When one group makes progress, we should bring everyone along – How to use ERGs to service the communityFeatured
Hi, I’m Rosie Mottsmith, a staff engineer at Tesla. I recently did a featured post about navigating a nonlinear career path. Today I’m going to be sharing my experiences with developing a STEM-focused community service program with ERGs (employee resource groups). I was the Community Service Chair for Women in Tesla (WIT), our women’s ERG, at our headquarters in Palo Alto.Step 1: Name What You’re DoingAs the first Community Service Chair at Tesla’s headquarters, I had the opportunity to build the program from the ground up, and the first thing I did was choose the name. The term “community service” sometimes gets a bad rap. I’ve recently noticed a trend towards calling these types of programs “community outreach,” but I wanted the name of the program to be a constant reminder that the purpose of the program was to serve the communities where Tesla employees live and work. Tech is responsible for a lot of changes in Silicon Valley over the years, including the rise of home prices and the gentrification of the whole Bay Area. We’ve taken a lot from our community, and I believe it’s the responsibility of tech companies to make sure we’re feeding our community too. We shouldn’t be doing outreach, or promoting our name or brand. We should be serving those who live with the consequences of the environment the tech industry has created and giving them an equal opportunity to participate in and gain from tech. Step 2: Define Your Goals and Target AudienceThere are an infinite number of ways to serve your community, so defining your goals will help focus the activities you do and groups you work with. WIT’s mission statement is to welcome and empower women in the workforce, build a supportive community to promote professional and personal growth, and partner with other ERGs on diversity and inclusion initiatives. Tesla is an engineering company focused on sustainability, so our program focuses on showing girls and other underrepresented groups that there is a place for them in tech and helping them develop the skills necessary to be a part of tech. It was important to me that we didn’t just focus on girls, because only solving gender parity doesn’t solve the diversity problem in tech. When one group makes progress, we should bring everyone along. With this in mind, I defined three categories of activities we’d work on:“Careers in Tech” PanelsThis is the most basic event for us, and the one that requires the least amount of overhead. Basically, find people (who look like the audience you’re trying to reach) who work in different parts of the company. When I was in high school, I had no idea what an engineer did, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t for me. I’m still learning about different engineering disciplines, and about non-technical roles that are essential to making engineering/tech companies thrive. The goal of this panel is to introduce the students to different jobs and career tracks they probably haven’t heard of and to give them an idea of how to get to those jobs.“What it’s Like to be a Minority in Tech” PanelsBeing a non-cis-straight-white-dude in tech can come with real challenges, and sometimes that can deter younger people from entering STEM fields. While I totally respect a person’s choice to opt out and take their talents elsewhere, I want young people to know that engineering can be a good option. The point of these panels is to talk candidly about our experiences as (gender, ethnic/racial, etc.) minorities in tech, both the good and the bad, and to share what has helped us navigate this culture. For these panels, I like to select people who have had differing experiences (e.g. some may have experienced outright discrimination, some who have always felt they’ve been evaluated on their work alone, and everything in between). The more we pass on about the realities of life in tech and the resources and strategies we have found helpful, the more informed and prepared the students will be as they make decisions about their own career paths.Engineering WorkshopsThis category is my personal favorite. Engineering workshops can be hands-on activities where students build physical working parts, they can be thought experiments, they can be a group exercise in data analysis, and so much more. The goal is to get the students to apply engineering concepts (that they’ve either learned about in school or that we teach them at the beginning of the session) to real world problems, to take the abstract and make it tangible. When selecting a topic for engineering workshops (see Step 4), you’ll want to make sure the topic is relevant to the audience.You’ll also want to identify the age group you want to work with. For some people, they want to get kids young so they have a lot of time in school to pursue it if it sparks an interest. Some people prefer to work with high school kids or college students because you can go into more depth. I think working with students of every age is valuable, so I tried to vary the groups we worked with. This way, our WIT members also had the opportunity to work with ages they had an affinity for. We ended up working with students from 4 years old all the way into their 80s on different occasions. I have found that tours and engineering workshops work well with all ages, but panels tend to be most effective with high school students and older.Some notes on panel best practices: Oh, panels. They can be so good or so ineffective. To do them right is a lot of work. For each panel, I usually select 3 to 4 panelists (fewer and you don’t get enough different perspectives, more and no one gets a chance to speak enough). At least a week in advance of the panel, I set up 30 minute one on one sessions with each of the panelists. During these sessions, I ask the panelists a series of questions related to the panel topic (I can share a list of my standard questions if that’s helpful), and I take copious notes. Once I’ve interviewed all of the panelists, I look at the matrix of questions and answers from each and pick the answers that I think will resonate most with the audience. I plan the flow of the panel such that one question leads into another, and not every panelist answers every question. This lets them build off of each other’s ideas without having to repeat the same things. Before the panel, I email each of the panelists a list of the questions I plan on asking them during the panel, as well as my notes from our conversation, so that they can be prepared and don’t feel like they’re being put on the spot. I have so much more to say about organizing panels, and would be happy to talk to anyone who’s organizing one and wants some guidance.Step 3: Identify Your PartnersIf you’re building a community service program, you’ll need to collaborate with partners who operate in your community. They can be schools, community groups, nationwide organizations with local chapters, etc. It can be daunting to find partners. Start by calling/emailing a local school or after school program, do some internet research about programs in your area that focus on the goals you defined for your program, and things will start popping up. Once you work with one org, you’ll be introduced to many more. There are so many worthy organizations to work with, so make sure that your mission and theirs align. Once we started doing a few events with local groups, we became overwhelmed with requests for events. There were a few times when I had to tell an org that, while we respected the work they were doing, our missions didn’t overlap and we weren’t able to collaborate.I wanted to keep our list of partners small. When I sat down with leadership from our different partners, they would tell me that other tech companies would do one-off events and then just peace out, and the students would feel abandoned. What they wanted was a long term commitment. They wanted us to be resources for their students. So I wanted to partner with a few organizations and do recurring activities with them. But some organizations do ask for one-off events and find it very valuable for their students to visit a tech office and meet some people in tech who look like them. So we settled on a hybrid approach to partnerships - we would do one-off events with many orgs, and we’d have long term partnerships with two or three orgs.Step 4: Shut Up and ListenIf you take away only one thing from this article, this should be it. Once you’ve identified the partners you want to work for, shut up and listen to what they have to say. They know the community and the students better than you do, and they know the problems that need to be solved and the gaps that need to be filled. Don’t presume you know what the students need to become engineers just because you’re an engineer. This isn’t to say you don’t have anything to offer, just that what you have to offer should match what the community needs, so figure out what that is by listening.For example, one group that we worked with said that they don’t really need someone to teach coding skills, because they have plenty of volunteers who come and do that on a regular basis. What they needed was a network of engineers that the students could go to with questions on problems they were trying to solve. Another organization said they had plenty of exposure to different jobs in tech, but they needed to provide the students with more hands-on experience. You can see where this leads to selecting the type of activity.For both panels and hands-on activities, always ask the org beforehand what their students are thinking about. Doing a workshop on the engineering design process? Maybe the students are trying to figure out how they can get to school in an area where public transportation isn’t great and their parents can’t take off work to drive them. That could lead to a design challenge where the students come up with new or alternate methods of transportation and get to test them out and iterate on them. Maybe the community is facing a housing crisis, so maybe you could do a session where the students use engineering to connect people to homes. We did both - the students came up with amazing ideas. If you make the content meaningful for the students, they’ll be able to connect and engage more. To make the content meaningful, you have to sit down, be humble, and listen up.Step 5: Let it GrowI don’t run the community service program for our WIT headquarters chapter anymore. An amazing woman named Nicole took over the program when I relocated to a different office in Los Angeles. Nicole doesn’t run the program the same way I did, but she’s doing a phenomenal job. The goal should be to make something that lasts. Set up the next person in line (or preferably, people) to take it over and spread the work to reach more and more students.I hope these tips on growing a community service program within an ERG have been helpful! Looking forward to hearing about how others have developed these programs, and hoping that more will pop up!P.S. I’m no longer on the board of WIT. Now I lead an ERG called Intersectionality. More on creating inclusive ERGs in an upcoming post!