STEM Latinas Making a Mark
By Melissa Barrera
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, collectively known as STEM, make up the fastest-growing fields in the U.S. with endless opportunities in careers ranging from clinical drug developer to aerospace engineer, global marketing strategist to operations director. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women make up 27 percent of the STEM workforce, yet less than three percent consists of Latinas. Fortunately, the Latinas featured here are turning the tide and making a mark in some of the leading STEM companies across the globe, proving that Latinas are more than capable of making a difference in their area of focus when given the opportunity.
Vice President Supply Chain, Energy-Endomech
Johnson & Johnson
As Vice President for Supply Chain at Johnson & Johnson, Maureen Sanchez-Paredes takes pride in knowing she works for an organization whose products save lives.
“Having the opportunity to influence” how those products are supplied is an honor and accomplishment for this small-town girl from Puerto Rico and working in a business where she has the opportunity to make a difference every day is a privilege. It is from this lofty platform that she offers advice to Latinas wanting to enter a STEM field.
“Strive for the best and enjoy every step on that journey. Invest in continuous learning and develop; do not be afraid of taking risks,” she shares. “Our gender and ethnicity is an asset, not a barrier – have fun and be proud of who you are!”
Growing up the second of three sisters, Sanchez-Paredes says there were no gender boundaries for household chores. She and her sisters did everything – cut the lawn, cleaned the house, or even mixed cement.
Though Sanchez-Paredes says there was no one specific thing that led to her STEM career path, perhaps it was the exposure to diverse tasks and responsibilities that whet her appetite for math and construction. She learned very early that she loved to build, install, and break things up so that she could put them back together again, and relished the opportunity to take advanced mathematics and physics during her senior year of high school. While her parents were progressive in their non-gender biased approach to chores, Sanchez-Paredes admits the same does not apply to STEM or corporate environments. There are obstacles that exist for women and Latinas. However, she believes that the only obstacles that can hold us back are the ones we create for ourselves.
“There is no reason to be biassed towards yourself,” she says. “That is a mindset…that we must overcome by becoming advocates for diversity. Expanding my network of advocates and mentors has helped in my journey of overcoming my self-imposed obstacles and industry obstacles.”
As a Puerto Rican, Sanchez-Paredes grew up in an environment where her gender and nationality were carried with a lot of pride and where people were welcoming, warm, and hardworking. These deeply ingrained values have helped her determine what companies to work for. She adds that she is guided by trust, accountability, passion and fun in her professional and personal life, and “believes and strives for being the benchmark rather than following the benchmark.” Based on her success, it’s easy to see that Sanchez-Paredes has followed her own advice.
Clinical Drug Developer
Helping people and seeing their lives improve are the main factors that drive Dr. Patricia Marinello in her work as a clinical drug developer for Merck. With a master’s in Immunology/Pharmacology and a doctorate in Pharmaceutical Science, she is in the perfect position to assist others to improve their overall quality of life.
Her path wasn’t an easy one. Born in Cuba, she migrated to the U.S. through the Texas border with nothing but $50 in her pocket and a small backpack containing just a few personal belongings, but a supportive community of friends helped her navigate the arduous and often confusing employment process in the U.S.
Her Latino values, specifically perseverance and resourcefulness, provided her with the tools she needed to land her first job in cancer research here in the states. Marinello acknowledges that she was blessed to find employers who were willing to take a chance on her, as immigrants who are college-educated in other countries often find it difficult to land employment in the area of their degree.
“I was blessed to be educated outside of the United States,” she shares. “But there was no guarantee that I could continue my career in science when I got here.” After gaining experience in hematology research in the U.S., Marinello was given the opportunity to help build an oncology research group at Merck. When she arrived, there were only seven employees. Since then, the department has grown to over 150 employees, many of them Latinos.
She is most proud of the way that Merck has changed the way cancer is treated, especially in young people. Among her victories at Merck, she includes the FDA approval of Keytruda, which has had great success in treating Hodgkin Lymphoma by boosting the immune response against cancer cells.
“Cancer is such a difficult disease,” she shares. “But everyday with quality of life that a patient gains with their family and loved ones, for me that’s a victory.” In building her hematology team, Marinello drew on her Latino roots to build a strong, supportive team. Creating a team in which everybody knows and trusts each other has allowed them to provide feedback without offense, increasing productivity and functionality.
“As Latinos, we become family with the people we work with,” she says. “So, a friendly and inclusive environment is important.” Marinello recognizes that bias does exist against women/Latinas in STEM fields but says we must advocate for ourselves if we want that to change. There are many seats at the table, but if one isn’t given to you, she says, “make a seat for yourself and take it.”
Isabel Pimentel Vice President, NA, Personal Care Innovation and Safeguard Procter & Gamble
Isabel Pimentel found out early in life that sometimes knowing what you don’t want to do can help you figure out what you do. She always knew she would pursue a career in STEM; she just wasn’t sure which path to take.
All that changed when her cousin, a doctor, invited her to shadow him while he was on-call. After about two hours following him around the hospital, she knew that she was not meant for a career in medicine. That experience helped her narrow her options and eventually chose to pursue Industrial Engineering.
Her career path led her to Procter & Gamble, where she serves as Vice President of Personal Care Innovation. In this role, she focuses on shaping the future for the personal care category at P&G.
“I love how broad in scope my role is and the ability to partner with our scientists to truly understand what drives consumer delight and together design and develop the products that will make their lives better,” she shares. “They do the magic on the chemistry, and we do the magic on the naming, the way we talk about the benefit, the marketing strategy, all of that.”
She emphasizes that it takes a team to understand their customers and working with the Research & Development group as well as the Analytics and Insights team help meet their wants and needs. Like most Latinas, Pimentel’s roots have helped shape the professional she has become.
A positive and grateful attitude coupled with being hard-working and reliable have earned her the trust of her team. She also emphasizes a family environment. “We spend so many hours at the office, if we don’t find a way to have fun and work together as if your team were your family, it just becomes really hard,” she shares. She considers her direct reports as her own children, and like any good mom, Pimentel lets them know that she will always have their back. Her values also influence her professional staples. She lists servant leadership at the top of the list of qualities that make her a good leader.
“People bring their best to work when they feel listened to, valued and have a leader that has empathy,” she shares. “People need a leader who sees their strengths and helps them shine and prioritizes their growth.”
This is what makes her give her best each and every day. Pimentel stresses the importance of a mentor in the workplace. She believes that had she found a mentor early in her career, she would have had better visibility.
“It’s important to make sure people are seeing your great results,” she advises. “Don’t be the shy girl that does the job and expects them to notice.” Once she understood that, she began to drive visibility to her work, “creating the networks that got me the sponsorship and the support to continue moving forward,” proving yet again that knowing what NOT to do can be just as important as knowing what to do.
Maria Elena Cardwell Manager, Aeronautics Business Unit Lockheed Martin
The importance of education and critical thinking was emphasized to Maria Elena Cardwell from the time she was a child. Her parents did their best to expose her to higher-level thinking by watching the Discovery Channel with her and taking her to airshows where she was able to crawl around the aircraft and see it up close.
When she was a sophomore in high school, she was accepted into a program at the Colorado School of Mines, where she was able to complete courses and work on engineering projects, and this experience was the catalyst for her entry into a career in engineering. After spending 14 years in the aviation industry, Maria Elena Cardwell “made the cut” to be among the few who work at Skunk Works, the advanced development arm of Lockheed Martin.
Though she is an aerospace leader, Cardwell says the best part of her job isn’t working with the machines; it’s working with people. “As exciting as our air vehicles may be, the people that make the magic happen are the best part of my day,” she shares. “I love sitting down and explaining concepts that once felt complicated and feel familiar.” Working alongside the brightest minds in the field is exciting and has allowed her to “discover a deep new world where I could expand my knowledge exponentially.”
Diversity in the workplace is an important topic to Cardwell. She encourages diversity of thought, questioning the status quo, and values team members of all races, abilities, and gender expressions.
“I have personally witnessed how diverse teams help bring new perspectives and potential issues to the forefront, and always strive to keep conversations within my team open and candid,” she shares.
She also believes employees should be recruited in multiple places and that community should be made bigger by finding similarities instead of focusing on differences.
Growing up with hard-working Latino parents, Cardwell shares that she rarely saw her parents take a break. They worked as hard as they could to give her siblings and herself a better future. This is not necessarily a negative, but in the fast-paced, hyper-stressed world of Corporate America, taking a break is not just recommended but necessary.
As a result, she advises those entering STEM fields to learn to enjoy the better future they are creating without feeling guilty. She also encourages Latinas to reach back to their families.
“Teach your parents what it’s like to have a vacation,” she shares. “Take them to a doctor, and remind them that you are where you are today because of their hard work.”
Mariel Cisneros Systems Engineering Manager Northrop Grumman
As a third-grader, Mariel Cisneros knew she wanted to explore space and build rockets. She used to tell her parents that when she grew up she was going to work for NASA. Her father would lovingly pick on her and ask if she was going to be a tortilla maker and work with masa.
“I don’t think he realized how badly I wanted to be a scientist,” she shares.
Originally from Mexico, Cisneros immigrated to the U.S. with her family. Ridiculed by her classmates for her inability to speak English, she found refuge in books. Thanks to her third-grade teacher, she discovered a book about Astronomy. That same teacher celebrated her math skills and interest in science, and her love for all things STEM blossomed.
When she was 17 years old, Cisneros was recruited by Northrop Grumman as an intern, and she’s been with them ever since. Cisneros currently serves as a Systems Engineering Manager, where she is both a people leader as well as a technical lead for modeling and simulation.
Though she is only in her early 30s, she humbly shares she has “done everything from electromagnetic compatibility to make sure space platforms operate successfully in space, to lighting protection on next-generation fighter aircraft, to electrical subsystem design of unmanned airplanes, to finally getting to set the vision for emerging military technology….as a first-generation for almost everything in my family, I am very proud of all that I’ve accomplished.”
Cisneros credits much of her success to her parents, who taught her “to put my head down and get my job done.” This advice served her well as she went through school and pursued her dream of becoming an engineer. They also instilled in her a strong work ethic, leading by example. Her father, a bus driver, often worked three more jobs when she was a child while her mother worked nights at Target.
“I’ve also been very proud of my roots and the work ethic instilled in me,” she says. “It taught me to value what I have and to be resourceful with what I do have.” In an effort to make STEM fields more welcoming to Latinas, Cisneros serves as the president of Northrop Grumman Women’s International Network, an employee resource group. She also serves as the vice president of professional development for the Society of Women Engineers Los Angeles area.
“I wish I’d been told to speak up earlier in my career,” she shares. “Because of my culture, women aren’t encouraged to speak up as much as men… I encourage all of my teammates, but especially women, to sit at the table and offer their opinion no matter how under-qualified they feel.” Joining women’s networks and organizations can help build confidence and develop your voice.
She advises Latinas entering STEM fields to find a mentor, ask questions, and speak up. Find a network, join employee resource groups and professional organizations.“It’s important to grow and maintain your network,” she shares. She offers one last bit of luck, saying, “Buena suerte, amigas, todo se puede.”
Brenda Lopez Electronic Modules Design and Development Lead, Space & C2 Systems, Raytheon Intelligence & Space
Over the 30 plus years that Brenda Lopez has worked with Raytheon Technologies, she has amassed an extensive background in space system electronics design development, assembly integration and test. She began her career as a test engineer and grew within the company by transitioning from test to design and leadership roles in many unclassified and classified space programs.
The catalyst for her STEM career was her father, who was an electrician. “I was always very interested in the work he did fixing motors, lights, equipment, measuring voltage, installing electrical plugs and wiring,” Lopez shares. “As I became older, I realized I was very good in math, especially calculus. It was then I decided to combine my interest in electrical circuits and math and go for electrical engineering.”
At Raytheon, Lopez interacts with engineers across various disciplines. She also works with assemblers and technicians as well as procurement and manufacturing teams.
“The best part of this is coming to work every day and interacting with every single one of them,” she shares. “We discuss priorities, issues, and how we can help each other.”
For Lopez, these teams bring diversity in the workplace, which she considers an integral part of the job. Lopez also attributes much of her success to her parents for instilling values that helped her along the way.
“They taught my siblings and I to be honest, respectful, to study hard and to work hard,” she shares. “We didn’t grow up having everything we wanted, but we had everything we needed. That really helped my sisters and I understand that we need to work hard for what we want.”
They established a firm foundation, which according to Lopez, is priceless. Her parents also taught her to never let obstacles get in her way. Instead, she pushes through and works harder to prove that she is good at what she does. Any disappointments that came her way drove her to work harder.
That is some advice that she gives the younger generations entering the STEM fields. “Don’t let disappointments set you back,” she shares. “Use those experiences to gain energy and push harder. And if things don’t go your way, learn from that experience and try again.”
Cynthia Beltran, Integrated Team Lead, Payload Electronics, Raytheon Intelligence & Space
Not many can say their career in engineering was inspired by a real-life movie character, but Cynthia Beltran can. After being ridiculed for not speaking English well in elementary school, Beltran turned to math.
She realized that she could focus on math and get good grades because she didn’t have to know words, she just had to know numbers. This gave her courage and confidence in herself.
When she reached high school, one of her teachers was Jaime Escalante, whose story was the basis for the movie “Stand and Deliver.” He and Mr. Angelo Villaviciencio, another teacher, encouraged her with the message of “Ganas [desire], that’s all you need.”
Another source of inspiration for Beltran is her father, who never had the opportunity to earn an education in his home of Sinaloa, Mexico. When she was young, her parents crossed the border into the U.S. along with their children “in search of a better life and the promise of opportunity.”
Beltran remembers her father coming from his job as a bricklayer, where he earned less than minimum wage, doing his best to provide for his family. She has applied his work ethic to her life to lead her down the path of success.
“My parents’ love, sacrifice, and strength have shaped me into who I am today – strong, motivated, and independent,” she shares. Beltran believes that her current position is the culmination of the time and experience at each of the positions she filled before this one.
“What I try to balance for myself and for those I mentor is looking ahead to the next challenge while excelling at the current challenge,” she shares. Beltran credits her managers with encouraging her to try new things and taking note of her ease in dealing with positions when solving challenging problems. Her mindset is focused on finishing one challenge and applying what was learned to the next. Because Beltran’s position and program are brand new, she and her team face the unknown on a daily basis.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” she says. “Our biggest challenge is the unknown.” This challenges them to help one another figure out solutions to problems they didn’t know existed. She acknowledges the hard work that her team puts in day in and day out. “We work hard and coming from different backgrounds,” she shares. “We all have something to offer.”
Beltran has so much advice for Latinas wanting to pursue a career in STEM. “Use your voice. Keep learning,” she shares. “Follow your passions and dreams. Life is challenging and you will constantly be challenged but remember that you’re not alone. So many people have sacrificed to pave the way for the next generation to be able to follow their hopes and dreams…my parents came here from Mexico with hopes and dreams of a promising future so that their children could pursue their education and dreams. Now I help pave the way for future intelligent, strong Latinas so they can take on new challenges and make their own positive impact.”
Annabel Flores, Vice President of Electronic Warfare Systems, Raytheon Intelligence & Space
When Annabel Flores was growing up in Eagle Pass, TX, she announced to anyone who would listen that she was going to be an ingeniera.
She vividly remembers being told by many that her goal was impossible because there was no such thing. Engineers were men, so the Spanish equivalent for a female engineer did not exist. Fortunately for her, she didn’t listen.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a dual master’s degree in mechanical engineering and business administration from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Flores now serves as Vice President of Electronic Warfare Systems for Raytheon Intelligence & Space, where she oversees the overall strategic direction and operation of a diverse portfolio of electronic warfare products.
As the daughter of migrant workers who crossed the border from Mexico into Texas, Flores learned early the value of hard work from her parents. They came to the U.S. and sacrificed everything for a better life and instilled in her the mindset, “If you’re going to do something you’d better work hard because this is your opportunity.” she explains, “So that, I think, has laid the foundation of everything I do. I approach everything with ‘I am going to work hard.’ It comes from generations of family and seeing them do what’s best to keep the family advancing.” They also emphasized the importance of being courteous to others and treating people with respect, which is a big part of Latino culture.
These values, instilled in her from a very early age, are practiced every day through her interactions with her team and co-workers at Raytheon. Flores believes that treating everyone with respect, regardless of title, is essential to a healthy work environment because every person matters and contributes to the overall success of the organization.
It is the people that make working at Raytheon enjoyable and fulfilling. The day-to-day interaction and working together to solve problems, the collaboration that helps people grow and succeed is the best part of her job. Flores started at Raytheon as an intern and has held 15 different positions in her 23 years with the company. Early on, she set a goal to work her way into a VP position eventually and has spent many years developing and improving her skill set to bring that goal to fruition. “Flex and evolve who you are,” she shares. Other words of wisdom she gives those wishing to follow in her footsteps include, “Have a strong support group of other Latinas and keep your connections strong.”