July 2004 
Volume 03, Issue 3 
Special Features

Opening doors

Joan Robinson-Berry is working to help young people reach their potential


Opening DoorsWho among her childhood friends would have thought that Joan Robinson-Berry, one of nine children brought up in the midst of gang violence in eastern Los Angeles County, Calif., would one day hold a patent in chemical processing and be one of the few African American women in her community to obtain a technical degree? Or that she would rise from operating a small engineering company in the inner city of Los Angeles to managing important programs at McDonnell Douglas and Boeing?

Today, Robinson-Berry is director and deputy leader of Technical Relations at Boeing World Headquarters in Chicago. As such, she is responsible for helping to shape the aerospace agenda for Boeing by initiating and maintaining associations with some of the nation's leading engineering universities and organizations.

It's a job that seemed out of reach during her formative years when getting by was perhaps more of a priority than getting ahead. But her background has helped her in many ways. It inspired her to break out and earn the credentials that enabled her to become an aerospace engineer. And it stimulated the important social and political skills that today allow her to represent Boeing at many national technical events.

Most of all, it has instilled in her an uncommon sense of compassion for those starting out in life with low expectations, those who without help might remain on society's bottom rung.

"I have used my own experience to convince young people that math and science are not as hard as they think and that engineers are not nerds," said Robinson-Berry, whose presence instantly dispels such stereotypes. "I want to open doors and help people to reach their potential, especially young people who come from underrepresented groups."

As she tells young people: "If I can become an engineer, so can you."

Growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood where dropping out of high school was the norm, Robinson-Berry developed an early interest in developing a technical career.

"I was only an average student," she said. "But I had a lot of energy and passion. I was a cheerleader and in marching band, student government and sports. I think most people thought I was going to be a politician. And the way my career at Boeing has progressed, maybe they were right, because I've gravitated to jobs that allow me to do what I enjoy most-working with people."

The personal side of Robinson-Berry's work in diversity goes back to her days as a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority at California Polytechnic in Pomona, Calif. In this service-based sorority, she tutored students at all levels, from middle school to college, helping the students reach their potential, especially in math and the sciences, where she herself excelled. She has continued this effort through a variety of other programs throughout her life, including the Social Action Commission, the Youth Motivation Task Force and others.

Robinson-Berry joined Boeing in 1986 after working in design and manufacturing engineering for General Dynamics and cofounding and operating a small engineering company in the inner city of Los Angeles. At Boeing, she progressed through various technical and program management assignments. She most recently was responsible for strategies to improve engineering performance and quality across the board at the space side of Integrated Defense Systems.

At the same time, she has been putting her energy, skills and experience into various diversity programs not only for women and African Americans but also Hispanic Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans. In the last three years, her professional life has focused on promoting diversity in the high-tech world.

In her Technical Relations role, Robinson-Berry is responsible for helping provide strategic guidance and support for enhancing Boeing's technical affiliations with government and industry organizations as well as professional engineering and diversity associations. In this capacity, she is the Boeing focal for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and she has taken an active role in the National Society of Black Engineers and the Hispanic Engineers of America, among others, to help recognize minority achievement in fields where they have been traditionally underrepresented.

Robinson-Berry has helped many Boeing employees receive recognition through external awards programs. She has also worked with policy makers to create opportunities for minority and women engineers.

Robinson-Berry's goals are both idealistic and realistic.

"I'm not saying we can put everyone in college or career paths that lead to becoming the CEO. I realize that we can only influence a few students," she said. "But if I can affect a small percentage of students and change some of their core values to include academic success, then I feel my goals have been reached."



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