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Interview: Dr. Chris Miguel Wilkie aims to attain more Hispanic representation in STEM

The new CEO of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) believes diversity generates innovative and inclusive designs with unique perspectives

By Ricardo Sánchez Silva, @RicardoLoDice, NAHP Media Correspondent

Dr. Chris Miguel Wilkie spent more than four years as Managing Director of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) before knowing that he would become the organization’s new CEO, his ideal job, as he describes it, under circumstances that thrill him, and he would not even imagine seven years ago. However, in his previous position, he discovered something he appreciates and considers fundamental in his new role: the family concept within this nonprofit organization.

“I really think that each company, business and educational entity would be better if our family members become leaders in their organizations. And I plan to work on this every day,” asserts Wilkie, who is proud of the results in his previous position, and inspire him to assume new challenges in his current leadership. Part of his achievements derived in 30% budget growth and a record membership (13,000+). In his opinion, the education in careers related to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) within the Hispanic community is essential for an equitable representation in the workforce in those areas. “If Hispanics participate in STEM, the world will benefit of innovative and inclusive designs which include their unique perspectives”.

According to Wilkie, “Hispanics represented 18% of the US workforce on 2019, but little more than 8% of engineering jobs. We have a slow but consistent progress aiming at engineering aligning with the general workforce representation, but this change is not happening fast enough”. 

In the short term, the executive’s goal is that SHPE continues its scalable and sustainable growth, as well as evaluates its members’ needs to guarantee their innovation efforts with the highest possible impact, while in the long term he aims to expand the $11 million budget to more than $20 million in the next 4-5 years. “We know there is a large gap between the Hispanics that pursue grades in STEM and those that in fact are SHPE members. Thus, I want to directly address the retention of our student members so they may become professional members for life”.

Regarding the future of youngsters in STEM, Wilkie considers the Congress bipartisan legislation will benefit them, as solid increases have been demanded for the funds of National Science Foundation, as well as a diversity director in the NSF. “Also, the allocation law project recently presented by the Senate Allocation Committee included guidelines to help the Hispanic Servicing Institutions that are training our next generation of STEM professionals”.

Wilkie also mentions the Build Back Better initiative, focused on the Hispanic community needs regarding higher education. “If we consider the number of jobs in clean energy that this legislation could generate, it’s easy to see the suitable path. The Hispanic professionals in STEM and young people that are just starting are the foundation of SHPE’s mission”.

When asked about the main challenges for empowering the Hispanic community to become part of STEM and achieve a national impact, the executive enumerates diverse pending topics spanning from micro aggressions, implicit prejudices, stereotyped threatening in workplaces, including the lack of role models and limitations in educational access, up to intersectionality characteristics such as ethnic group, gender, sexuality, first generation status, disabilities, low socioeconomic status or migratory status, that mark the students.

“Due to these challenges, training the Hispanics to obtain STEM grades and careers may be overwhelming. But the reward for the community, the country and the world make it worthy. Diversity propels competence and innovation, deriving in better solutions for the problems that STEM industries address,” declares SHPE’s CEO.

His message is clear: “The demand for engineers, scientists and technicians is growing. The future is brilliant, stable, and satisfactory for those who decide entering in this field! Of course, it is easier telling than making for our Hispanic students, especially for women. They will face several obstacles, such as lack of representation, lack of cultural understanding, lack of funding. But I want to help them to undertake the journey. There will be mishaps, but seven failures present eight opportunities to learn and recover”, concludes the executive, putting the organization he represents at the service of Hispanics in STEM.