International to provide coaching, mentoring, and leadership training. And right now we are actually branching out. I am taking WITI to Africa and that's why Mrs. Olu Maduka is going to be speaking at the WITI Summit. So, I'm taking WITI to Africa, and the whole idea is to bring the world to Africa and bring Africa to the world. So we're trying to, our goal is to amplify the voices of African tech professionals, and I'm leading that initiative.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Are you doing that virtually or are you going there?

Winifred Ereyi: I'm doing it virtually. And it has been interesting. The interesting thing is Clubhouse came into being last year. So Clubhouse has been a great conversation place, I've met so many fascinating people.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Hold on. I just want to interrupt you for a minute for our listeners who don't know what Clubhouse is. So look up Clubhouse, just as it sounds, it's spontaneous audio meetings, and you have to be invited in order to participate. And I have a few invitations, if people want to ask me. You can ask someone who's a member and then they have these random spontaneous meetings and also plan meetings where people get together and have conversations about very specific topics.

So Winifred, go ahead and maybe give an example of how you engage in Clubhouse.

Winifred Ereyi: Clubhouse has been an answer really, has brought me full circle coming from Nigeria and looking back to say, "How can I contribute, now that I'm an older woman, to the community back in Nigeria?"

Through Clubhouse I've created rooms, where a lot of just putting the humans at the center of the problem, to ask them questions, "How can we bring value to you as an organization?" "How can we serve you?" And so through these meetings, like you said, some of them are spontaneous meetings where I just go into a room to listen in and raise my hand and ask a question, or meetings that I organize.

I've met so many people. I have met people that really are doing great things within the African continent. And from there, I have curated this community of African tech professionals that are going to be speaking for the first time in 27 years at the WITI Summit.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. That's incredible and that is one of the benefits of being in Clubhouse, is that you can connect with and meet and have access to people who you might not normally have access to through these Clubhouse meetups and get togethers. And I just want to emphasize that it's all audio and it's all done through an app, which you can get to on your phone. So check it out if you don't know that much about it.

But Winifred, thank you very much for illustrating what the power of that kind of networking can produce. So we're coming to the end of our conversation and I wish we could go on much longer, because there's so much to talk about, but I want to know if you can give advice to our listening audience. And this is the final question that we ask all of our podcast guests, what is the best piece of advice that you have for our relauncher audience even if it's something that we've already talked about?

Winifred Ereyi: For me, it's to pursue your passion. Pursue your passion. I feel like we're not going to live forever, so if it's not now, when? Pursue your passion, ask yourself what value you can bring to the world. And look at what is on the inside of you, the greatness that is on the inside of you. Look for how you can use that greatness, that talent within you to serve the world.

It's all about being a servant leader. How can I serve the world? What sort of legacy do I want to leave? My children are doing the same thing I'm doing, whether it's in Princeton, they have a mentoring committee community where they mentor students, or in Stanford, they have a mentoring community. So that is my legacy.

So I would encourage everybody to pursue their passion and look at serving and adding value to the world around you.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Very powerful. Thank you for that advice. Winifred, how can our listeners find out more about your work?

Winifred Ereyi: They can go to my website. My son is working on my website, so we just put the front page. But right now it's called Think STEM Foundation, www.thinkstemfoundation.org. So they can reach me at thinkstemfoundation.org. So, we're working on the website but we have an inquiry where they can put in questions.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Great. And I'll also mention that you're pretty active on LinkedIn and we were just talking even before we started our conversation and we're recording the podcast, that the engagement that I've seen from you in terms of commenting on posts that I've made, that kind of interaction, or even reacting to it, is something that I've noticed. So I'm guessing people can also contact you on LinkedIn.

Winifred Ereyi: Absolutely. They can contact me on LinkedIn and on Instagram. I love to encourage people to eat healthy. So I put all my healthy meals on Instagram. So anyone who wants to be motivated, another contribution to the world, they can follow me on Instagram and make meals with me.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And are you under Winifred Ereyi on Instagram and Ereyi is spelled E R E Y I, in case anyone is looking up Winifred on Instagram or on LinkedIn?

Winifred Ereyi: Yes, I am.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Very good. All right. Thanks for joining us today. It's been a wonderful conversation.

Winifred Ereyi: Thank you so much. Thank you for inviting me, and keep up the good work. I'm your cheerleader, and will continue to like your posts and make comments.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wonderful. And thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break.

I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. For more information on iRelaunch conferences and events, to sign up for our job board and access our return to work tools and resources, go to iRelaunch.com.

And if you like this podcast, be sure to rate it on Apple podcasts and your favorite podcast platform, and be sure to share this podcast with a friend on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media.

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