How I Started in STEM: A career in tech doesn’t mean white coats and office buildings

How I Started in STEM: A career in tech doesn’t mean white coats and office buildings

June Sugiyama is the Director of Vodafone America's Foundation. She has worked in STEM fields for almost 30 years and is a leader in technology for good - using her experience to be a thought leader in corporate social responsibility, philanthropy and social impact.

How I Started In STEM with June Sugiyama

Vodafone is a global technology company, and I work in the nonprofit arm or the charity arm. I would say I started in the technology foundation field about 22, 23 years ago, but I've always been in the tech company for about 30 years. I worked myself up. I changed jobs positions in between. I think the reason I'm here is because I really enjoy talking to young people who have aspirations to be in tech and be in STEM. I believe I'm a very oddball kind of example, in that I don't have an engineering background. I didn't study computer sciences or engineering in my academic career, but because I worked for a technology company, I was able to combine my past skills in community development and training as a teacher with what the company has to offer in technology to make a difference in the world.

When did you know you loved STEM?

We found that by using mobile, so your cell phone, we could do all kinds of things to help make the world a better place. And that's how I got started. Our company has oodles and oodles of people who have technology background and so I was able to leverage their knowledge together with my knowledge and community development and start a competition called the wireless innovation project. And that was really my most aha moment, the most exciting moment in my career in STEM in that not only myself, but our company and the people who are within our company, like the engineers, were able to really make a difference and help entrepreneurs and startups that had solutions to make the world a better place.

What passion still drives you in STEM?

You know, what excites me are the things that are out there that I never even imagined. And this opportunity that I have right now, being able to talk to young people and to let them know that, you know, yeah, I think it's really wonderful to strive for an engineering degree or computer sciences degree. But, you know, if that's not what you have, there are opportunities to use what you have. If you excel in art or music, there are great opportunities to use those skills together with other folks that have the engineering degrees to create some tool or some incredible solution that makes the world a better place.

Top tip for a career in STEM?

Women tend to limit themselves. You know, I don't have a degree, so I can't really pursue this job or engineering is way too big for me and so I'll have to limit myself. There are people out there who can help you. If that's the career path that you want to follow, there are lots of mentors out there, organizations - one of which, you know, is hosting me today - you know, you can look them up and ask for help. There are people, once you start working within a company that might be able to help you. Don't limit yourself, I think, is the number one advice that I'd like to give you.

Advice for job seekers in STEM?

A tech career or a STEM career does not necessarily mean you wear a white lab coat and you're in a desk free lab or that you're sitting in a big office, communal office and code all day.

A STEM career doesn't mean any of that. I see entrepreneurs who excel in STEM, who are out in the field in the riverside collecting water samples and finding ways to make community citizens, to be able to use the mobile to broadcast when there's pollution in their nearby water source. I see entrepreneurs who are working with kids and finding better ways for kids to learn who don't have the means to have computers. So what you might imagine STEM to be might not be. So my recommendation is to expand your mind and really find creative ways to follow your career path, whatever that you may imagine it to be and what you like.

Importance of representation and diversity in STEM?

The importance of diversity is really obvious, you know, especially in the technology field. You find that there's a lack thereof, so you rarely see people of color. But diversity's not only, you know, the sense of color in the office, but also diversity amongst the type of people you help. If you go into solutions using technology, making sure that you include all kinds of people and the solutions themselves, that you have a diverse solutions, not just one, but maybe different ways to approach a problem. So diversity not only comes in all colors, but diversity comes in all kinds.