Ask preteens about their career aspirations, and they’ll likely say they want to be an entertainer, an athlete, or another profession they see on TV. But what about a chemist? An engineer? A physicist? Tokiwa Smith, founder and executive director of SEM Link and a former after-school program coordinator, rarely heard those answers, but she saw this lack of exposure to the world of STEM as an opportunity for her to make an impact. “You cannot be what you don’t see,” says Smith.
Smith and SEM Link volunteers judge science fairs, assist with an annual STEM career fair, mentor high-school students, and more. She also brings STEM professionals to schools to give kids a fun, firsthand picture of possible careers. Making STEM exciting and relatable is one of Smith’s goals, but another is making it available to everyone. As a judge of STEM fairs for more than a decade, Smith noticed that most students competing were white and Asian males. As a black, female STEM professional, she wants to open doors to students of all backgrounds.
The 40-year-old chemical engineer acknowledges that being a woman in STEM can be tough. And being a black woman in that world can be even tougher. “You don’t want to be thought of as the ‘angry black woman’ or the ‘emotional woman,’ especially when you’re the only woman at the table,” says Smith. Learning how to stay true to herself and advocate for what she believes in—even when it’s uncomfortable—has been crucial to maintaining confidence in a field largely occupied by men. “You have to stand in your truth—the truth of what you’re good at and how you want to present yourself in the world,” says Smith. “And remember that the rooms you’re in and the tables you sit at—you belong there.”