March 1, 2004

Diverse Engineers

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The Sixth Annual Engineering Diversity Dinner on was held yesterday at 7 p.m. in the Memorial Room in Willard Straight Hall.

ChenChow Yeoh ’05, chair of Engineering Diversity Dinner and a member of the Engineering Student Council, explained that the dinner was the culmination of National Engineers Week at Cornell.

Yeoh said that the purpose of the dinner was to celebrate diversity on campus, as well as the diversity of faculty and students. He noted the presence of “many distinguished guests,” including Dean W. Kent Fuchs, engineering, and several professors. The keynote speaker for the evening was Robert L. Ryan, M.A. ’68, senior vice-president and chief financial officer of Medtronic, Inc.

Katie May Eng ’06 was excited by the scope of this year’s Diversity Dinner.

“Last year it was not publicized well,” she said, adding that this year many more people knew about it and signed up to attend. Eng also noted that the choice of performances for the event all drew from international roots.

For the event, the Memorial Room was transformed into an elegant banquet hall with round tables, candlelight and jazz music greeting attendees as they arrived.

The Diversity Dinner Committee included students from the Engineering Student Council, National Society of Black Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers , and the Society of Women Engineers.

Jessica Lee ’07, a member of SWE and the Diversity Dinner Committee, said that the groups “all worked together to make this event happen.”

The dinner proved to be a chance for engineering students to meet others studying their field. Conversation around the round tables was easy, ranging from topics such as classes and professors to extracurricular activities.

Guests were treated to a performance by a member of the Seven Spirits Kung Fu Club, a brand new organization that performs in the Cornell and Ithaca communities, as well as to a performance by Uhuru Kuumba Dance Ensemble, an African dance troupe.

Fuchs spoke of Cornell’s efforts to focus on diversity straight from its founding. “We are all members of the Cornell family,” he said, “and Ezra Cornell had a focus on diversity. He wanted people from different backgrounds, a heritage that we benefit from.”

He also introduced Ryan.

“We were really excited to get a Cornell alum from a major biomedical company to come speak to us,” Lee said.

Ryan said that he was very honored to be the guest speaker at the dinner and that he had never spoken to students before. He began by saying that he would concentrate mostly on three topics: his own background, including what he did, what he learned, and what he got out of it; what worked for him; and “minorities in a non-minority world,” including African Americans, women, and all other minority groups.

Ryan said that his parents played a large role in who he is today by giving him the understanding of the value of education. His mother was one of four children, and the daughter of a coal miner, who would not let her go to college because he felt higher education was not necessary for girls. His father was the 15th of 16 children, and orphaned at the age of 13, never got past the fifth grade and was barely literate for the rest of his life.

Ryan’s mother taught him to read and write, and would ask him every day when he got home from school what he learned that day. Not satisfied with his answers, she went to visit the school. “She saw teachers talking in the hallway and students playing records,” Ryan said, and promptly took him out of the public school system and enrolled him in a Catholic school.

Turning to how he began his career, Ryan said that his father told him there are three important things to look for when taking a job: to make the most money you can, have the most job security possible, and encounter as little racism as possible.

“I loved business,” Ryan said, but felt the purpose of a career was to make a living, not to enjoy it. He started the PhD program at Cornell, but began to realize that he could actually enjoy a career, and that this would be his only chance to restructure his life. Ryan took the business boards and researched schools, but knew the business world would hold many obstacles for him. He applied to Harvard with no other fallback, and was accepted.

“Another key message is self-realization, what you feel passionate about,” he said.

“We do well in what we are interested in,” Ryan said, “and work is a lot more fun when it is something you enjoy.”

After jobs with Union Texas and McKinsey & Company, he began working for Medtronic in 1993. Medtronic is based in Minneapolis and is the world’s leading medical technology company.

Of opportunities in the U.S., Ryan noted that though he wouldn’t want to say that the U.S. “is the best place ever,” because there are “still many things we could do better,” it is one of the few places in the world where even people with his background can go to the best schools and receive a world-class education.

“I learned very young not to look for excuses, just to get the job done,” he said.

As for students trying to break into the job market, Ryan recommended looking for corporations with a lot of growth, where there are “more opportunities than people.” Also, he said, this is beneficial because people are too busy to think about “dumb things like a person’s color.”

The Gold Sponsors of the event were Medtronic, Inc. and Eastman Kodak Company. Silver Sponsor was the International Students Programming Board and Bronze Sponsor the Northrop Grumman Corporation.

The evening ended with performances by the Teszia Belly Dance Troupe and Bhangra.

“This was a really nice break from hard-core studying,” said Pheobe Li ’07.

Archived article by Lauryn Slotnick