I had the pleasure of interviewing Leslie Collins. Leslie Collins is the Executive Director of DiscoverE. She is responsible for development and stewardship of a coalition comprised of more than 150 corporate, government, engineering society, education, and diversity partners, representing more than 1.5 million engineers and engineering students. Collins initiated the DiscoverE K-12 volunteer program for Engineers Week 1990, National Engineers Week Future City Competition in 1993, Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day in 2001, Global Marathon For, By and About Women in Engineering in 2005, the Foundation’s Diversity Council in 2008 and Global Day of the Engineer in 2016. Collins is also responsible for all resources and materials and all programs for the organization. Collins began her career in public relations at the American Gas Association. Later she became the public relations director for the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). Collins is a graduate of Boston College and attended graduate school at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. She has three children and resides in Maryland.
Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was working on the PR team for the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), the parent organization of my current non-profit. I did not have experience with engineers and didn’t know much about the subject. I found that I enjoyed the people. The entire staff was fairly young and very collegial. Also, engineering is a profession that contributes to our lives and when it came to my job of public engagement for and with members, I found them to be sincere, interesting, and well — intentioned.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Well, my initial work led to establishing the non-profit DiscoverE that I now lead.
One of the projects I managed for the parent organization was National Engineers Week. We did not do much at the national level, other than providing an annual theme and securing a Presidential message. But I noticed there was a lot of activity at the grassroots level by members of our organization and many others. I wanted to capture and help direct that energy. I didn’t have the resources to do this alone so started reaching out to organizations with similar missions. Our collaboration model led to the first national call to the engineering community to volunteer in outreach for Engineers Week 1990. We called our outreach campaign DiscoverE (for Discover Engineering), which is now the non-profit and backbone organization for engineering outreach recognized globally.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
At the start, one other employee and I did everything. One night, we were presenting a large public outreach event at a popular Washington, D.C., museum. I was on-site working with the speakers, events team, exhibitors, etc. Before we opened the event, I looked at the entrance and saw a large crowd waiting to get onto the main floor with more arriving quickly. We weren’t ready. The crowd noise was growing but no one moved forward. I remember walking towards the crowd thinking, “They aren’t coming in. I’ve controlled them by sheer force of will.” Of course, what kept them in place were the stanchions. When you have a small team, you get used to exerting a lot of energy and control.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We’ve been in the E in STEM since before anyone recognized that acronym. I consistently hear that our successful coalition is somewhat unique. Other organizations have come and gone in this space. We have worked hard to sustain partnerships, deliver on promises, and operate effectively and with transparency. We have stayed true to our mission.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We were the first to call for engineer volunteers to make a special effort to engage girls in engineering activities and launched Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day in 2001. We are planning for our 2021 anniversary. We want girls to know engineering is an option for them.
Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I’m not satisfied but our team focuses on where we can make a difference. Through our work, we know that girls need role models, the right messages, and access to even simple hands-on engineering experiences. We support our volunteers to help them be effective in these areas. When it comes to college and young career women, we present an annual virtual global event that connects them and their advocates. They also need role models. We are trying to break down a sense of isolation many women in engineering and technology have. The discussion topics that are popular relate to building confidence and networks, for example
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
· If you trust your team, give them freedom to do their work and to take educated risks.
· You don’t’ have to lead all the time. Give team members a chance to lead where they have strengths.
· Give praise when it is due and say thank you.
· Don’t ask for perfection. It’s unrealistic.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
· Be sure each member has a way to contribute.
· You don’t have to be the smartest person on a large team, but you have to be the best listener.
· Heading into meetings you don’t need to have everything figured out. Listen and observe your team to help them connect the dots.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
At the parent organization, the executive leader who hired me also promoted me fairly quickly. With the promotion, he took a gamble and I know he met some resistance because I was young. I hadn’t gotten much guidance from my previous manager, so I had to figure out quite a bit on my own. When I came up with the idea that led to our national volunteer call and, eventually, to establishing DiscoverE, he supported me while others were skeptical.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day has helped support and advance volunteer passion. So many people — women and men — have commented that they really want to make a difference for future generations. Certainly, the girls reached benefit by getting a glimpse of what their futures might hold.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM”?
· Listen at work and when not at work. What you hear may inspire and inform you.
· Laugh at yourself and laugh with your team. There’s always so much stress internally and externally we all need to recalibrate in some way.
· Take time to refresh. I’ve had some of my best ideas when doing something other than working.
· Be optimistic. It will help you move forward.
· Seek help, advice, and ideas from others you respect and trust. If there’s someone you want to know, reach out! We tried it and it resulted in us participating in every President Obama White House Science Fair.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day has become a movement in the U.S. and adopted in other parts of the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have always been shy, especially as a child. To get me to try something new, my father would ask me, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Through the years, that phrase always popped into my head. It poses a problem though. I’ve always had a very, very active imagination so would immediately think of a multitude of things that could go wrong. Only recently did I tell my father that his question was absolutely the wrong one for me and we laughed about it. But, without thinking about it, what I have done over the years is to imagine the best that could happen. That creates a sense of optimism that builds a sense of adventure and confidence.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
There are many but I’ll say the Obamas. I’ve been in rooms when the President has spoken and there was always a positive energy and words that inspired. Through the years of the White House Science Fair, the President met face-to-face with middle school children from our program and the looks on their faces were priceless. They warmed to him right away and knew he was genuinely interested in them.
Thank you for all of the great insights!