As a young Black woman, one project leader at Xerox is gratified to succeed in a job she never expected to pursue
By ADELLE WALDMAN, College Journal
December 2, 2005 – When Tonya Love was a little girl in Mobile, Ala., she didn’t like dolls. At least ones that didn’t have batteries.
“It had to move or it was boring to me,” she says.
At the time, her well-intentioned, doll-buying parents were bewildered, although in retrospect Ms. Love’s proclivities make sense: She grew up to become an electrical engineer, and now, at 33, is a project leader in sensor technology at Xerox Corp. in Rochester, N.Y., working on optical-electronic color sensors.
It’s not a job she or her parents — a school teacher and a construction worker — envisioned when she was a little girl. Nor has her career path always been easy. For one, she says that being a black woman in the male-dominated world of engineering can be a challenge. Plus, even a natural-born scientist like Ms. Love isn’t immune to layoffs. But she’s glad she stuck it out in engineering.
By the time she entered high school, her interest in math and science was clear. She joined her school’s chapter of SECME, a group that aims to increase the number of minorities in the sciences, formerly known as Southeastern Consortium for Minorities in Engineering. She studied electrical engineering at Alabama A&M University.
Among her friends, Ms. Love was always serious and career-focused. In the summer between her sophomore and junior year of college, instead of returning home to lounge around, Ms. Love took an internship at Caterpillar Inc., a manufacturer of heavy equipment in Peoria, Ill.
It was the first time she’d ever lived outside of Alabama. It was scary, but worthwhile, she says. “I wanted to start working, so I could see what it was like when I still had to change my mind,” she says.
She liked the work at Caterpillar, where she was in the metallurgical department, testing various metals. “I got a lot of hands-on experience,” she says.
Still, she wanted to see more, so she did another internship, during the school year, at Lockheed Martin Corp., a government defense contractor, at its facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
She loved the work and her co-workers, but the experience also helped her decide she didn’t want to work for a company that built weapons. “I wanted to lean towards something that wasn’t destructive,” she says.
But she got some good advice from her co-workers, she says. Although at the time engineering majors were getting jobs straight from college, colleagues advised Ms. Love to pursue a master’s degree to give her career a more competitive edge.
When she graduated, she received a fellowship for minority students that enabled her to attend Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. Her tuition was paid by a sponsor, Sandia National Laboratories, which also gave her an internship in Albuquerque, N.M.
After graduate school, she was offered a job at Eastman Kodak Co. in Rochester, N.Y., as a development engineer for new electronic components in its research-and-development department.
It looked like everything was going according to plan. Until Kodak began downsizing. A few months into her first full-time job, Ms. Love worried that her position was unlikely to survive.
“I began to feel like everything that I had worked so hard to achieve was about to collapse before my very eyes,” she says.
She began to rethink whether she wanted to work in corporate America and wondered if she wouldn’t rather be teaching college math. She did some soul-searching and a lot of praying, she says.
Ultimately, the right opportunity seemed to present itself. Ms. Love began interviewing elsewhere. She clicked with people she met at Xerox, which is also in Rochester, and she liked what she sensed about its corporate environment.
She was offered a position as a junior engineer at Xerox in 1998, eight months after she started at Kodak. In retrospect, Ms. Love says her brush with job insecurity was helpful. “I learned how I worked under pressure,” she says, via email. “My fork in the road at Kodak helped shape my career path.”
At Xerox, Ms. Love was hired as a junior engineer in microelectronic systems, making moving parts that can be seen only under a microscope.
Instead of toiling in a cubicle, Ms. Love spent much of her time in the lab. She moved up through the ranks until earlier this year, when she became a project manager.
Now she manages a team of five researchers. “Every month, I’m in the lab less and less,” she says.
As a student, she had never expected to make the switch from hands-on engineering to management. “I just found that was where I got the most satisfaction — working with other people, helping them to meet their goals, rather than being an individual contributor,” she says.
It also means longer hours. As an engineer, Ms. Love worked about 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; these days, she usually stays until 7 p.m.
But she likes what she does and is comfortable financially. Although there is always the risk that any one company will downsize, Ms. Love says that engineering skills are marketable.
As for being a black woman in engineering? “I allow my results to speak on my behalf and aid me in moving ahead in a male-dominated world,” she says, via email.
Another plus of her career choice is enough time to have a life outside work, which is important to Ms. Love, who is involved in her church and its youth group.
These days she gives teens career advice that worked for her: “If you find out where your niche is early on, it saves you a whole lot of time.”
— Ms. Waldman is a free-lance writer in New York.