Rhonda Pelton, a member of the International Society of Automation (ISA) and a former director of ISA’s Chemical & Petroleum Industries Division, was recently recognized as #8 on the EMPower Top 100 Ethnic Minority Future Leaders list for 2020. The list honors outstanding business leaders who use their platform to make significant contributions to ethnic minority people at work in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, and Europe.
Rhonda, the operational excellence leader at Dow Chemical, serves on the Leadership Council of the Global African Affinity Network at Dow and on the Dow Promise Advisory Council. She also volunteers with the Dow Promise Program, which seeks to help mitigate educational and economic challenges faced by African-American communities near Dow sites. Rhonda has worked with Dow University relations as a team lead for diverse talent recruitment, resulting in a record number of minority interns and co-op students during the 2018-2019 school year. She is a Dow STEM Ambassador, a facilitator at Girls Construction Camp, and a Girls STEM Academy speaker at NASA Space Center Houston.
We were able to interview Rhonda via email about her lifelong interest in engineering, her career, her work with the Dow Promise Program, and the significance of diversity and inclusion in STEM fields. Our questions and her responses can be found below.
ISA: As a child, how did you first get interested in engineering?
RP: As a child, one of my favorite places to go was the library. Some of my favorite books to check out were ones that contained problem solving techniques and “how-to” experiments. I didn’t see it that way at the time, but these books were my introduction to engineering.
ISA: When you were a student, who were your role models in your field, and why?
RP: As a high school student, my chemistry teacher, Mr. Jerry Workman, was the person that introduced me to science as a career option. He was an excellent teacher and role model. Mr. Workman connected science to life applications, and made sure students understood the relevance of science. The greatest impact that Mr. Workman had was his ability to recognize and cultivate the gifts and talents in his students, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. He was respected and influential, and he used his influence to open doors of possibility and opportunity for his students.
ISA: Please describe your career at Dow. Where did you get started, and what was the path that led you to your current position?
RP: I started my career at Dow as a process control developer in our engineering services group, developing software solutions for various Dow Businesses. I progressed from a developer to a process control project lead and a Six Sigma Black Belt. Dow provides a wide array of opportunities, and I served as a production engineer in a manufacturing facility before returning to a role as a process automation (PA) lead in one of Dow’s Technology Centers. As a PA lead within the Technology Center, I led process automation technology implementation projects. In my current role, I serve as the operational excellence leader for the Global Process Automation Technology group at Dow, working to ensure consistent, effective, and consistent implementation of process automation technology and resources.
ISA: Please describe your involvement in the Dow Promise Program. Looking at the initiatives that you have worked on with this program, what stands out to you, and why?
RP: Dow Promise started as a vision of Dow employees to positively impact African-American communities near Dow locations, where economic and educational challenges may be barriers to success. It was a promise to give something back to kids and their communities. Since its creation in 2000, Dow Promise has evolved from a promise into a lasting relationship that supports Dow’s commitment to the principles of sustainable development, and more importantly, social responsibility.
As part of the Dow Promise initiative, I have had the opportunity to give back by working with students in the African-American community to deliver projects addressing financial literacy, STEM education, health and safety, and college and career preparation. It is the consistent commitment of Dow employees and Dow leadership that stands out. It speaks to the value that Dow has placed on these communities. It is a recognition that the positive impact that we aspire to takes time to realize, and our community partnerships must be nurtured in order to be sustained.
ISA: In engineering and other STEM fields, what does diversity and inclusion mean to you?
RP: In engineering and other STEM fields, we are problem solvers. Diversity and inclusion in these fields means that all people and perspectives are considered. It means we invite everyone to the table and work together to find solutions. Diversity and inclusion does not start in the workplace, but in our homes, our communities, and our classrooms.
ISA: What can leaders do to help create/sustain an inclusive environment in their organization?
RP: As engineers and scientists we are conditioned to follow the data. In discussing what leaders can do to create/sustain and inclusive environment, leaders should start not with “what,” but with “why.” When a leader understands “why” an inclusive environment in the organization is important, then the “what” will be driven by the value that inclusivity brings. When the leader understands the “why,” then the “what” can be measured and sustained. Eventually the “what” becomes the culture of the organization.
ISA: Is there anything else I didn’t mention that you would like to address here?
RP: Building a pipeline of diverse talent is critical for our future.
I challenge ISA leaders to be like Jerry Workman, and explore the ways that you can use your influence to bring the best STEM minds to your organization, to your committee, or to whatever table from which they are missing.
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