Honoring diversity and innovation during Black History Month

Post date: February 26, 2019 by Shaunté Kinch

“The National Museum of African American History and Culture celebrates the contributions African Americans have made to our country’s history by showcasing the talent, ingenuity, creativity, and resiliency of our people. I laughed, I cried, and I left with an even stronger sense of pride. I think it’s important for all Americans to learn more about African American culture and history, as it is American history.”

- Shaunte Kinch
Director, Rona Consulting Group

This photo was taken on a trip I made to Washington, DC, to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution. It’s amazing to see the contrast between the two buildings: On the left, the museum, which opened in 2016, features elements from Africa and the African Diaspora, including an exterior wrapped in ornamental latticework that pays homage to ironwork crafted by slaves of America’s South. And on the right, of course, is the Washington Monument, designed in 1845 and constructed over the course of the next 40 years. The choice of an obelisk is a tribute to ancient civilizations on which ours is built, reminding us that our very foundations are from Egypt and built by Africans. Innovation started there: Thousands of years ago, our world’s earliest engineers had to figure out how to cut granite and then transport it hundreds of miles to building sites. That creativity was applied across generations and oceans. In this photo, with each building over a shoulder, I’m surrounded by my own history.

I also love this photo because I’m an engineer, so I am intrigued by the act of building—of problem solving and innovation. With my museum visit, I was inspired to think about how diversity is essential to innovation; and without an embrace of diversity, innovation can go unrecognized. For example, one of the exhibits told the story of Dr. Charles Drew, a surgeon and researcher whose innovation of blood banks saved thousands of lives during World War II and paved the way for large-scale efforts around the storage and preservation of blood, including the American Red Cross.

This theme—that diversity enables innovation—is one I return to again and again in my own life. I’m from rural Virginia, and with a father who was a science and math teacher, I grew up fascinated by discovery: I studied the stars, I dissected animals, and I knew the whole periodic table by heart from an early age. The summer before 10th grade, my guidance counselor told me about a program offered by Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Power for minority females who were good at math and science, and I happily enrolled.

While that program changed the course of my life, there was a pivotal moment that came out of it: Following that summer, I started saying I wanted to be an engineer—and very shortly after I began practicing that declaration, I remember the day when someone chided me with these words: “People like you aren’t engineers.” I was equal parts offended and challenged, and in response, I dug in. I was not going to give up, and every time my courses got hard, I tried harder. I got stronger than that refrain in my head—and I went on to be the only black female engineering student and ultimately the only one designing and presenting nuclear aircraft piping systems to the Navy.

“I took this photo of the Luxor Temple when I traveled to Egypt November 2016. The obelisk was carved from a single piece of granite that traveled 150 miles from Aswan weighing over 250 tons. Imagine how the Egyptians managed their challenges with the tools and infrastructure some 3,500 years ago.”

It took a while for me to get used to being the only African American woman in the room. When I reflect on how diversity sparks innovation, I realize that my perspective is needed. Every trailblazer, every pioneer is alone when they set out on a path. That person is important because they can help open doors for people—people who add a diverse perspective, people who are unexpected. That’s what sparks innovation.

At Rona Consulting Group, that’s what we do every day: We teach people how to solve problems, and we rely on the scientific method to find solutions. Again and again, we see that the best solutions come from diverse teams, from people with different perspectives and talents and backgrounds. That’s the basis of engineering and problem solving: How do I get this granite out of the ground in one smooth piece? How do I move it 500 miles? And the best route to solutions is to involve people who aren’t like you but who share a curiosity for learning and common goals. That’s how you get two buildings as different as the Washington Monument, an Egyptian-styled obelisk made of smooth, light granite, marble, and gneiss, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, with its bronze latticework and wide, three-tiered silhouette inspired by West African Art. Differences spark innovation, and innovation is beautiful.