By Vivian Nunez, Contributor
Forbes, April 17, 2018 —
Change from the inside is sometimes more effective and longer lasting, or at least this is what Mechanical Engineer, Nora Naranjo is hoping for.
“Let’s look at how the media portrays engineers and scientists: White male, Asian female or male, Indian male,” explains Naranjo. “Latinos are underrepresented in STEM, medically and in the field. Because of this, there’s an assumption Latinos are not good engineers. This, added to the bias that women are not good at STEM-related fields, is a recipe for disaster.”
Throughout her career, Naranjo has personally experienced both the lack of diversity and its impact on the products created. Her current role at Eatsa, a food start-up in San Francisco, has given her the space to live out her childhood dreams of bringing products to life and her adult goal of ensuring that biases are acknowledged and tackled head-on.
“I see my role in robotics as the redefinition of professional skill set: The fast-paced rhythm of the industry needs engineers that can research and be design-oriented on a controlled environment and also get their hands dirty and build things from scratch,” shares Naranjo. “People unafraid to fail but humble enough to accept it, and nimble enough to learn from it. Doers will define the technology currently shaping our future.”
Naranjo, a native from Baja California, Mexico, pushes to be seen as one of the faces of Silicon Valley’s engineering scene because she understands how important it is to see who you want to become.
Below she shares insights on how growing up Latina has molded her career, advice she has for future engineers, and how privilege and the lack of diversity play a role in the field.
Vivian Nunez: What advantages has growing up Latina given you in your career?
Nora Naranjo: Growing up Latina makes you not take anything for granted. I grew up watching my parents struggle to build a home, a name and a company. I grew up knowing that every injustice would be overlooked by my public representatives. I grew up improvising solutions to important problems. I grew up fending for myself because no one else would do. Latinas build resilience, empathy, and independence: required features for any leadership position.
Nunez: How do you encourage Latinas to reframe all the negatives and hardships that are projected on them about being Latina in new spaces?
Naranjo: The biggest problem for underrepresented minorities in any new space is self-selection: the act of excluding oneself from a new space before even trying to fit in. Representation matters, and it has to start somewhere. Be confident of your talent. If needed, choose one personal trait that you know you excel at, and let that be your safe space. Let your work speak for itself and for you. Channel your voice through tangible actions. Become an embodiment of your skillset.
Nunez: How do you see privilege and lack of diversity play a role in the development of robotics or technical teams?
Naranjo: An engineer’s job is to find solutions to a problem. If all products/robots are designed by a homogeneous group of engineers, they are solving problems with a biased focus. In order to make a product solve the needs of a broader, more diverse population, teams need to mimic that same diversity.
Diversity hiring is not a fad or a situation where only minorities have advantages: Diversity in engineering teams builds great products. Hire female engineers, non-cis engineers, Latino engineers, engineers in wheelchairs — you’d be surprised at how much more robust the delivery is.
Nunez: How do you champion diversity in tech?
Naranjo: The best way is to restore the confidence in minorities before solving for the under-population of engineers.
I participate in local nonprofits, working with second-gen Latino immigrants to help them channel their interest in technology to the pursuit of a job in engineering. Many Latino kids in the U.S. don’t feel capable of applying to a scholarship in a prestige university, or think their knowledge as a car mechanic is not enough to land them a job in tech. I also scout meetups and conferences for potential recruits, prioritizing building a network with like-minded people with different cultural and social backgrounds.
Nunez: What’s the best piece of advice you can give to a Latina who wants to dive into a career in STEM?
Naranjo: Believe in yourself first, on the rest second. The first and most important step is to look into yourself and make a skill inventory. Ask yourself what you’re absolutely good at, list it, and prove it. Ask yourself what you could do better, list it, and work on it. A constant mistake I made when I started in tech was believing in senior engineers more than in myself, doubting my ideas because they did not align with the rest of the team’s, only to find out, after months and several design cycles, I was right all along. Having a physical list of your talents, skills, and areas of opportunity is a great tool for technical, and personal, decision making.
Nunez: What key advice has guided your own career?
Naranjo: If you’re smart, you only need to be in the right place, at the right time. Grit gets you at that place and time more than once.